From a job centre placement in hairdressing to becoming one of the most influential hair stylists today, Eugene Souleiman talks to Creative HEAD about his unstoppable progression through the session world and how his ‘moment’ is yet to come
Eugene Souleiman has so often been referred to as a ‘cheeky chappy’ that he risks becoming a caricature of himself (in print at least). But it’s exactly the thought that enters your head when you first meet him. Normally wearing a slightly off-kilter beanie or trilby hat, Eugene is one of those people you can’t help but smile at as soon as you meet him.
Born and raised in East London, to say that the boy done good is an understatement. Winner of the 2016 Most Wanted Session Stylist (he scooped Most Wanted Hair Icon in 2013), Eugene regularly heads up Fashion Week shows including Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester, Prada and Jil Sander. On top of this, he still finds the time to be the Wella Professionals global artistic director of care and styling. In-between his jet-setting and his Wella commitments, we managed to grab time to ask him the important questions, such as how he felt when he saw that two members of his team had tattooed his name ‘Eugene’ onto their arms.
“I was like fuck [he’s a fan of swearing], I didn’t know how to feel about it. I love the enthusiasm and I guess I can’t fire them now. Not that I would of course,” he grins.
He laughs it off, but it’s a sign of the utter devotion he inspires in people – and maybe indicative of the type of people he naturally gravitates towards, and them to him. We spotted the tattoos in a recent post on his Instagram feed and the social media platform is one of Eugene’s many loves.
“I’m a visual kinda guy so I love Instagram. I follow a lot of people and I’ll comment on things I love.” The social media platform also works as a recruitment tool for the session stylist. “People contact you and you create some dialogue and every season someone comes along I think is interesting and I think they’d fit in,” he says.
The conversation takes a more traditional turn as we discuss some of his favourite fashion shows he’s worked on over the years.
“I loved the DKNY S/S16 show. It was especially cool for New York as I don’t think they’re used to seeing hair [as a key part of the show] there,” says Eugene. “It’s normally minimal and sober. Jeremy Scott is another show I love. The hair is always… something else. Acne was also really raw and edgy. I was in awe of Maison Margiela, I was like: ‘You want me to what? Do what I love?’ Yes – have some more! Everyone was clapping; it was heaven.
“And I don’t think I could be any happier than I was for the A/W16 season. It was a favourite in terms of the vibe. My team was so into all the looks and felt they were travelling new territory from a hair perspective. Margiela was spiked cobweb hair pieces over squashed hair and bobs with fluorescent mullets, it was great,” he enthuses.
You quickly get the impression that all of the shows Eugene has worked on could’ve been his favourite, and that it’s his passion and enthusiasm that make people clamour to work with him. But what does he look for in an assistant? “Energy,” says Eugene, adamantly. “They’ve got to love what they do and not be afraid of hard work.”
His advice for any up-and-coming session stylist is “work your arse off”. He adds: “You’re never going to get there quickly, just keep trying. Never be afraid of making mistakes, because they’re what lead you onto other paths.”
Eugene, for many hairdressers, is a hair hero (something he scoffs at), but who does he love at the moment? “There is one hairdresser I think is a god and that’s Julien d’Ys. His work is unbelievable. He does all the Comme des Garçons shows and is a genius. Martin Cullen, an assistant of mine, is also doing really good stuff.”
Eugene’s first show was for Alexander McQueen, not a bad start for a boy from the East End – something he had in common with McQueen. “It was his first show and I just went round to his flat, had a meeting and got on with it. I remember his mum at the show making salmon and cucumber sandwiches and handing out lemonade,” reminisces Eugene. “Like Lee I have humble beginnings and I’m happy that I have because it gives me a sense of humility.”
Indeed, his start in hair was a happy accident after a Job Centre placement in 1982 led him to becoming an apprentice hairdresser and joining Trevor Sorbie, who Eugene likes to refer to as his dad. “There are hairdressers in the world I owe a lot to – one is definitely Trevor. Robert Lobetta also taught me a shitload. I was lucky with Trevor because I got the best of both worlds as he was Sassoon trained but he also worked for Aldo Coppola [in West London], so I learnt two amazing areas: how to cut hair and how to dress hair,” says Eugene.
“I guess that’s been my strength over the years. I can go between the two worlds because I probably am one of the only session hairdressers out there who can actually cut hair. My training has been everything.”
His respect for the trade of hairdressing was clear on the night he scooped 2016 Most Wanted Session Stylist, where he was amazed that people in the industry knew him. “It was the first time I’d ever won Session Stylist and it was amazing to see that there are other people in the trade that love what I do and want to commend me for it,” exclaims Eugene. “I was flattered to be appreciated in that way.”
Eugene’s training shines through in every aspect of his work and, while session and editorial hair tends to lean more towards natural and ‘unstyled’, Eugene’s stamp can be seen on everything he does, from the recent Sassoon-inspired geometric bobs he did at Jeremy Scott S/S17 and the beautiful braids at Preen to the gothic sleekness at Yohji Yamamoto A/W16.
But after so many years of doing Fashion Week, does he ever get tired or uninspired? Is it ever a case of prep, style, repeat?
“I’m my own worse critic and that’s what motivates me. I’m scared out of my wits every day. As a session hairdresser you’re only as good as your last show,” says Eugene. But perhaps it’s more simple than that: “I’m from a council estate and I don’t want to go back there,” he adds.
Travelling the world, doing what he loves, is a dream come true, but the jet-setting and rush of shows can take their toll. “Your head needs to be in many different places. When I’m away, I have to manage a team, I have to be creative, I have to give the designers what they want, I have to organise fittings, colouring of hair pieces… A show consists of three things: fitting, training seminar and then the show, but when you’re doing 12 shows in a week, that’s a lot of work and there’s not a lot of sleep or eating time.
“The thing about being a session hairdresser is that there is no structure to your life whatsoever. But I’m more picky now that I’m back in London. I’ve always been a bit picky and never work with anyone I don’t get. I have to like what they do.”
For Eugene, creating the hair for a show starts with the designer. “I like every designer to be different because I love to dip into their world and become part of it. That’s what I feed off,” he explains, referencing Ann Demeulemeester when Ann was there. “When I worked with Ann I’d go in for a preliminary meeting and she’d make me listen to the music for the show while looking at a booklet of the clothes with the girls’ heads cut off. That was how she wanted to inspire people,” says Eugene. “It was a very abstract way of working.”
Despite the abstractness, you get the impression that Eugene loves it when a designer or celebrity asks him to do outlandish things. “I’m all about turning it up. I’m not quiet, I’m engaged. I’m in it to be creative because for me it’s a release and I love that exchange of working with creative people,” says Eugene. “That for me is what makes it worthwhile.”
“I love working on Bjork’s hair. She’s bonkers, but in the best possible way,” he says. “There’s nowhere she won’t go. We’ve done geometric haircuts on one side and afro on the other. I’ve done Lady Gaga a couple of times, too. I guess the people that gravitate towards working with me, or that I gravitate towards, tend to be really creative. They’re fearless.”
Eugene’s career has been peppered with highlights, but when we ask him to pinpoint a peak moment, his answer surprises us: “I don’t think I’ve had it yet,” he says. “There have been special moments, like when I did the pulled-out kind-of fishnet braids for Yohji Yamamoto and tiara crowns for Prada, when I was the first to do black girls’ hair on white girls, but they’re moments and I feel like I’ve got a lot more of those moments left.”
With that, our moment with Eugene is over, but for a man who’s constantly pushing creative boundaries, we can’t wait to see what his next moments are going to be.
What’s in Eugene’s kit bag?
“I love Wella Professionals EIMI Sugar Lift. I love that it’s not matte like a salt spray, but you still get that beachy texture. I also have a mousse, a hairspray, a Mason Pearson brush, a hair net because I’m very into squashing hair at the moment, and Japanese hair grips – if they can hold Japanese hair they can