Interview by Filep Motwary
Julien d’Ys is more than a hairstylist. He is a storyteller, a poet and a fashion veteran who finds amusement in mixing the strangest materials together for the sake of beauty. Each of his projects serves as a testimonial—a point of reference in contemporary fashion’s history and the key to the gates to dreamland. A good fashion show is everything together: the clothes (of course), the music, lights, casting, hair and make-up. The most incredible hair stories have carried his signature for almost 40 years. He also likes to paint, keep his notes in sketchbooks, and to flirt with photography. Julien d’Ys responds to my phone call in a very good mood. He has just returned from New York where he participated in “Art of the In-Between”, the Metropolitan Museum’s retrospective on Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo, with whom he has worked closely for more than two decades creating the hair for her shows and occasionally the make-up as well. He asked me to call him precisely at 11:32, as 32 is his lucky number.
FILEP MOTWARY: Hello Julien, how are you?
JULIEN D’YS: I feel a bit tired after so many months of working for the exhibition. It’s always the case after a period of intensity: all tiredness comes out once you have a moment to relax. Also, I feel a bit depressed because I loved working for this CDG project so much, but I will be ok…
FM: Do you mind if the beginning of our interview focuses on your collaboration with Comme des Garçons? I am truly curious to know what it takes for two people to maintain a creative liaison for so long. How do you keep the flame going?
JD’Y: I am not sure exactly for how many years [we have worked together]; it is between 27 and 30 I guess. It is hard to be precise because it was also during the beginning [of my career] and I was doing many, many shows at the time—it is easy to lose track. It was a time when shows were truly interesting: some were performances and overall [it was] a very creative time with plenty of room to be expressive. Although I was not aware of it that much at the time, each show I was doing was very unique. When Comme des Garçons arrived, things got an even more interesting twist.
It was like she [Rei Kawakubo] arrived from another planet, or this is how she appeared to the Parisians. I was very young and didn’t know much about Japanese culture. Suddenly I found myself travelling to Japan from Paris to do the CDG show with Rei twice a year.
It was all very new to me, very refreshing to know about a different culture but most importantly to get to know this little, super strong, incredible woman with a super powerful vision. When our collaboration first started we never thought whether it was luck the fact that we had one another; for a long time we didn’t justify this creative relationship. Comme des Garçons today is like my family. Not just Rei Kawakubo, but also her team. The Japanese are very loyal to those they work with. This is one of their greatest qualities, I think. I am very happy to see and work with them in every show, although it is not as easy as it sounds, as you have to give more, always more, the best of you. What I do for her—seeing it especially now that all that material has been shared through social media all over the world—gives me a certain pleasure.
You know, CDG is more of a vision rather than just clothes. When you watch either the women’s or the men’s show, those 15 to 20 minutes, for me, work exactly like a photo-flash where I want the audience to leave the room with an image stuck in their memory forever. I don’t like how people today analyse everything so much. After all, why would you analyse something that is so strong by itself? These are clothes that somehow resemble a poetic “torture” and they are extreme. What I do for the heads is to give balance.
I know nothing about the collection until the very last minute. Sometimes, it is just two days before the show and, even then, she [Rei Kawakubo] doesn’t share anything with me so I have no idea of what I am going to do, which direction to take. Then, she gives me a hint, a little word that often feels to me like a reward as I am so anticipating starting to work on the collection!
This time [for the women’s autumn/winter 2017 collection], the word was “silver” and from that my imagination had to figure out the right translation. Because “silver” can be anything, you know? So, I immediately start drawing in my sketchbook and send her my drawings for approval or to hear her comments via email.
Our relationship sometimes reaches telepathy and it is very strange because neither of us can explain how this connection happens. I think what she likes about me is the fact that I always try new things. Like the CDG make-up that I started doing as well recently, which sometimes can be extreme, and other times completely neutral. She trusts me. We used to argue a lot in the past and it was frightening. She was very hard to please and there were moments I had to even change the hairstyle on the day of the show. All these heads I create for CDG have a very constructed, sculptural approach—they are solid and they have to be perfect. Each piece is unique and takes its own time to be made. The cosmetics company Tamaris supports me by sending a team to help me, from all over Japan. I have also a very intimate team that works very closely to me: Ilker, who is the only one allowed backstage at the CDG show, Kanokoa, and another guy also from Japan. Did you see the exhibition at The Met?
FM: Only in pictures and film…
JD’Y: I was a bit disappointed that I was not credited for my work somewhere. Since last August when Adrian [Joffe, CEO of Comme des Garçons] called me I got a little worried about what his announcement to me would be. So many thoughts ran through my head: “Has she decided to stop showing her work?” Or, “Did something happen?” I was very worried. He calmed me down and told me about the exhibition.
From August until May 2017, I worked on The Met and CDG non-stop. Of course, I had other jobs too but my focus was on Rei Kawakubo. It was very interesting to go back and see the older collections and ideas. Many of the wigs had to be retouched and be brought back to life. Plenty of pieces had to be recreated from scratch since they were damaged in their boxes or were even lost.
FM: The exhibition at The Metropolitan is already a great success. Visitors admire not only Rei Kawakubo’s clothes but also your sculptured hairstyles and hairpieces… What does this mean for you?
JD’Y: It is a great honour.
To be in The Metropolitan through CDG is a big thing. Considering the fashion show in Paris has always so few, and very selected, guests, suddenly this very private, almost ceremonial and holy universe opens up and is available for a wider audience to enjoy.
To see the clothes now in a museum in this perfect, crystal-clear setting with this endless whiteness and neon lights brought me a lot of happiness.
Especially for the fact that it would be seen by “normal” people of all ages, not connected to fashion. I try to imagine how younger people will perceive this exhibition by thinking of myself at that young age when I would visit museums. I reminisce about the awe I would feel, setting the goals for my future and what would become of it. I remember at 16 when I visited a hair show in Paris by Daniel Harlow who seemed like a rock star on a stage. He was more than just a hairdresser, you know, and this opened a window for me to imagine bigger things. But the truth is I never thought of becoming a hairstylist and, to this day, I don’t consider myself as one.
This is why the missing credit in The Metropolitan felt a bit sad for me because all these people visiting will never know who did the hair. Two days before the exhibition, Andrew Bolton [Head Curator of The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute] decided—and apparently Rei Kawakubo, too—that there would be no writing on the walls. They only put numbers. I think this was a mistake. What made me truly happy was the catalogue where they used all my drawings.
FM: But thousands of people already know who you are. Your work for CDG isn’t a secret. Your body of work is deeply appreciated.
JD’Y: I know—she tells me that too. It’s not important for me that fashion people see it. I wanted others to see it—to understand that behind those heads there is an idea and someone who works hard for it.
FM: I have been an observer and admirer of your work since my teenage years. Still, to this day, I wonder, “What will this guy do next?”
JD’Y: Although 30 years have already passed, I have the same passion today as when I started. I still care and give so much, I even suffer emotionally to be creative and this is a process I have to go through with every new project. There was a moment back in 1995 when I received a prize for my work and it was a big thing on TV: Peter Lindbergh received an award for his pictures and Stéphane Marais for his make-up. This woman was following me for a long time, filming the backstage of all the shows I was doing. It was the golden era of Galliano, Chanel and so on and I remember when I saw those videos afterwards— myself at work and my hands and the speed with which they were moving—I was shocked.
I think this ability I have is a blessing from God. Where this creativity comes from is a mystery even to me. I was born with this energy. The result is also because of working with other people who are truly creative and inspiring like Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi, Rei Kawakubo, John Galliano, Steven Klein and Steven Meisel. With Galliano, for example, the relationship was so rich in ideas and results. When I am given freedom I am very good and he gave me a lot of freedom. This is why fashion today appeals to so many young people because the previous two decades were filled with ideas from professionals who gave it their all and worked very hard and collectively as team members.
There is a very large amount of majestic work available online now from back then and these photos serve as testimonies to an era. When real visionaries work together magic happens!
FM: How difficult do you think it is to remain relevant and modern after so many years, especially now when things seem extremely tired?
JD’Y: Yes, perhaps there are people serving fashion who might be bored. I can only speak for myself, as it is never the case with me. Working gives me energy and a reason to continue. As you know, hair is not the only thing I do. Photography is also something that interests me a lot. It was John Galliano who officially pushed me in that direction to try photography when he asked me to shoot his campaigns. I have loved taking pictures throughout my life, especially Polaroid photos that I use in my sketchbooks or on Instagram. I like shooting even simpler things like a person walking on the street, a tree… I love doing everything together, from hair to make-up, photography, art and image making.
Of course, for the fashion business, I also like to work for young magazines like Carine Roitfeld’s, for which I recently did two stories and another one I did for ODDA magazine with Michele Lamy…
I push myself to be even more creative as time passes and I don’t like to label what I do, and I cherish when I work for my own projects. Like Ilker for example, whom I mentioned earlier, he is working on a film now, using material that was collected from when we started doing CDG, filming me when I was working or other more personal moments. He wants to include dialogues too… We don’t know what will happen with this film but I think it will be a very interesting documentation of the CDG process and creativity. For a while now I have also been thinking of exhibiting my paintings. An ideal place would be Azzedine Alaïa’s gallery, but I haven’t made any decisions yet—we will see.
Generally speaking, I am not the type who has idols in the business. At the same time, I appreciate certain people for their vision or personality. Like Caroline Bouvier Kennedy [daughter of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis], whom I met recently through CDG. This woman touched me deeply. Perhaps it’s the Kennedy DNA, this exceptional type of women—like Jackie whom I loved as well. And certain models with whom I am very close friends, like Linda Evangelista for example, whom I find inspiring too. We continue to see each other after so many years. Two weeks ago in New York, we had lunch and dinner and went to her son’s first communion, which was very nice. So, yes, I am impressed by nice people from time to time. Fashion is a very cruel place and can hurt you when you are as sensitive as me. I am like a sponge—feeling and sensing everything.
FM: Why does history play such a significant role in what you do? How do you strive for timelessness with your hair designs?
JD’Y: Recently I used metal sponges that I found at the supermarket to create hairstyles. The 1700s to 1800s were vividly in my head as the starting point before I applied the process of building the base of what I wanted to achieve: when women had this kind of head, like Josephine’s— the “empire” cut. Women back then were always beautiful. The way they wore their hair and how that was finished, the result looked almost like a sculpture. This is why my references are mostly historical. At other times my references even come from comic books that I used to read when I was a little boy.
Sometimes you see a futurist look and then you add a hairstyle inspired by the 1940s and it gets very modern—immediately. The 20s, 30s, or the period of Marie Antoinette have very specific styles as the hair signifies the period. Today is just a mash-up! I love period hair: the Cocotte, Les Ballets Russes, Pigalle and its prostitutes, the movies… because I like to mix everything.In other times I combine opposites.
Did you see the American Woman exhibition in 2010? It explored the modern American woman from the late 1800s to 1940 and how they have affected the way American women are seen today. It was beautiful. It featured Erté and Antoine, the legendary hairstylist from the 20s who was very creative with materials. He really inspires me to the level that Marie Antoinette does. I have revisited her hairstyle as inspiration many times throughout my career. I used it on Madonna too.
Mozart, his life and hair, also give me great inspiration. I have honored his hairstyle many times in my work. He was an eccentric! Jean Cocteau too—the way he lived, his movies and paintings. Incredible!
FM: Your hair designs are undeniably present in each designer collection for which you create. Would a presentation, a fashion show, be weaker without hairstyles?
JD’Y: It depends. I don’t only create big and over-creative hair; I can also be a minimalist, like my work for Jil Sander for example. Maybe people are more focused on the clothes now. I wonder how editors feel when they attend so many shows a day where all girls look almost identical. I think it’s kind of boring.
FM: You have experienced so many shifts and changes in fashion. Although I do not want this conversation to be nostalgic, could you tell me your view on why fashion has changed so much today?
JD’Y: What has changed is perhaps the method. I remember when I was working with Gianfranco Ferré—a very special guy; people liked him or hated him—whom I adored.
He would show me his collection and the minute I laid eyes on it I knew instantly how the hair should look. It was around 1986 when I arrived in New York, thanks to Steven Meisel. He asked me to attend a meeting with Stephen Sprouse but I was not supposed to do the hair because Christiaan [one of the world’s leading editorial hair stylists] was already doing it. I think Steven had it all planned for me in his head. It was at a moment when we were all backstage— model Teri Toye was standing there and just behind her another model who was Edie Sedgwick’s nephew.
Sprouse said, “Hey Julien, what do you think about the hair?” And I created something on the spot inspired by The Beatles. He decided he wanted me to do a part of the hair for the show. Half of the hairstyles were done by Christiaan—big enormous hair—and, on the other side, you had mine—all flat and cropped in brown or blond… It is difficult to explain how I know what would work as the right hair for a show; I just do. It is the same when I work for a shoot.
FM: You first apply your ideas in your legendary scrapbooks that are filled with your illustrations, Polaroids, notes, textures and colours. What is it about this ceremonial process of documentation?
JD’Y: The scrapbooks are like a diary—my own creative memories. They help me follow the process behind the idea, from the beginning to the execution. In the beginning, I never thought that one day I would have as many scrapbooks as I do now. It wasn’t intentional.
FM: How many do you have? Have you ever thought of publishing them?
JD’Y: I have around 100 or something. Publishing them is something I have been thinking about for a while now. For example, when I work for CDG and I sit to see the clothes, I use my pencil to draw them and I have all these little drawings on white paper. I need a good editor to help me sort them out for a publication perhaps.
FM: Your work is pretty rough. How can one achieve poetry through roughness? Through this brutal approach you have there is something undeniably sensitive and even fragile.
JD’Y: You have to understand that when I don’t create I feel empty and when I do, I feel fragile and powerful at the same time. There’s got to be a project, an idea in my head for my mind to think of all the time.
In the summer, when I go to Brittany for example, it is the only place where I can forget everything. I transition to another person, I feel livelier. This getaway gives me the balance I need to be able to create. Now perhaps a bit less than before, since my parents died and I no longer go to Brittany as often as I used to. Before, every time work was giving me pressure I would escape to Brittany, to the town where I was born, but also a place that offered me anonymity.
Only my mum knew what I was really doing. She was so interested in fashion. She was a young woman in the 50s with a great sense of style. Later she would come with me to some of the shows I was doing the hair for. I have a solitary side—I don’t go on holiday with a fashion crowd. I like to be incognito and not to explain what I am doing. Other times I’m not good with conversation. Sometimes Linda [Evangelista] says to me, “Julien, for God’s sake, you can’t speak!”
Now my English is a little bit better and I feel a bit more comfortable with it. My life is strange and I have a secret garden that nobody knows and I like to keep it that way. Sometimes I am very down or look sad or become sad when I think of certain things.
The first person that sent me an email after The Met show, for example, was Anna Wintour. Can you imagine? And she just said that my work is magnificent. I was very touched by her gesture as it shows that she respects me as a professional. And I like working for her, American Vogue and the rest of the people she works with, like Annie Leibovitz or Steven Klein.
FM: How long did it take you to find your voice creatively, since the very beginning when you left your home in Brittany as a teenager with your parents and moved to Paris? How did the punk hair artist survive the bourgeoisie?
JD’Y: When I started I was putting grease, clay or sugar water on the hair. Can you imagine? Hair only appealed to me if it was dirty and this became my signature. I remember in one of my first shows for Yamamoto I used only grease and all my friends were helping me in the process backstage. Mind you, nobody was a hairstylist. At one moment, Florentine Pabst, who was a great stylist and, for the record, Jim Morrison’s last girlfriend, was working very closely with Helmut Newton.
They booked me out of the blue and I was worried about which direction the hairstyle should go towards. So I started doing hair the Newton way until the moment he saw me and said, “No, no, I want you to do the hair your way—this is why you are here!”
He wanted me to put the greasy hair on, so for me it was some kind of a revolutionary collaboration, if you see what I mean.
Have you ever thought that the hair we used to do back in the 80s and 90s with Lindbergh, you know the simple ponytail etc., has become the norm for the women of today? It was a time of only big, big hair back then!
FM: Is it difficult for you to be conservative?
JD’Y: Not at all! Conservatism can lead to modernity. Perhaps not like Alexandre de Paris did but, let’s say you have a “banane” hairstyle[ French twist], if it is done well it looks like a sculpture. So immediately you have something very classic resembling something perhaps more abstract and modern.
Especially if you put something classic on a very young girl, the result can be incredible. There is also a very thin line between ridiculous and modern.
FM: Do you ever feel fear when you work? What worries you the most when working on a project? And how are you today compared to when you first started? What has this business taught you?
JD’Y: The process hasn’t really changed and neither have the locations. But still, I am scared and worried when I work as I respect the people who choose to work with me, to not let them down. I am anxiously waiting for the stories to be published and how people will react to them.
As a perfectionist, my self-expectations are very high.
I was so lucky to start my career next to legends like Linda, Christy and Naomi, and later with Kate Moss, too. It was a moment when the whole world was watching. Suddenly fashion had a much more powerful presence. I think what really changed the industry and the way it functions is the moment when the first smartphones appeared and made everything so available instantly.
In the 90s nobody had a phone—the girls were more focused backstage too. We were sitting and working together. Models would look at themselves in the mirror throughout the transformation— make-up and hair process—somehow discovering who they were and their abilities. Now they just check their phone screen and applications. It shocks me!
FM: The only girl working today who reflects what you just described is Anna Cleveland. She is so into her work! I was so surprised when I also saw her doing the CDG show. It was very daring to cast her, no?
JD’Y: I love Anna. She loves being a model! At that moment, CDG was looking for girls and Adrian asked me to help. I suggested Anna but they were very worried if she would be the right choice.
I called her and asked if she wanted to do the show and she was very excited about it. She still thanks me every time she sees me. I feel this link to CDG also gave a different weight to her career.
There are so many other beautiful girls yet they have no sense of their presence at all. They just come and go now and you never remember them.
This is why Anna makes a difference. I also like Lara Stone. There’s so much more about her personality in combination with her incredible looks. Newton would favor her I think.
FM: What is the most important word in the dictionary?
JD’Y: Honesty. I do not like people who are fake. If I am not happy I cannot pretend that I am. Pat McGrath always tells me I have to smile, be a happy person.
FM: Do you think that your hunger for creativity and self-exploration will ever be satiated?
JD’Y: I have become more selective in the projects I want to do, but no, I don’t think my hunger and energy will ever go away.
Look at Karl Lagerfeld: he never fails to surprise and be creative.
I was very lucky from the very beginning of my career: my very first photo shoot was with Hans Feurer. I worked—and still work—with such incredible people: they are my drive.
One of the most revered hair masters working for more than 30 years already. Julien D'Ys is also a photographer, set designer, painter and make-up artist. Since 2005 has been in charge of head-dressing at the annual Costume Institue exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. He is known for being closely collaborating with Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garcons, Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Grace Goddighton, Chanel, John Galliano...an endless list of pioneers. He is responsible among others, for Linda Evangelista's short bob that skyrocketed her career.