Guido Palau is the Babe Ruth of the fashion world, an all-star hair stylist who plays on the most elite teams and consistently knocks it out of the proverbial style park with every outing. The list of designers who tap him to create the hair looks for their runway shows and ad campaigns includes Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Proenza Schouler and on and on; editorially, Palau works primarily with two photographers—Steven Meisel and David Sims—for influential style bibles like French, Italian and American Vogue. And he doesn’t just create the trends that trickle down—as Redken’s creative consultant, he also disseminates them. Here, on the eve of the Fall/Winter 2012 fashion show marathon, Palau took some time out to talk about culture, creativity and the continual drive to banish boredom.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What inspires you creatively?
I’m inspired both by the drive to better myself and by the people who I work with. I work with exceptionally talented people, designers and a couple of photographers, Steven Meisel and David Sims, whose standards are so high. Creatively, I’m working with the best in the business, and so it pushes my work ethic and my stamina. Over the years, I have honed my own ideal of a standard, which is superhigh. You have to keep pushing yourself to reach higher and higher platforms in your job and creativity. Also, the desire to create great things and push my own aesthetic drives me. I don’t want to get bored or have the people I work with get bored.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’m like a sponge. If I see something once, it goes in [my head]. It could be a painting or a building or a texture of hair or someone’s hair on the street or a movie or a moment. If I like it, it somehow gets stored in my brain and will come out at a certain moment—it could be when I’m searching for something or doing some hair or thinking about a color or texture. Style comes from everywhere. You just have to be open to it and take it all in.
The great thing about my job is you can never rest on your laurels. You can never rest on the last job or the last show. It’s always about the next one. It’s a great pressure, but it keeps your ideas going. Music is very important to me. I learned hairdressing in the Eighties in England, a powerful style decade and there were many different street culture styles very quickly in succession and a lot of creativity in hair. That kind of culture played a big part in my references and I still plunder that period, not just for the styles and shapes, but the spirit of people being individuals and having great creativity themselves. I’m very inspired when people have great style. It’s harder now to see that, as people have become more homogenized and individual style is not as championed as it was in previous decades.
How do you approach each show season?
They don’t seem to be seasons anymore. I’ve just done 12 shows in Europe—the men’s shows, the couture shows and now it’s New York. I start my first test tomorrow and it’s only been a week since I did my last show. Going into it, I try to be healthy and rested. You have to be strong and fit, because they are very demanding and the hours are long. I can be up at five and not go to bed till four the next morning. You’re dealing with lots of people—clients, designers, tons of press, models, makeup artists and the stylist. There are tons of people, and you have to be as level-headed and calm as possible. To prepare for it, it’s more of a mental thing.
Do you go in with preconceived notions of what will look great during a given season?
I don’t have any rules. What could be considered a bad texture could be really brilliant, like greasy, straggly hair. All the no-nos in beauty are really out the window, which is exciting. The Nineties broke that down and now people are very open to looking at anything, from the extreme to the very undone, very messy, very disheveled, very wet, very dry, very matte, very frizzy. Everything can be made beautiful and that’s great for me, because it means I can work with many different shapes and textures. There are no boundaries.
What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
The continual change and the continual challenge, and although I don’t enjoy the pressure, it goes along with it. I love a challenge, and I always think I can make my work better and surprise people and challenge their ideas of beauty and hair. It is very exciting to reach a point when you’re working with your peers who are the best. It pushes your vision. I’m just a small part of an amazing industry. When I’m at a shoot or show, I have a small part to play, but it can make a big impact.
How has your aesthetic evolved over the past 20 years?
I’m much more open. When I first started working in New York in the mid-Nineties, I had one kind of aesthetic, the grungy Nineties thing. Working with brilliant people, they show you other aspects of style and you learn. Designers have taught me about clothes and proportion. I’ve become more sophisticated. People let me into their world and I took it on. I was lucky. From Richard Avedon and Irving Penn to Steven Meisel and David Sims, I’ve worked with very talented, style-obsessed people who really push you to challenge people’s ideas of beauty. I really got off on that and still get off on it.
Do you have a favorite creation or period of yours?
I love the Eighties because I moved from the country to London. It was such a visual period—magazines were starting up, new designers were happening, street fashion was at its beginning and people were really creative.
Does London continue to inspire you as much today?
I live in New York now, but when I go back to England, I find it very inspiring. People are very individual. There is an English eccentricity that may not be as obvious as in other decades but is still there. But I love New York. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I find it inspiring in different ways.
Do you have a favorite place to people watch in New York?
There are amazing people everywhere. If you took pictures of everyone now and looked at them in 40 years time, you’d think, That’s a very 2012 decade. You don’t realize what you’re seeing is a representation of the period you’re in, and sometimes you can ignore it because it’s all around you, but you have to keep your eyes open.
What do you love about hairdressing?
Everything. It is such an important job because everyone feels great if their hair looks great. For the feel-good factor, it’s a great job. But what I actually like about hair is I can create a character with it, a mystery, an attitude, a fantasy. You can put that onto somebody. I love that. It’s such an important part of style.
How do you keep your creativity fresh?
I cut off completely. I have to energize myself. People think you go to fashion parties and dinners, but no: It’s about working. I have a team of people who I work with—there is a kind of a small little factory behind me. I have a great first assistant, who I can work out ideas with, and another assistant who can reference ideas for me and a producer who helps produce all the shows. They hopefully relieve me of the burdens of minutiae so I can just purely be thinking about the creative process.
Do you have other creative outlets?
Not really, no, because I find this one takes over. If there was one, it would be cooking, but I don’t have much time to do that. When I do have downtime, I just want to rest my mind and do things that are more meditative, to calm myself.
You have your choice of jobs. What makes you say yes?
I love working with the designers and photographers I work with because you become team players. It’s not about saying yes or no, it’s about playing the game well with your teammates. It’s a great honor to be asked by these great designers to do their shows. The same with the two photographers I work with. I’m part of their team. If I do have time to work with someone new or a young designer, that’s great too. I love working with young designers because they’re seeing fashion from a different time period, a different point of view.
Who in the history of fashion do you wish you had worked with?
I’m a great fan of Rei Kawakubo of Commes Des Garçons, but Julien D’Ys, who does the hair for her show, does a great job. They have a great synergy. When I look at what they do, I’m very inspired. It would have been nice to have worked with Yves Saint Laurent. I feel very blessed in the people I work with, but I never rest on my laurels. People are always looking to push things and move forward. The fashion business is about moving forward, so you have to be on that train and move with it.
You’re arguably the most influential hairstylist Working today. What does poWer mean to you?
Power sounds quite dangerous to me. I think one shouldn’t abuse power. It is a tool, and it should be used sparingly.