Slow and Steady Wins the Race with Kalle Eklund

Though it seems lately that the worlds of fashion and beauty favor flying to unseen heights of out-of-this-world looks, a select few artists prefer exploring new territory and pushing boundaries with both feet planted firmly on the ground. 

Swedish hair stylist Kalle Eklund manages to dance on that fine line – the place where looks are exciting and new yet aren’t clouded by shock value or the need for attention. 

In the interview below, Kalle sits down for Submission Beauty with former assistant and fellow artist Nikola Grozdic for a down to earth look into his world.

PHOTOGRAPHY MARIA + LOUISE THORNFELDT @mariathornfeldt @louisethornfeldt

I don’t like when something is crazy for the sake of being crazy, or when hair does something  extra just to be seen. The hair has to have a purpose. You can make something do a lot, without making it extreme: let the hair claim its space but don’t do something just for the sake of doing it.

Kalle, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you come from and how you got started ?

My interest in hairdressing came about when I discovered as a teenager, and I got obsessed with watching the fashion show backstage videos. I started in hair dressing school – but I’m a beauty school dropout! Styling was always my goal, but at first I didn’t quite see how hairstyling could become a career on its own, so I started as a trainee in a salon in Stockholm right after dropping out of school. I did that for a few years, and the salon I worked in had a few stylists that were also involved in session hairstyling – on set. I started going with them to photoshoots and it felt like that was exactly where I needed to be, where I wanted to go. I loved it from the first shoot I was ever on. I worked day and night and eventually joining an agency came naturally. Everything came slow and steadily, it didn’t happen overnight. It took some time for me to become a hairstylist, but I’m happy with the pace of it, it’s a comfortable pace. I was never frustrated that I wasn’t moving forward quicker. I eventually moved to Berlin and tried working in the fashion world there but it was quite limiting. Berlin is fun and inspiring but at one point, I had done what there was to do, so I tried moving to London next. It was a case of bad timing though, I moved there one month before covid, so London was a failure.. Eventually I landed in Paris, and without knowing exactly how to pinpoint what it is about being here – this feels like it for me. 

I think my takeaway from this – and what I’ve seen working as an assistant with you – is that you were never rushing things. You’re calm and collected. It’s such a good way of working, I think it’s interesting 

Yeah that’s exactly it. I think a lot of people are very stressed about everything, but I never really was. To me, it’s nice that it took me 15 years to get where I am, I really don’t mind that!

I wanted to ask you about a person that you worked with as an assistant when you first began…

Yeah, Peter Anderson! I assisted him a lot, he was very inspiring to me. He was my entry to the larger fashion world, the higher level. He was a very technical hair stylist, of course, but was never focused on the technique per se. I was always about the girl. He was very engaged in characters – who is she? It was really fascinating seeing this; sure, the technique is very important but in the end it’s not the technique that makes you a good hairstylist. It’s what you do – not how you do it.

We talked about this so many times – hairstylists try to do the best hair, the most perfect end result, when it really comes down to: The most perfect hair is the hair that is not perfect.

Exactly. Peter was really inspiring to me, he showed me a different way of working. I haven’t met many people who were so engaged in this way, sharing references to build a character. Nowadays when we come to set, even for editorials, we’re so often told what to do and everything is set up for you when you walk in the door. There’s a plan in place before we are involved. He came from a different time when the hairstylist was more engaged in creating the image, and I think it’s a little sad that it often doesn’t work that way anymore.

I’ve seen that in fashion today, we are not part of creating something as a team and it often isn’t about showing people a character they love and want to be. 

We don’t do characters often anymore, which I kind of miss. Doing a fifties inspired shoot, something like that – it’s quite fun to do. 

I actually had a client I worked with for years, who now has cropped all the models’ faces off from their content, there’s no hair and makeup anymore. It’s become characterless…

…Which is exactly what caught my attention when I was a teenager looking at behind the scenes footage! I was fascinated by how much of a story you could tell just with hair and makeup. Looking at old Christian Dior shows where – to me anyway – it wasn’t even so much about the look of the clothes themselves, the clothes are not so much of a character. But then they add a full on Egyptian hair and makeup style and now we get the character. They built a universe and world with that.

I used to say “oh, I go to the museum to get hair inspiration…” No, I don’t necessarily do that in such a direct way. But I do think going places outside of your regular context, traveling with friends or going to yes, the museum, can get your mind going, get it working.

I think it’s such a strength that you’ve lived and worked in other countries. What difference did you notice in how people approach hair styling and what they request?

Sweden is much less. Everything is more minimal, and less daring I will say. Scared of glamour, but always tasteful. Berlin was fun, there is a rawness there, not always the most tasteful really, but people are not scared of a little dirt, you know? It was a really interesting time to be working there, although the industry there is not at the highest level, it’s a bit punk and alternative. There’s no money there, there’s a real rawness – almost a dark gothic feel to everyone there.

How does it compare to being in Paris now – do you feel like it’s more glamorous? 

I prefer the look here, it’s a bit more me and more thought-through. Sophisticated is the wrong word because it can still feel raw, but there is a classic-ness to things. Hair can claim its space in a picture without being the most outrageous. In Berlin, if it is at the center of attention it would be green – but here you can make it beautiful.

A next level of luxury hair perhaps?

I think we were so minimal for so long and then afterwards we went a bit more cuckoo which wasn’t always my favorite. I think we are moving towards something that is more me at the moment, it claims it’s space but is a little bit more classic, it doesn’t have to be just “crazy”.

Explain to us what your signature style is? How do you stay true to yourself and give something a little twist that makes it you?

I don’t like when something is crazy for the sake of being crazy, or when hair does something  extra just to be seen. I’d rather have nothing then, the hair has to have a purpose. And if you’re looking to do something raw, keep it that way, keep the little flyaways etc. You can make something do a lot, without making it extreme. Natural hair can be quite an important part of an image, depending on how you dress it, how you let it take place. Sometimes it may feel a bit boring, but that’s really more my style. Let the hair claim it’s space but don’t do something just for the sake of doing it.

You can see that in your imagery – your hair always stands out with a purpose. I think a lot of people strive to achieve that. Hair can take up so much of an image but it can also take so much out of an image…

I have to say, I prefer to work with live hair, I’m not the biggest fan of wigs. So often things change drastically when I am working with hair and it ends up becoming something completely different. When you are working with a wig, you’re kind of stuck with it. You’ve committed and to me it feels limiting. I worked under another hairstylist who had this incredible ability to immediately find something that worked with a model’s natural hair, he would do hair in 4 minutes. And it always looked like the intention in the final image. 

I think a lot of people need to learn this – less is more sometimes – and learn how to cut corners. Don’t try to make the hair do something it doesn’t want to do… 

At the end of the day – it’s just hair. It’ll be fine… 

We’ve tapped into this a bit already, but I’d like to ask you where you find inspiration – and what is beauty to you?

I read a lot of books. Or I should say I look at a lot of images in books, hehe. It’s the most classic way to find inspiration, but I feel like people forget this a bit nowadays. We look online all the time and that’s amazing because you can find everything there, but it sometimes isn’t as curated as a book will be. Someone has made a selection of images and that is something you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to see otherwise. I have a seventies glamour book that I often find inspiration from. It’s focused a lot on celebrities which is not really my cup of tea, but when you keep looking it leads to researching a person that you otherwise wouldn’t have been presented with if you were looking around online. This sort of thing ends up inspiring me after all. I used to answer your question with  “oh, I go to the museum to get hair inspiration…” No, I don’t necessarily do that in such a direct way. But I do think going places outside of your regular context, traveling with friends or going to yes, the museum, can get your mind going, get it working.

I really love my job and I think we almost have to look at this job like a hobby at times. It’s not always fun at work, but it’s kind of amazing to have something like this as your occupation, something I actually enjoy.

Going back to traveling, what does it feel like visiting Stockholm now, after having lived abroad for a while?

I ended up spending time in Stockholm during the lockdown and it was quite a different scene in many ways. There was this new generation of young kids who just were so advanced in their approach to style, very genderfluid and experimental. My teenage years are not that long ago, but I felt like a dinosaur compared to them. Strangely what I found is that there was no connection between this new generation and the established fashion world in Stockholm. The kids weren’t so bothered with the past and the past didn’t care about them, so to speak. I would shoot the kids every now via street castings, but they never really blended in. Stockholm has a big fashion industry but they were not a part of it at all. They didn’t have the jobs that would bring them money – two different worlds in which the young kids didn’t respect the old garde, and the old guarde didn’t even know the kids really existed. One had the coolness, the other had the money. It makes me think of how less free the industry is in general, and that’s what I like about living in Paris for example. People here do personal projects all the time, free from the restraints of traditional magazines. Magazines nowadays can give you so many restrictions that sometimes even the most talented people are forced to do stories that are even more commercial than what they do on an advertising job! 

Yeah I see so many talented people leaving the industry because there is no freedom. It’s maybe even more extreme in the Scandinavian countries because we have this legacy of clean, simple aesthetics…

People working in Paris at a very high level in the industry do personal creative projects all the time, and I do not see that in Stockholm. People complain ‘oh there are no cool magazines here” but listen, you are sitting on a pile of money from the big corporate advertising clients you work with and you can’t put some of that into making your own personal project?

Yeah, “do I get paid to do this?” No, but you get to create something you love? If you don’t work towards changing what you don’t like in the industry, then what are you doing…

Yeah exactly. Laziness is not cool. 

Outside of the industry, what is something about you that would surprise people ?

I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t really think I have hobbies… I really love my job and I think we almost have to look at this job like a hobby at times. It’s not always fun at work, but it’s kind of amazing to have something like this as your occupation, something I actually enjoy. I want to sit and look for inspiration for my work when I come home from work. Even when I have my doubts and everything is up in the air, this is what I am drawn to.

Is there a moment in your career where something shifted for you?

I think when I moved to Berlin and met Dogi (stylist, ed.) and other people who I became friends with and we all worked together, that shifted something. We really became a team, friends who were also colleagues. We are very close and started building something together. That was really cool and new for me. 

The industry has changed so much and because of the way social media has allowed artists to build a brand by themselves, many artists don’t understand what it means to have someone behind the scenes guarding your back. The relationship has changed…

Your agent is probably your most important professional relationship. You rely on a lot of support from them, as well as their judgment. It’s so important, and I’ve been very lucky – almost – all of my career. I always knew they had my back. A lot of people manage really well by themselves, but I fear I would last 4.5 hours by myself, without an agent… For me it has always been important to have an agent. I am not a business person.

Switching gears again… Talking about sustainability – do you think there is change happening when it comes to sustainable hair products ?

Yeah, I actually think there are a lot of new great products. When people first started, I always felt like they never worked as well as the regular ones on the market. Overall, maybe the hair field is a bit better than makeup when it comes to being sustainable? We’re not as crazy with products… The product is important, but we don’t consume as much. You open someone’s bathroom cabinets and they’re filled with highlighters that are basically the same, and a ton of plastic.

Right, I hear people ask so often if the tiny bit of hair product will seep into their scalp, and I just think – what about the fucking foundation you put on your skin every day?

I know. But I do think the whole industry is going to have to change. The way people are pushing out clothes too, It’s not gonna last. I try to not buy any new clothes any more, but I’m probably not the one who should be pointing fingers.. 

People in Norway ask me all the time if I want to make my own products and yes, I would like to experiment with that but do I really NEED to feed a market that already has…


Another smell, a new bottle.. Maybe we should instead make sure that the products that are on the market are good for the environment and ourselves and do the best with the products we already have  

That’s the perfect place to end this, isn’t it ?