Christiaan Houtenbos

Christiaan and Bonnie Berman by Arthur Elgort

In the com­mer­cial world of beauty, where vir­tu­ally every make-up artist and hair styl­ist worth their salt moon­lights as a cre­ative con­sul­tant or direc­tor to the jug­ger­nauts of the beauty biz, Christiaan is refresh­ingly some­thing of a purist, choos­ing to remain inde­pen­dent both in terms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and asso­ci­a­tion with any par­tic­u­lar brand. His irrev­er­ence in what he does is one of the rea­sons Christiaan has remained one of the most in demand and influ­en­tial hair styl­ists in the world for the past 40 years. Born Piet Houtenbos, Christiaan learned the art of cut­ting hair early on at his father’s barber shop in Holland. It was very much a local bar­ber­shop, more shav­ing than cut­ting in the begin­ning. My father would draw a line across the head and then I’d just cut across and he would come and finish it off,” says Christiaan from his hotel room in London, where he is in town for a cover shoot with Mario Testino. He was stern, you had to per­form. He always said drop­ping a comb was a sign of a bad hair­dresser. If I drop a comb, even today, I can still hear him say it.”

A manda­tory two-year stint in the mil­i­tary ser­vice at the age of 19 derailed Christiaan’s plans to take over his father’s bar­ber­shop, but changed the course of his life and career. While sta­tioned in Aruba with the Dutch Marines, he met a woman who liked the way he cut her hair and she wrote a rec­om­men­da­tion letter to Amy Greene, the Editor of Glamour. The woman hap­pened to share her mar­ried name with a famous Broadway actress, and Amy Greene, mis­tak­ing her for the star, arranged a week in New York for Christiaan to visit all the top salons. After he got back from New York, he moved to Geneva, because he thought it was impor­tant to speak French for his future métier: I learned French by play­ing poker with the guys.” But it wasn’t long before he returned to New York to work in the salon of the pres­ti­gious Bergdorf Goodman, coif­fu­r­ing the rich and pow­er­ful of the city, includ­ing the top mag­a­zine edi­tors from Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle, who admired Christiaan’s modern approach to hair styling. “[Vidal] Sassoon was riding high and we wanted all the young chicks to come in. I was handy with a blow-dryer and they were also look­ing for some cute kid they could send to models and singers and actresses to do their hair.” His tenure lasted two years, but after falling out with Bergdorf’s (for, among other things, insist­ing on wear­ing his own brown Pierre Cardin suits with zip­pers instead of the uni­form blue suits), Christiaan decided to go it alone. That was my first and only job,” he says. I’ve been on my own ever since — inde­pen­dent”.

At that time free­lance hair­dressers were just start­ing to crop up, and, armed with con­tacts Christiaan had made at the salon, ses­sion work started coming in with the now defunct Mademoiselle being his first big edi­to­r­ial client. I had been nice to the assis­tants at Bergdorf’s, that’s a rule of mine, be nice to the assis­tants, they are going to be the boss one day. Plus you had to be friends with people for the whole thing to work, it was a lot club­bier in those days.”

Before he knew it, Christiaan was work­ing with future pho­tog­ra­phy super­stars such as the late Deborah Turbeville, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber, and Arthur Elgort (who remains a col­lab­o­ra­tor to this day). We became the first team, he didn’t want to work with anyone else with­out me,” he says.

Back then, Arthur would never dream of saying how he wanted the hair, he would just say, Make it nice,’ and you were suc­cess­ful if you could just make the pho­tog­ra­pher want to take a pic­ture.” This was in addi­tion to cut­ting the bar­nets of the day’s dar­lings such as Debbie Harry and Grace Jones. Seems easy? It was very dif­fer­ent than now, you’d go to these par­ties and Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Paris Review’s George Plimpton would be there. We fell into the right crowd, but we were just kids and we were very good friends, I went out with Grace all the time and Debbie was my neigh­bour, she’d always come around. I’m not going to just become friends with Lana Del Rey now, you have to have some sort of con­nec­tion, but you still do have cer­tain models who you become attached to.”

Polaroids by Christiaan from his per­sonal archive.

In the 70s and 80s, Christiaan began cre­at­ing iconic runway hair for the likes of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Rei Kawakubo’s Comme Des Garçons — the look he cre­ated for one Comme Des Garçons show in Spring 84 (a recre­ation of the famous buzz cut” he had given Bonnie Berman for Vogue a few days ear­lier) caused such a stir that people lined up out­side his hotel after the show, asking him for the same cut. It was a good time for me, I was spon­ta­neous. There were never tests, more like con­tin­u­ous con­ver­sa­tions, and shows were spec­tac­u­lar in those days.” Though his days of runway work are now far behind him, a cer­tain Phoebe Philo and fash­ion styl­ist Camilla Nickerson did lure him back to the spring/​summer 11 Céline show. I was filled with dread, it was com­pletely dif­fer­ent than what it used to be, I woke up in sweats think­ing this is not what Phoebe wants, but in the morn­ing I just took my bed sheet off, ripped it into 30 bits — and that was it.”

Now in his late six­ties, the only person who seems sur­prised that he’s still doing what he’s doing is Christiaan him­self. I work with assis­tants, but I don’t let them do any­thing. They seem to be per­fectly happy to just see how I do things. I believe every­body has to have their own style, their own soul, their own tech­nique, I never really learned from any­body — what I became came from me.” His incred­i­ble 50 years in the busi­ness means his exten­sive body of work is still attract­ing today’s stars. One of my favourite hair­cuts I’ve ever done was on Sky Ferreira, she stalked me for months. I pulled up the chair and just started nip­ping at her hair; she was zoned out and I didn’t really know what I was going to do until I turned her around 360. I left one long piece at the back, which was fan­tas­tic — my favourite hair cuts are the oppo­site of the straight, square looks.” Even the public still want a piece of the Christiaan magic; his free hair­cuts in the park, in asso­ci­a­tion with American Vogue, (ini­tially borne out of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Interview mag­a­zine in 1991) con­tinue to attract hun­dreds of people to come and get a hair cut com­pletely con­trolled by Christiaan.

His legions of devo­tees stretch far and wide and include the who’s who of fash­ion. From Kate Moss to Jourdan Dunn, Anja Rubik, Lara Stone, Raquel Zimmermann, Cindy Crawford and Abbey Lee Kershaw, you’d be hard pressed to find a top model who hasn’t left her hair in Christiaan’s capa­ble hands. His new web­site hair​by​chris​ti​aan​.com, made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with David Sebbah at Spring Studios, cel­e­brates his impres­sive hand­i­work, shot by the likes of Mario Testino, Inez and Vinoodh and Angelo Pennetta, and also fea­tures years of back­stage photos, orig­i­nally taken as Polaroids in the 70s and 80s. Christiaan also has plans for a book, a tome of his iconic work for those who have long admired his career. Undoubtedly an inno­va­tor and influ­encer, when asked what beauty means to him in 2014, Christiaan says: Beauty is uplift­ing, it makes life happy and inter­est­ing, and gives us some­thing to look for­ward to. We have the hair that we have and the capac­ity to expand on it is exhil­a­rat­ing. I just love hair, and beauty is all about sur­prises, that’s what I go for.”