KARLA Q LEON – THE HAIR SCULPTOR ELEVATING HER ART

From a MAC counter in Belgium to crafting hair sculptures that grab worldwide attention, Karla Q Leon embodies the true meaning of a hair artist. No wonder she has her eye on the iconic Art Basel in the future.

It’s nothing new when a hairstylist is referred to as an artist or a hair sculptor – the creative process is such that we all know just now artistic our industry is. But when you see the physical creations sculpted by the vibrantly manicured hands of Karla Quiñonez Leon, you can see just why the hair and make-up artist is considering a not-so distant future where her pieces are exhibited within the iconic art show, Art Basel.

It’s all a far cry from the Belgian’s beginnings working in retail make-up with MAC, yet the journey has been surprisingly swift thanks to hard work, assisting, education and incessant practise. A regular at men’s shows in Paris including Paradis and Mains, Karla’s work is also often spotted on the cover of magazines such as Dazed, ES and Crack. Commercial clients are lining up, too – from Christmas adverts for Amazon to intricately crafted pieces for Adidas, it’s a body of work that’s varied, original, playful and expanding quickly. This is an artist who won’t be boxed – while make-up was her entry into fashion and editorial, her unique and modern take on hair of all textures is perhaps what’s made her a bigger name in recent months. Throw in the men’s grooming work also – her skin perfecting skills are major – and it’s a career that’s defined by multiple spinning plates.

This past year has been particularly defining. Following talks that lasted six months, Karla signed with the St Luke’s agency in May 2023, revealing the collaboration at the Met Gala. “I feel like there’s a before and an after,” she muses. “It was life changing. I love the drama of the Gala, and I’m very aware how to market myself. I think that’s something a lot of creatives find hard, because sometimes you don’t want to deal with that part. But it’s very important, brands want to know who you are. It’s not ego, it’s your business.” And this is a brand that’s just getting stronger…

How did you go from a MAC counter to creating hair sculptures for the likes of Adidas?

In Belgium, you have to be able to do make-up AND hair, because the budgets are different to here! I had a small kit because I wasn’t really taking hair that seriously, I wasn’t respectful to hair styling at all! My goal was to move to London, be in fashion, and only do make-up. I’m done with the hair!

Just before I moved to London, I was assisting a make-up and hair stylist in Belgium. She would make choices, put hair up in a way that would look fabulous. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m never gonna be good at this’. But she said not to overthink it. It’s because I thought I couldn’t do hair. In reality it started as a hobby… and now my hobby is paying my bills!

Why did you feel the need to come to London?

I fell in love with London when I was 17. I came here and got lost in Covent Garden. Instead of panicking, I started walking around and looking at all these people, fabulous make-up and hair. I felt comfortable, that this is where I should live. It was so clear.

I told my friends, ‘Don’t get attached to me, because I’m leaving Belgium’. And they would be like, ‘That’s such a Karla thing to say!’. But I could feel it in my bones. I moved to Brussels, I would do fashion shows in Paris, and I used to come to London for one or two weeks to work and get to know people and then go again. People would try to book me for a job, so I told them that I lived here already. ‘Are you available tomorrow?’ And I’d say ‘sure!’… meanwhile, I’m in Belgium! I would take the last bus in the evening to get to London for 7am and work. No sleep! I needed to build this network. I knew I needed to do this, and after 2020 I never took that bus again.

Vogue Italia, photography by Silvana Trevale

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There was a great quote on Instagram from you: “My craft is art and my sculptures are my love letters to hair”. Tell us about your first hair sculpture…

I didn’t know I could make hair sculptures! It was about 2020, and two girls reached out to work together on this Vogue Italia editorial with 14 South American people, and they wanted me to do hair and make-up. I thought, ‘I do a lot of commercials. I can handle this’. But I was a little bit scared. Luckily for me, I have so much information in my head, on my phone, on my laptop, everywhere, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna find a way to make it’. And I built it from paper so it wasn’t too heavy and then aluminium to make it stick. It was a long braid that became a horn, very heavy but the model had her grandparents hold each side for her.

When I saw it, it made me emotional. This is something that I created, it looked so good and was a piece of art – my first one. I set a high standard for myself, but I was so happy to see it come to life. That same hair I used for the next idea. It was two metres long, connecting the hair and the model to the walls, attaching themselves to their house, representing your roots and the importance of your family. That was a two-metre-long braid, there was hair and braids everywhere at home, I was braiding for hours, along with Kreszend Sackey.

When you’re working on a piece that takes concentration and time, you’re probably going to try a few different ideas. What’s your process and how do you get to the result you want?

Everything starts with the idea. People give me information – a piece of clothing or a set design or a song. If it’s for a specific music video, I will listen to it for days! You will hear something that will spark an idea and connect. Everything’s about research – it can be music, it can be textures, everyday types of texture that I’m really obsessed with. I will have images on my phone, that’s a tiny little mood board in my hands!

I’ll start putting the idea together on paper, designing it and then work out which type of hair texture I want on the hairpiece. If I want to braid it, how do I want to braid it?

Then I switch to my iPad, because then I can do a lot quickly, but paper is easy to put in my bag, because an idea can come at any time. From that, I start thinking, ‘how long it will take me?’ And I plan my time. I might go to the gym, get some energy out, and then I get enough food and I lock myself in my studio until just before midnight. At 11.50, that’s my cut off and I go home. It mostly takes one or two days to bring something to life. If the idea isn’t working, I try over and over until it works. Most of the time it works for me; except when I’m blocked.

How do you ‘unblock’ yourself?

I have to do something that really makes me happy! Spend time with my family, go see some art, get inspired. Or maybe just take a break from everything. In 2022, I was creatively blocked for six months, it was painful and weird, I wasn’t feeling inspired. I booked a trip to Puerto Rico by myself. I came back a completely different person after two weeks – it was just me, the beach, water, drinking cocktails, not thinking about anything. I didn’t care about any jobs… but then I got such an exciting job! I didn’t know how to take a break. I think that I’m a machine, and I need to realise I need breaks. I was never working on my social life, I was just working! I started to go dancing again with my friends. It’s a really good way to relax. I studied dance when I was little – hip hop, ballet, flamenco, belly dancing too.

You’ve worked with titles such as Dazed, and also with brands including Nike and Adidas. Do you have a preference over the kind of projects you take on?

I feel blessed that I work in an industry where I can experiment so much. I created some hair pieces for Adidas and they gave me so much freedom. I think commercials for me are the easiest to build, because a good editorial takes so much time. I don’t think people appreciate how much time it takes, especially when it comes to research. Researching the clothes, the accessories, it all takes so much time. But when I get a commercial, you know what the client wants.

For editorials I have to be well fed and well rested, because I’m probably not going to eat during the day, I want to be able to avoid going over time because overtime money is gonnabe an issue. So, you work differently.

Skepta, Rita Ora, Digga D, Pink Pantheress – you’ve worked with some exciting artists. When you’re working with ‘talent’, is there a different mindset you need to tap into?

I always remember it’s not about me. Whatever the client feels or needs, we will make sure that they have it. It’s a whole process of getting them ready, yes, but also creating a safe space for them.

I’ve had assistants that get over-excited and I always tell them that stars are just people. Maybe they’re having a bad day, and they just want to be with people they like and know. It’s not about us talking and taking over the space. I like to talk a lot, but I also have to respect the clients. I know how much pressure they go through because sometimes, I feel it myself as a creative. It works best to respect their boundaries.

I now have relationships that have been developed over three or four years. After a while you become friends. It’s a relationship you build and it’s very normal because you spend so much time together.

Hair, grooming, make-up, what does the future look like for you?

I love my work so much. And I don’t expect other people to love it like I do. I see myself as an artist. So, it’s like a painting; some people will love it, some will hate it. You should be experimenting.

I want to make sure that I have enough work to put together an exhibition of my hair. I have had that offer already. I think maybe this is the year. Let’s see if we can get into Art Basel! I have so much inspiration in my mind and on my phone that I think with the right team, I can create beautiful things.

I have some personal projects that I’m working on, doing more of the production. I’m trying to work more with South American creatives. I have an idea with beautiful hair sculptures, showing the world how many South American people are based in London, and what we create for our community and how we move in our communities. Just showing the beauty of it. Everything is ready, we just have to do it! I have so much support from the South American creators in London, that really makes me happy and it’s probably going to open a different door for me.

I think it will be a lot of hair sculptures this year!

Vogue Italia, photography by Silvana Trevale

Vogue Italia, photography by Silvana Trevale

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