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.”
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 hairbychristiaan.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.”