The ‘comb master’ Didier Malige on his storied career in hair—and why Camilla Parker-Bowles is his dream client

With stylist Joe McKenna, Malige covers the beginning of his career at Carita, his love for cats, and why spontaneity is the most important ingredient for a good shoot for Document's Spring/Summer 2014 issue.

Hailed as a “hair visionary” by the New York Times, hair stylist Didier Malige’s career spans five decades, beginning with an apprenticeship at the iconic Parisian salon Carita. Malige’s portfolio includes collaborations with fashion’s most famed photographers, including Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz, and Bob Richardson, and labels like Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Dior Homme, and Louis Vuitton.

Legendary fashion stylist Joe McKenna quizzes Malige about his dream client, working at Carita, and his cats.

Joe McKenna: Lets talk about Camilla Parker-Bowles, you said you’d like to do her hair?

Didier Malige: Yes

Joe: I was wondering why you chose her.

Didier: I guess because Prince Charles liked her. She was a good choice.

Joe: But there must be something about her as a woman that made you think you would like to do her hair?

Didier:  She looks like a sophisticated country woman. But now it’s too late. She already has her coif.

Joe McKenna: Do English women have better hair than French women?

Didier: I think it’s pretty much the same. It’s like comparing Scandinavian women and English women. The Scandinavians don’t have very much hair; I think English women have good hair. I mean, I’m sure there are exceptions.

Joe: Let’s go back where you started, at the Carita sisters’ salon. How did you get the job there, did you just apply?

Didier: No, my mother used to assist a veterinarian, and one of the Carita sisters was a client of the veterinary clinic. My mother asked Rosie Carita if I could be an apprentice at her salon. And Rosy said, sure why not.

Joe: Is this what you wanted to do? Or were you in it more for the girls than the actual haircuts?

Didier: You know, I was very young—so I was not really into those kind of sophisticated girls.

(Top and left): Photography by Bruce Weber from the book O Rio De Janeiro, and GQ. (Bottom, right): photography by Juergen Teller for American Vogue, 94.

Joe: How long did you stay at Carita?

Didier: Three years, I did my apprenticeship there.

Joe: Who did you work under?

Didier: I worked with Laurent Godefroid and another person called Catherine. They had really, really great clients, and they were hairdressers of a kind that don’t exist anymore. They worked super hard and they were very talented. At that time they did an average of 30 clients a day!

Joe: So you had to shampoo and blow dry?

Didier: No, no, I didn’t shampoo those women. Basically, the hairdresser started with what they called the “mise en place”, and the apprentices finished it.

Joe: Were you aware of Alexandre?  [Editor’s note: Louis Alexandre Raimon, aka Alexandre de Paris or the “”Sphinx de la coiffure” was a famous french hair stylist of the time, who was responsible for Elizabeth Taylor’s hair in the 1963 film Cleopatra, who started the Carita salon together with the Carita sisters before departing.]

Didier: It was discussed in the cafeteria, but it was rival territory. You would hear rumors, about Alexandre while he was parking his car in the entranceway of Carita. But that whole thing was before my time.

Joe: Who were the Carita clients in the sixties?

Didier: Well, French actresses like Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, and a lot of aristocratic women, writers, and intellectuals. They were, as one says, la crème de la crème.

Between Catherine and Françoise they had really interesting women —women who had made names for themselves.

Joe: This must have been about at the beginning of French ready-to-wear. Were you aware of fashion? Were you interested in it?

Didier: Then it was very simple, if you could afford it, it was an Hermès bag, like a Birkin.… and you had to have a trench coat.

Joe: A Burberry trench coat?

Didier: Yes, and at that time in the winter, the women wore knee boots. Also I think it was the beginning of Courrèges. The Carita sisters wore Courrèges.

“Today everything is so controlled by the models’ agents.  Lets say if the girl is successful with long hair, the agents are going to keep the hair long as much as they can. But maybe if the girl is more daring, maybe she would have several careers, like Linda Evangelista.”

Joe: Did that influence you?

Didier: I think it did. I remember very well what they were wearing. It was definitely an influence. I think they also wore the Cartier panther jewelry that had been resurrected.

Joe: So after three years at Carita what were you thinking?

Didier: Luckily I moved out of Carita as I was very young to be there, and was given a chance by Jean Louis David, he had a salon on Avenue Wagram. —It was not really chic—, nothing comparable to the Carita salon, which was more like an institution at that time. Jean Louis David was much more for younger people. He gave me the chance to actually do hair, as opposed to assisting.

Joe: How long were you at Jean Louis David before you started working with photographers ?

Didier: A long time. Eventually Jean Louis David moved from Avenue Wagram to rue Pierre Charron in a very luxurious salon that he created himself. He sold everything valuable that he had in his home to open the salon in the rue Pierre Charron. And since he also had been at Carita, he wanted to have a studio team for fashion shoots, like an agency for hairdressers under the name of Jean Louis David. So I started to go to the studio with him and meet different photographers. In the beginning it was nuts. We would work with all the prestigious magazines, it was magnificent, that’s pretty much the way I started.

Joe: When did you do your first photo shoot? Who were the people you worked with?.

Didier: Well probably one of the best names was Bob Richardson, who had moved to Paris with his family. I was also working with Helmut Newton, who was very supportive of my work. And I happened to work with also Guy Bourdin, but definitely mainly Helmut Newton and Bob Richardson .

Joe: Did you have any ideas of what you wanted to do with the models’ hair or did they instruct you?

Didier: Well I think Bob [Richardson] was very influenced by movies, so he wanted to have a certain feeling, but it was really that he would give you the name of a movie and it was up to you to interpret if there was something in that spirit or not, not exactly like the movie. I mean I didn’t speak English then so our conversations were really short, he would tell me the name of a movie to be inspired from. It was always an adventure to work with him, a journey. But then Jean Louis David closed down his studio team, so the only thing for me to do was to work in the salon. I mean to work behind the chair! I didn’t find that terribly exciting. And then I met a few French photographers like Patrick Demarchelier, this was around 1967.

Joe: So what year did you move to America?

Didier: I started to come in the mid seventies.

Joe: So between ’67 and the mid-seventies you were working in Paris for fashion shoots?

Didier: Yes. I had enough work at that point to work only for the studio not in the salon. I never had any clients anyway.

Joe: What brought you to America?

Didier: I guess kind of wanting to change. Also I knew a few French photographers like Patrick [Demarchellier] who moved to America.

Joe: Obviously the work I knew you from, was your work with Bruce [Bruce Weber.]. How did that collaboration begin?

Didier: I would see his work in Seventeen Magazine. But I didn’t know his work very well. He hadn’t done a lot of work yet but he was creating a new style of photography. His pictures for Seventeen were very beautiful portraits of teenagers. It’s not so different from the work that he is doing now, except that his casting was different.

(Clockwise, top left): Photography by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent S/S ‘14. Photography by Steven Klein for Alexander McQueen S/S ‘14. Photography by Bruce Weber for Karl Lagerfeld ‘82. Photography by Sheila Metzner.  Photography by Ezra Petronio, styling by Suzanne Koller. Photography by Daniel Jackson for Vogue Japan, January ‘10. Photography by Hans Feurer, British Vogue, ‘85.

Joe: So you said the work that Bruce was doing at the time was very new for the time. What kind of hair did you do for these new pictures?

Didier: Well Bruce didn’t really tell you what he wanted, but he had a way of making you do what he wanted. He would talk about the Kennedy family or some other references—so if you were smart, you looked at books and understood what he wanted. He was never a dictator, you had total freedom but he expected you to surprise him.

Joe: Well a lot of your work with Bruce was very much about haircuts and what you did with the haircuts. So how did you start, for instance when you did Broken Noses, the film with Bruce?

Didier: That was after many years we were working together. I think it was probably when I started to work with him for GQ.

Joe: A lot of the guys you used weren’t models. Did you have to give them a look?

Didier: Yeah. At that time most of the people we photographed were in school. So it was an extra job they would do, you know, they would have really long hair, they weren’t exposed to fashion. So it was a chance to do whatever you wanted to.

Joe: You also gave some models great haircuts that became their trademarks. Like Talisa Soto with her bob and Josie Borain’s hair.

Didier: Those girls were pretty much working only for Bruce. So they really trusted him, and their agents were not watching the girls like they do now.

Joe: Did you ever have an experience where you cut someone’s hair and afterwards maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do?

Didier: I did—I was disobedient!

Joe: Is there a big difference between cutting men’s hair and cutting women’s hair?

Didier: There’s not really much difference. Women have more hair. The way I cut hair, it’s not really like Vidal Sassoon haircuts or whatever, so it’s not too different.

Joe: Is there anything that you haven’t done with hair that you would like to do?

Didier: I’m sure. I’m sure. But—I don’t know what exactly. Maybe I see people doing braids and I really like it, but I think it’s too late to start braiding so I let it pass me by. I guess that is not my signature.

Joe: It has been very well documented how the fashion business has changed enormously in the past five, ten or so years. Because of the Internet everything is available to look at very quickly. Is there anything that’s changed for you? How you approach your work today than, say, ten years ago?

Didier: Well I think now you are asked for a reference as opposed to the old days when you used to go in the studio in the morning and do pretty much whatever was asked by the photographer or the stylist. Now it’s very rare that you go to a studio and get surprised and improvise. It’s much more studied and prepared.

Joe: When you did the Karl Lagerfeld campaign in France with Bruce, and the model Linda Spearing had branches in her hair, that was a spontaneous moment.

Didier: Yes absolutely, that was very spontaneous! It was a fantasy of the moment, and also maybe I was inspired by a picture that I had seen in National Geographic, of a woman carrying wood on her head.

Joe: It’s so different today. Everything seems a bit more controlled.

Didier: Yes, there’s less improvisation.

“I would say, if you want to be good at it, it’s a passion you have to dedicate your life to, it’s not something you do on the side to try to make money out of.”

Joe: Do you have any ambitions that haven’t been fulfilled yet? A long time ago you talked about having a barber shop

Didier: Yeah I know, but being a businessman as opposed to being a freelance advisor; you have to pay rent, you have to pay people that work with you, I don’t think I will do it in this life. I mean.. you never know.. but I don’t think so. I admire people who do it.

Joe: What are the worst conditions for a hairdresser to have to work in?

Didier: I think the worst is when the talent you are working with is so controlling that you can’t do anything different than what she or him wants.

Joe: Let’s talk about your cats.

Didier: Yes.

Joe: Because you like combing their hair a lot.

Didier: I do, yes. But they also like to be fluffed. I mean it goes both ways.

Joe: So is there perhaps a future for Didier Malige cat fluffing salon?

Didier: I don’t know… I think you have to see how much money you could make. [Laughs.] You know, like, doing dogs’ hair, or cats’ hair, or whatever, and how much of your life it’s going to take. It’s a trade that one has to learn.

Joe: Other than the Carita sisters, Didier, were there any other hairdressers that inspired you or made you want to come to America?

Didier: Well you know—when I was growing up and at Jean Louis David, I would always buy American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and those people were doing much more extreme work than what was done in France or England. I think each country had their own approach to fashion. I mean it was not global like now. I was definitely quite surprised by that work.  Also I liked the simplicity of magazines like Mademoiselle at that time and Glamour. I mean they were representing a type of woman that we didn’t have in France.

Joe: Do you think there’s still a difference between how women in France or women in America dress, pay attention to their hair, or present themselves?

Didier: I think there is definitely a difference in dressing between women in America and women in France. I mean for example in France, even if it’s freezing cold, you still have to look smart. You cannot wear a parka—it’s not in the spirit of the French person. They always want to look the best, I think they would wear high heels as opposed to moon boots [Laughs.]. There’s like a rigor, they wouldn’t want to be perceived as “sloppy.”.

Joe: Do you think Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo is exaggerated, or are all straight hairdressers obsessed with sex and women?

Didier: I think it’s a bit exaggerated, but I knew one Italian guy in L.A. in the seventies and eighties who had that kind of sex appeal. Usually his last customer was the girl that he was going to go to bed with that night. I mean that was his game I guess.

Joe: Anything else about hair that we haven’t talked about?

Didier: I would say, if you want to be good at it, it’s a passion you have to dedicate your life to, it’s not something you do on the side to try to make money out of.

Joe: Which hairdressers working today do you like?

Didier: There are quite a few: they are my competition! For instance Guido’s [Guido Palau] is always doing amazing work. There is Luigi [Luigi Murenu] who can be very surprising. There is Orlando [Orlando Pita] who has an incredible technique. There’s, Julien D’Ys. And, there is always Christiaan [Christiaan Houtenbos] who can be pretty surprising too.

Joe: Do you see that boldness in any young people today?

Didier: I like Anthony Turner’s touch. I think he has a very feminine touch with hair that I like about him. But what we do has to be interpreted by a photographer. So it depends on who you work with. There are some photographers who have no feeling for hair!

Joe: Would you say that you were very lucky to meet someone like Bruce, who had a vision?

Didier: Absolutely. There have been several photographers I’ve been really lucky to work with, that are very into hair. It’s like in movies, there are directors who are geared toward special effects and some others that are geared to making actors and actresses do really great work, some photographers are so into their technique that they don’t care about the girl or the hair. And Bruce of course had technique but it was also about the person. You have to find the person that can give you the ability to change hair, play with it, create.

“I didn’t speak English then so our conversations were really short, he would tell me the name of a movie to be inspired from. It was always an adventure to work with [Bob Richardson], a journey.”

Joe: Did you work a lot with Richard Avedon?

Didier: I did. Not a lot, but I worked with him. Very interesting.

Joe: And you had freedom, then? To create hair?

Didier: He was a bit of a dictator. Not like Bruce, who would never say he didn’t like something. Bruce would try to find a way to photograph what he did like about the hair. Or he might ask the model to take a shower [Laughs.]

Joe: If you had to choose one image that was going to be the definitive image of your hair, what would you choose?

Didier: That’s very difficult, because also it would be about the personality photographing or the person who is being photographed. I think it’s more about a series of pictures than one image.

Joe: Is there a series of pictures that does that for you?

Didier: There is one series I did with Kate Moss, where she is looking like someone from a Diane Arbus picture. I shot those with Juergen Teller. I really like those pictures. There’s also a series I did with Bruce for GQ a long time ago. It was a total new style and direction at the time. And then there’s  the Rio book with Bruce that I like.

Joe: Ah yes, that was the first time we worked together.

Didier: Yes, that was a great adventure, I still like those pictures, and still like to look at the talents we photographed, who were mostly totally new to modeling , they were never questioning what you were doing to their hair and let you express yourself freely. But today everything is so controlled by the models’ agents.  Lets say if the girl is successful with long hair, the agents are going to keep the hair long as much as they can. But maybe if the girl is more daring, maybe she would have several a careers, like Linda Evangelista.

Joe: Do you think you can be “new” in hair today?

Didier: Yeah, I think so. I’m sure you can. Maybe it’s about coloring– there are definitely people that are doing new things.

Joe: Where do you find your inspiration? Is it from the people that you meet? What inspires you to chop off someone’s hair or to do comb marks…

Didier: I don’t know if it’s inspiration. I think it’s more a dialogue between the photographer and the hairstylist. It’s a bit like being a musician. There is always a conductor, and you get inspired by the conductor. You interpret the direction and try to please that person.

Joe: The conductor being a photographer or a designer ?

Didier: With a designer it’s different, the designer is another “species.” Designers are usually a bit scared of hair because its something you can’t really control, so there’s very few designers who will let you improvise—everything has to be clean, usually, so it doesn’t interfere with the design of the clothes. They want the clothes to communicate on their own.

Joe: I think that’s a pretty good note to end on.

Didier: I think so too.

Joe: Thanks for the great hair cut!

Didier: You’re welcome Joe!

This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.