On Photography: Part One

My very first camera was something my father bought me when I went on a school trip to Switzerland when I was twelve. It was quite a long time ago so it was beautiful, but not terribly sophisticated or expensive. I had no idea how to use it. It was a classic black and white film camera, you gave it to the drugstore, and they processed and printed postcard-size pictures. My biggest regret in life would be not documenting everything I experienced, the way Jacques Henri Lartigue did from the age of five. I would have loved to have had an iPhone fifty years before anyone else did because I have so many memories of such extraordinary things, especially when I started working at René of Mayfair.

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

I befriended the photographers, that’s what I remember. My favorite was Barry Lategan, a South African who came to London and eventually became one of the top Vogue photographers, specializing in beauty and hair, and he was good at fashion too. He took those iconic images of Twiggy that helped launch her career. He and Leonard of Mayfair worked together frequently, and I just loved his photography.

I got to work with him once when I was quite young, maybe 20, and I was hopelessly terrified to actually be in a studio with Barry Lategan. I was working for Elizabeth Arden, and they gave me a piece of paper and told me to go to this studio in Chelsea to do hair for a photoshoot. So I got there and it’s filled with people: a famous makeup artist, Barry (who I don’t think even said hello), three statuesque models, and then there’s me, with my little bag of tricks. At lunchtime the photo assistants would set up a ten-foot long piece of wood over a trellis table, and all this food came out. I had never seen food like this before. It made a deep impression on me. My ambition was to work with Barry in his studio more often, but it didn’t happen. I left England in 1972 to move to South Africa.

I started doing hair for one of the best fashion photographers in South Africa, Georgina Karvellis. She would send a girl in, often her girlfriend Marge, with a tear sheet from American Vogue. I would do the hair, and they’d jump in a car and go to the studio without me – and yet, amazingly enough, the hair looked pretty fantastic in the photos. I had a friend, Alan, who was a yoga teacher and a photographer, and he had a studio in his house where we used to do pictures for Bumble.

I moved to New York in 1977, and then Barry moved to New York around 1978 – he fell in love with someone, that happened a lot. I used to work quite a bit for Mademoiselle magazine, where the beauty editor was very supportive of Bumble and I was comfortable with her. I overheard her talking about doing a beauty story with Barry Lategan, so I asked to do the hair. The studio was in the West Village, I still walk by it sometimes. He didn’t remember I was the same little guy from London.

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

I started talking to Barry about living in South Africa, and it turned out he knew my first wife Di, because she’d been a model there. We all had dinner together a few times. He asked if I’d like to come to Rome and shoot the collections with him for Italian Vogue. I said yes, I’d like that very much.

In those days Rome was the fashion capital of Italy, and had fashion shows twice a year. There were two studios, with Barry and I in one, and David Bailey with the legendary Italian hairdresser Aldo Coppola in the other. They actually asked me if I’d cut Aldo Coppola’s hair, that was kind of a thrill. We’d start getting the models ready and photographing them at 6pm, and it would go on until about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a great experience.

I did a few more shoots with Barry. There was one stunning story that we shot in Fort Lauderdale, with ten pages of saturated blue skies and colors. (This was where I first heard the name Steve Hiett, because people kept asking if it was inspired by his work.) I also did a few ad campaigns with him. But I realized that if I was going to make Bumble a success, I couldn’t be out of the salon so often. I stopped dreaming about being an editorial hairdresser at that point.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

I started taking photos for myself around the early ‘80s, when my daughter Sian was maybe three or four. I used to take her and her big sister Heather away once or twice a year on vacation, just the three of us. I took pictures of the girls at the beach, and they came out well. I’d always been around photographers, and one day I just knew how to take a picture.

Eventually I moved from photographing kids to photographing models. In 1985, we had moved Bumble to the new location on 56th Street. On the top floor of the building was a model agency called Zoli, one of the top agencies at the time. They often sent their new girls downstairs to Bumble to ask us to make their hair different, to give them a look. That’s where I met Stacy Williams, from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s common that if you’re a model with a photographer boyfriend, they usually take the best photos of you, because there’s trust and intimacy between you. Stacy’s friends started asking for pictures, so we had a steady stream of girls that wanted to test at Bumble.

I got so much information about photography just from watching talented people on set. I was never formally trained as a photographer. There were only four things you could control on a camera, which did a lot: the f-stop, the speed of the film, the aperture opening, and the shutter speed. Eventually it just clicked for me. Photography must have been just occupying my brain until suddenly I figured out how to do it. I was also building a library of images from English Vogue, American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Avedon and Penn and everyone I’d worked with – my eye was becoming more sophisticated.

On Mentorship: Gina, Dante, and Gerard

We recently asked some of the people Michael has mentored throughout the years what this experience has been like. Below Gina, Dante, and Gerard share their stories and some of Michael’s best advice.

Interviewed and Edited by Cat Meyer and Ella Chodos-Irvine


Gina Schiappacasse

Social Media Consultant & Illustrator

How long have you known Michael?
I met Michael in early 2012 at an event he was speaking at for Cutler salon. I was modeling for a hairstylist friend and he struck up a conversation with me while we waited backstage. I was very impressed with his knowledge on the subject of fashion illustration (as I am a fashion illustrator) and thoroughly enjoyed speaking with him. We exchanged contact info and kept in touch for a bit before he offered me a job managing his social media at Hairstory.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Primarily professionally, as an employee of his and as an artist, but he has supported me through a lot of things over the years.

What is some of the best advice he has given you?
There have been so many gems over the years that I’ve been lucky enough to work with Michael, but one of the most recently memorable was when I was struggling to decide whether to take a job solely for the money and he told me, “There is a lot of power in learning to say no.” I declined the opportunity, and I couldn’t have felt better about the whole experience. There truly is a lot of power in knowing your worth.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice? Anything else you’d like to add?
Having a sounding board in Michael has been so valuable because I truly respect him in many ways and so his guidance carries a lot of weight for me. He is also deeply compassionate and really takes the time to understand what you want and how you operate. Having someone really listen to you and take your ambition as well as your needs into account is invaluable.


Dante Pronio

Hairdresser & Educator

How long have you known Michael?
I have been coming to Michael for career advice and support at every turn of my career lately. Since I have followed Michael's advice my path has become much more straight and narrow. I have focused on the important aspects of my career and remained persistent to achieve goals because of the guidance Michael has given.

After I experienced some low points I connected with Michael to seek some professional advice; not only was I given solid advice to reinvigorate my career, but I also shared laughs and friendship on a more personal level, which goes a long way. I have known Michael for close to 20 years now. He has seen me through many relationships, jobs, and eras of my life. In respect to all, he has been very transparent with his advice on any and all of those topics. Michael is honest and doesn't pull punches; he’s not afraid to tell the truth even when it hurts, and that takes courage.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Michael has been especially helpful in guiding me to create my personal brand. Whether it's leading by example or direct guidance Michael has helped me focus on brand strategy and direction for my education business and salon business.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice? Anything else you’d like to add?
Because of my opportunity to work with Michael I have learned what it means to be good at the craft of hair. Michael has shown me the importance of a sharp eye, which makes a great hairstylist, and why it's important to elevate the craft. Without this knowledge, I may have had a lesser view on the overall craft of hair. His exposure and sharing of the best and most elite corners of the industry have been of incredible value to me. Michael has truly shown me what it means to be a great hairdresser and the paths needed to be taken to get there. For that, I am forever grateful.


Gerard Scarpaci

Hairdresser & Hairbrained Co-Founder

How long have you known Michael?
By reputation, professionally since 1991 when I began as a New York City based hairdresser. I first met him personally in 2003 as a Bumble Network salon owner, and truly got to know him on a personal level in 2015.

What areas of your life has Michael offered advice or guidance?
Perhaps some of the most important guidance I have ever received in my life came when I asked Michael what his key to success in business had been and he replied… meditation. I was so lifted by this unexpected response that I set out on a regular practice, which has greatly improved not only my business success but my entire life and the lives of those who are closest to me.

What is some of the best advice he has given you?
Michael encouraged me to infuse more of myself into Hairbrained. He suggested that the more personal I made our content and the more our community felt connected to me personally the more we would grow. It has proven to be true.

What benefits have you found from Michael’s coaching/mentorship/advice?
In all honesty, I am truly a happier, better person, due to Michael’s suggestion to take up meditation. It is as if someone gave me the keys to limitless clarity and a whole new perspective on life and success.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I have so much respect and admiration for Michael, I don’t know if our industry will ever see another hairdresser who will reach the same heights in business again. The landscape has changed so much, but I hope we all can benefit from his wisdom and experience and make a go at it!

What's Next

Now that 2019 has arrived, I’d like to take the time to clarify a few things about myself and my work. I often meet people who ask me about Bumble and bumble and Hairstory, assuming I still work for the companies I founded. It recently occurred to me that because I’ve been quite private about what I’m currently working on, people had no reason to believe I had even left Bb., or more recently Hairstory. I would like to set the record straight. Both of these brands are in my past. Hairstory was a fabulous concept and a lot of fun, but the knowledge that I had something bigger to achieve kept me from staying. I had an idea, an idea that I’ve had for many years, but wasn’t ready to pursue.

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At Hairstory, this idea grew, becoming more powerful as time went on. I viewed it as what I had always wanted to do, what I needed to do before I died. My last hurrah. Unfortunately, Hairstory couldn’t facilitate this idea. It came close, but in the end this idea I had won, and we parted as friends. I wish them all the best, and hope they’re successful, which I know they are. But I wanted to clarify, once and for all, that I am no longer a member of the Hairstory team.  

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Much of my work with both Purely Perfect and Hairstory was built around finding a way to cleanse the hair without stripping it of what it needs to look amazing. I still believe that non-detergent hair cleansing is the most important concept to hit the hair industry in decades, maybe ever. It has become a crucial part of my work and is now the foundation of my current venture. To summarize this concept, 95% of shampoos are made with the kind of detergent you’d wash your car with. Years and years of putting what is essentially napalm on your hair on a daily basis takes a massive toll, and by the time you’re in your 60’s, your hair is lifeless and dull. I am certain that the cause of shitty hair is shampoo, and I am determined to create a viable, lasting alternative that really works. The key is to figure out how to make detergent-free shampoo options that work for everyone, and that is exactly what we want to achieve.

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That being said, I’m not quite ready to talk about what I’ve been working on in detail. All I can say, in the most objective way possible, is that it’s something that is absolutely necessary, and that its time has come. I will be sharing more details as we get closer to launching this new idea. Until then, I hope this blog will compensate for the more private time I’ve taken over the past few years to regroup and really start working towards my last hurrah. We are going to give the beauty industry a wakeup call, and I can’t wait for you all to experience it. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from me a bit more in the form of this blog.