Hairstylist Gary Gill is the fashion godfather of our dreams

What makes an icon? BOF 500 alumni and hairstylist Gary Gill surely has reached the gilded level only a select few people in beauty and fashion could aspire to.  What sets Gary apart is not only his unique point of view in hair styling or the unmistakable – and often deliciously understated – flair he brings to any story, show or campaign he touches. His work speaks volumes without screaming at you to pay attention. But what’s so touching about the Mr. Gill approach, and most likely a large part of why his success is so different, is that he is calm, quiet and warm. With the first lines of an email or beginning moments of a conversation, it is immediately understood that  this man has a vast heart. With the wisdom of an older brother and the playful mind of the rebellious teenager he once was, read on below as Gary Gill opens up to us


What kind of teenager were you, and what inspired you to become a hairdresser?
I was a troubled teenager, kind of rebellious, and I always wanted to do my own thing. I felt stifled by convention and authority and wanted to find an alternative way to live.  I had a point of view and I was trying to say something with whatever I was doing, whether it was good or bad.
I think I just had a fire in me. I didn’t want to just sit on the sidelines or be a spectator in life, I always wanted to be playing the game and I’m still like that today. 
Although I’m not particularly proud of it, I suppose being involved with different gangs gave me a profound insight into youth culture and its tribalism, which on a more positive note led me to music, fashion and style. Back in the seventies and eighties, hair was intrinsic to youth culture. I was quite a shy person and still am, so I think hair was a way for me to be able to express myself. Strangely enough, I wanted to draw attention to myself, but then found that uncomfortable. It’s an interesting contradiction. But, you know, changing the way I looked, changing my hair or connecting to punk, Ska and the goth scene was a way for me to be rebellious, to say something and to have a point of view without having to put it into words.
Moving from Brighton to London I didn’t really have any direction and I felt a bit lost. Then I saw a TV programme about a boy who wanted to be a hairdresser. He went to meet the parents of his new girlfriend and her dad asked him what he did for a living, and he replied, “I’m a hairdresser”. The dad was so shocked and I just loved that reaction. I realised then that hairdressing offered a place where I could earn a living, but where I could still be rebellious and challenge convention.  
Did anything else influence your career choice?
I always loved art and design, and making things, and I think hairdressing must have been in my blood. Working as a hairstylist gave me a new connection to my parents, particularly to my mum who was a hairdresser herself. On my first day at work in a salon when I was eighteen, I had an overwhelming feeling that I was in the right place, and was going to do this job for the rest of my life.
When I was 21, I opened my own salon with a business partner Kay and my Mum and worked with us, I learned so much from my Mum in terms of attitude and a way of being, my Dad was also invloved in the buiness side of things and I learnt a lot from him about business which has served me very well. It was fantastic and I absolutely loved it that chapter of my career. That’s when I was starting to work with musicians. That developed into touring with bands and working with some really good artists. We eventually ended up selling our salon after 18 years and I ended doing salon consultancy work but kept working with bands and musicians. I always wanted to work in fashion, and music opened that door for me.
The connection between music, fashion and hair has a very strong importance to you. Can you talk a little about that?
I was always really into music and still am. Music has always been my reference point to my aesthetic. When the spirit of a past decade comes back into fashion, I can easily connect with it. I lived through those periods so they resonate well with my work. 
When you first started out, how did you stay confident with your work? 
That’s a really good question because I was working in a very cool scene with a lot of bands, the club scene and artists, but not editorially in fashion. I would read magazines like i-D, The Face and Dazed and Confused and I would think, “I can do that”. But then when I started doing it I realized it’s actually really difficult. I was in my late thirties at this point and had an established career. I was already developing and teaching courses for the brand Wella. It was quite a shock to me that all of a sudden when I started working in fashion and I realized I just didn’t have the skills needed for that. So I had to get some experience through working with other artists on shows and shoots. It was maybe a bit easier for me because I was a bit older and people seemed to respect and accept me. I watched and worked on teams alongside great hairdressers like Eugene Souleiman and Duffy, stylists like Harris Elliot and Elgar Johnson, and from photographers including Gerald Jenkins gave me some great oppurtunties. I learnt so much from these people. The experience of working in this environment enabled me to really refine my skills.
But it seems that as well as getting this experience, it was important for you to be authentic, and to develop something unique to you? 
To feel confident, I have to really understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. My advice to anybody who wants to work in fashion is to hone your craft. If you don’t develop good skills this will become apparent very quickly. This world is all about reputation and it’s about making sure that you can do the work. If you develop strong skills you then have the power to subvert them, and having this foundation means you can have good ideas very quickly, which is demanded of you as a session stylist. 
Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was the debut album by synth-pop duo Soft Cell. The photographs for this album cover were shot here. I brought this record the day before I started hairdressing. I recorded it onto cassette and took it to play at work on my first day at my new job. I was obsessed with the cover, the back cover especially. Soho was very cool at that time, as East London is now but with more of an edge. It was a bit rough. I used to hang out there, and that alley cut through the red-light district and seemed so raw. I remember it feeling dangerous and I liked that feeling. I used to see Soft Cell’s singer Marc Almond around there a lot. Everyone seemed like creatures from another planet and it felt so inspiring. Even though it’s been cleaned up a lot, when I walk through it now I get fleeting feelings of how it used to feel when I was younger.
The Marquee represents the home of London’s punk scene and the logo became as famous as the bands that played there. My love of Reggae and Dub came from going to punk gigs where Rasta DJs would warm up for punk bands. A strange mix you would think, but the Rastas and punks shared a similar ethos. Lots of punk bands like The Slits, The Clash, PIL and The Ruts were inspired by them and incorporated it into their sound.
What has been a game changer for you?
I know there are a lot of great hairdressers who could technically do certain things better than me. For me personally and for my style, it wasn’t ever about perfecting techniques in this way. It was about having the knowledge and developing skills, but even more importantly combining those disciplines with a good concept, and a really strong idea. Although this wouldn’t suit everyone, it was a game changer for me when I realised that I could have the best technical discipline in the world, but if I didn’t have an inspiring idea of how to put it into context, the quality of my technical skill was worth nothing. 
Your work has a very clear identity. Is there something particular that represents your work aesthetically and has that changed throughout your career?
I think carefully about who I work with, and it’s important that we share an aesthetic and vibe. A magazine, stylist or an advertising agency will look at different portfolios and think, who is the right person for this job? These days I feel artists are better off being known for a very specific aesthetic. I got to a point where I thought, right, I know what I want my work to look like. I know I have good ideas. I’ve developed my skills – now I need to make sure I’m working with people I can collaborate with, and there’s a mutual connection. I think it can hold you back to work as a generalist, someone who is able to do a lot of everything and hasn’t got a clear identity. If someone’s work changes drastically from shoot to shoot, it’s harder for a client or creative team to understand what they’re about and if they are right for job.  These days, if you look at the exciting younger artists coming through, they have an aesthetic and a style. It tends to hold together really well across the whole portfolio.
It takes dedication and persistence to create your dream job. What’s your best advice for people who would like to kick off a career in fashion?
You get a lot of very talented, skillful people working in beauty and fashion, and they can end up doing a bit of everything and perhaps being too adaptable. You need to create an authentic vision which clients can buy into and benefit from. It has to feel that you can sprinkle a bit of magic onto everything you do. It’s about making a point of difference in what is a very competitive marketplace and there’s nothing wrong with that. Competition is good. I want to go to work feeling like I can bring a bit of me to this, even if I’m doing something commercial.
If I don’t feel like that, it doesn’t feel like I’ve done a good job. It doesn’t have to be complicated or have some kind of youth culture reference. It can be something very simple, but it’s still just about adding that little something to it, which makes it clear you did it and no one else. 
So it comes down to finding your own style and really daring to go with your own flow, to really trust yourself?
It takes a certain element of bravery and the whole process is a long game. I see people who join agencies and they’re not managing as well as they could be. If they are pressured to do all the jobs that come in their career can end up snowballing into nothing. It’s better to have no content than the wrong content. Especially now when everything’s on social media. You do a shoot and your work is out there so quickly, and your choices mean this either helps or hinders your reputation.  Reputation is everything. It’s not just about brand alignment, or the hair, but also about behaviour and professionalism from the very beginning to the end of a job. 
You’re collaborating with people all the time. How do you stay true to your boundaries and personal style?
It’s about choosing the job. I know that if I’m going to work with a certain brand, it’s going to look a certain way, therefore the boundaries are clearly set already. Then the collaboration doesn’t become too jarring, because all the pieces are in place. These boundaries help to create a space for collaboration which I already know is aligned to my aesthetic and way of working.  
So if you have to share something that you truly stand by – something you want to press on to the new generation of budding hairstylists. What would that be?
It’s crucial to have your own point of view. This could be a style, a quality or a message. Then, you need to work with people who will enable you to elevate what you do and who give you a platform on which you are able to be your best. To do this, you need to educate yourself about photographers, about stylists, about brands. Do your research so that you can make good decisions about who you work with, rather than being seduced by the name of a brand. Don’t fall for that. 
I think a lot of people do because they think it is going to get them to a certain place, but it doesn’t always. Develop a very strong strategy about where you’re going and who you are going to be. Really research your ideas and make sure they are strong, and you are not too influenced by other people’s opinions. And practice hard. Even now if there is something I am not certain I understand how to do, or know how to use, I will practice it until I feel completely confident with it. 
From working with you, I’ve seen how it’s important to you to treat everyone with kindness and respect. What are the values that enable you to be so down to earth?
As my career develops it’s essential to me that I keep my humility. I was really inspired by Denzel Washington when he said, “when you’re at your best, when you have your finest moments, when you’re reaching the top, that’s when the devil visits.” Those words sent chills through me when I heard them because they resonate with my values so strongly. It’s a tough industry and there’s a lot of money at stake which brings a great deal of pressure. However, I feel really clear that this shouldn’t excuse bad behavior. Being unkind to others wouldn’t work for me anyway. I prefer to support people to be their best selves. In an industry with a questionable reputation in this area, I feel that we all have a responsibility to make this change and find better ways of working. There is a new generation of young creatives, photographers, stylists and makeup artists who are being successful without behaving badly. It’s so important to have humility and gratitude for where you are, what you’ve achieved, and to never forget how long it took you to get there and maybe some of the pain it caused too. We are privileged to work in our industry. When I lead my team I try to maintain a certain discipline and set a good example whilst retaining kindness and gratitude. 
Fashion week was rolling on its high when the war in Ukraine broke out, which I know made you feel conflicted by working on the shows. The Balenciaga Show had a strong voice and it must have affected you a lot?
Yes, it did. I found it hard to make sense of working in Milan when the destruction of the war in Ukraine was becoming rapidly more devastating. It felt wrong to be working in a very elite environment with lots of money at stake when this was happening. It was due to Demna, the Creative Director of Balenciaga, and his expression of humanity and empathy for those in Ukraine, that I felt fashion had something important to contribute. I was working on the Balenciaga show at this time and Demna, who fled Georgia as a 12 year-old refugee, read a poem in Ukrainian while the models walked through a frozen environment. He had voiced his own concern about whether he should cancel the show, but I was really moved by his statement that said he decided not to because that would have meant, “surrendering to the evil that has already hurt me so much for almost 30 years”. I thought it was beautiful the way we wore Ukrainian T-shirts and it felt like a moment which then made sense. I felt then that fashion did have the power and platform to say something important. I very rarely write how I feel on social media as I am a very private person, but the statement I made about this received more reactions that anything else I have ever done on Instagram. I admire Demna greatly, and he personifies everything I have talked about in terms of humanity, humility and kindness, and running things well and with discipline. His approach helped me to make sense of things and have my own voice about something so important. 
This was such a busy spot for so many of London’s 80s clubs such as the Batcave and the Mud Club, and on the top floor of this townhouse was one of the only places you could hear Hip Hop played in London at that time. So many memories come back to me when I walk down this street. For me, as a teenager, I felt like it was the center of the world.

“I was fortunate when I was young that I found something to challenge me, and help me find a more positive path, but that could have been a very different story. I would like to help others to do the same.”

Has it ever been possible for you to use your voice in the industry or your creativity to help people in a charitable way?
I have worked on a few things to support ‘Haircuts 4 Homeless’, which I really enjoyed. 
It was a project I felt really close to, and in lockdown Danish photographer Casper Sejersen and I held a print sale of the work we created together for Beauty Papers, with proceeds going to support their work. I also did a couple of interviews with Stewart Roberts, who established the charity. I worked with him on a podcast about addiction and how that has affected me personally. It was something I was very nervous about, but I felt very relieved to do it. It felt good to use my profile to say something that may help others. That’s something I would love to do a lot more of. I was fortunate when I was young that I found something to challenge me, and help me find a more positive path, but that could have been a very different story. I would like to help others to do the same.    
Gary, you’re a hairdresser on fire, always on the go – what are the hacks to juggle such a busy schedule and to stay sane?
I have a really strong, solid and loyal team. Their personalities and hard work offer me sanity, security and a sense of collaboration. I never feel that I am working completely alone which is very important to me. I want to acknowledge Tom Wright, Rebecca Chang, Tasos Constantinou Natsumi Ebiko and Daniel Moura, and also my agent Charlotte Alexa and all the team at Streeters. Their hard work and dedication enables me to be the best I can be. 
I try to find time to ensure I look after my physical and mental health by eating well and finding things outside of the industry which give some respite. I know that some people feel it’s vital to go to parties related to work, and to network socially. That’s not for me. Instead I choose to work hard, turn up on time, develop strong ideas, have gratitude and be kind. These are the key ingredients to success for me. 
Outside of the fashion and beauty industry, what is one thing that would surprise people about you?
Well, it sometimes surprises people that I love football, and that I love gardening. I like photography and I really love being in the countryside and by the sea. If I can get a little bit of those things in between fashion, it helps keep fashion fresh for me. I suppose family and old friends, some of whom I’ve known for around 30 years, provide a sense of sanity. Maybe because old friends really don’t wholly understand what I do and that’s a great thing. They see me as a person in my own right, rather than in the context of work.  
You always seem to break through with new real and raw looks – where do you get your inspiration from?
I refer back to youth culture a lot. I used to prepare for things really heavily, perhaps even over-prepare, and I would get very set in how I wanted things to look. Then when it came to doing it, it often just didn’t work and I didn’t have enough left to give – my mind would go blank. So at some point, I stopped over preparing and started developing ideas more spontaneously. I found that things came to me better. Also, I find I’m usually inspired by the model or the subject. 
I’ve found my instinctive ideas are the best ones, that there’s those gut instincts, that when you feel it in your stomach, you think this is the right idea. So I’ve learned to be a lot braver with not overthinking and getting myself stuck in a corner. 
Do you sense an importance of community among the session hair stylists around the world?
Yes, I do. I think it’s very healthy and I find it very inspiring. In the past, people wouldn’t even be seen in the same room as each other, let alone work on something together. I worked with hairstylist Holli Smith on Balenciaga for five seasons and absolutely loved it. I really love Holli and think she’s very talented. We worked together when there was a huge cast of more than one hundred models and we exchanged ideas and experiences. It was fantastic and I loved every minute of it.
I think social media has been really good for that too, it allows people to comment and support each other. Social media has a lot of bad things about it, but I do feel like there’s been a lot of healthy things that have come out of it as well. I think hairdressers talk more. I enjoy doing portfolio reviews for younger hairdressers and when they get signed and start doing well I feel really good about that. That success is all theirs, but I like to think that my help might make those journeys a little easier. This is one of the areas of my work that I find most fulfilling. 
To have a legacy for the future is really important to me. I would hate to be one of those hairdressers from the past who don’t want to see younger people doing well or want to keep them pushed back so they’re not competition. I think if new hairstylists start getting work that I would have done, that’s fine. It’s kind of the order of the way things should be. 
I feel like people’s careers are shorter these days. Back in the nineties, in the early 2000s, there weren’t so many people doing what we do. It seemed that you could build your legendary iconic status and become almost untouchable. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think there are a lot of young people, particularly women hairstylists coming through, which is very refreshing. A lot of brilliant women work on my team. At a top level, it’s been a very male orientated business and it’s exciting to see this change. 
I find great satisfaction in this strong sense of support and community. To look back and say, “I remember when those people were on my team or I remember doing portfolio reviews with those people” and see how well they are doing now. People helped me to establish myself in the past, and I am really happy to do the same for others and feel good about the future of hairdressing and the next generation of artists. 
Role models are important to reflect on, especially when trying to change things for the better. Within the beauty and fashion industry, what kind of revolution are you hoping for? 
Everyone’s got something different to bring, whether it’s on my core team or whether it’s on a show. Different people bring different things. I expect people to put their egos aside, and to be open to learning new things. My team should be able to ask questions and feel valued for whatever it is they bring. It’s important that younger artists work in a healthy environment and can perpetuate that as they progress through their careers, rather than taking bad practice with them.  Unless we try and change it, that cycle is never going to go away. We need to bring a degree of reality and humanity to what we’re doing. I get really inspired by seeing brands who are practicing those kinds of attitudes. I want to constantly try and be a part of that for people’s futures. I think there is a momentum towards a more inclusive and kinder way of being which I whole-heartedly support.

“I’ve always made it clear that I’m anti glamour and actually find it quite unattractive. I dislike the idea of everything being retouched into perfection, everyone wanting to look flawless. I love the flaws that we all have. I think they should be celebrated a lot more. I love the honesty of that kind of beauty.”

No doubt your personality has to be vigorous and persistent to make it in the hair industry. Has being so passionate ever backfired on you?
It hasn’t really backfired on me. But I do feel – to be really open and candid about it – I feel it’s been detrimental to myself on occasion. Sometimes I’ve been so obsessive and put unnecessary pressure on myself, which has affected me. As I’m getting older and more experienced, I’m learning to try and alleviate that stress and let things go a little bit. 
Does this come down to some kind of spiritual point of view?
I wouldn’t say I’m a religious person, but I’d definitely say I’m spiritual. I have to try and keep a very level head. Back to Denzel Washington again, “The devil arrives when you seem to be at your best.” 
Do you have any sustainable hair products you swear by? 
As far as tools goes, I’m working with “RE=COMB” products, which are environmentally sustainable and I think are really ingenious. Christopher Deagle and Sarah Jo Palmer set up RE=COMB and I really love their passion. One of my favorite organic products is “Be Curly” from Aveda. In my opinion, it’s hands-down the best hair curling produce on the market. 
Are you conscious of creating a sustainable environment on set when you can? 
I’m very conscious of that and it troubles me a lot. The amount of miles we fly and how much we travel plays on my mind. I’m fortunately working mainly in Paris where we’re able to catch the train. If it’s possible to travel by train within Europe, I would always do that. 
How do you define and perceive beauty? 
I’ve always made it clear that I’m anti glamour and actually find it quite unattractive. I dislike the idea of everything being retouched into perfection, everyone wanting to look flawless. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be going away. I love the flaws that we all have. I think they should be celebrated a lot more. I love the honesty of that kind of beauty. I find the quirks of nature really beautiful – and age as well. I think age is a really beautiful thing, too. It’s not all about being young.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given and is there any message you want to pass on to your community?
90% of success is having a good attitude. In such challenging times we must try harder to work together, support each other and recognise the responsibility we have for doing what’s right. It’s important to me that we value healthy attitudes and actions in our industry. 
Gary, I simply love how your whole background with music has connected the dots throughout your career and who knows what the next chapter is going to be?
I don’t believe in going backwards, only forwards. I think it’s important for me to feel like I’m always moving forwards because I think in this business, if you sit still, it’s game over. I don’t worry about what anyone else is doing but I focus on my work, and on my team, and what they have to bring. 
Music is a deep love of mine. Creating playlists for interviews and projects is a natural way for me to connect and give an insight into my hairdressing career. Hair, beauty and style have been intertwined with music through every evolution of youth culture. They have also been tied together in everything I do, and I was a DJ on and off over a period of 20 years, and the co-owner of two independent record labels, as my career in hair was developing. It’s where I find a constant source of inspiration. 
I’m always on the hunt for new music and new genres as well as reverting back to classics. This playlist encompasses my love of music from all eras. All parts of this list (apart from a few random things at the end) lend themselves to clubs and my involvement in that scene, from punk gigs to the rave scene and going to gay clubs in my early days of hairdressing. (There are a few genres missing, even though they are really important to me, such as Ska, Rocksteady, Goth, Afrobeat and Punk. I think this may be another playlist to come). These tracks represent the madness of a show backstage at fashion week, starting from the calm before the storm with reggae and dub, through to the madness of acid house, techno and house music. It moves into the high of hip hop, and then downtempo towards the end when all the stress is over. I always feel these emotions when compiling a playlist.