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French hair colorist Christophe Robin, whose list of celebrity clients ranges from Catherine Deneuve to Jane Fonda, is part of a team of experts assembled by L’Oréal Paris to style its brand ambassadors for the red carpet and to help develop new products. Here, he talks about his humble beginning and breaking into the big leagues.
WWD: You were raised by farmers in a small village in the Champagne region. How did you make the leap to becoming a colorist to the stars ?
Christophe Robin: I spent a lot of time working the land when I was young, and that’s what made me want to leave!
WWD: Where does your interest in hair stem from? Did you read fashion magazines growing up?
C.R.: I grew up in a village of 160 people. We didn’t have all these magazines. Seeing my mother and her friends dye and style their hair on Sundays made an impression on me — the smell of Elnett and hair dye stayed with me. I love women and I want to make them beautiful, and I think that’s how it all started.
WWD: When you started, the art of coloring hair was dying out.
C.R.: Cut and color have become more accessible over the last 30 years, thanks to franchise hairdressing chains, but it also means traditional skills have been lost. The old colorists were marvelous. It’s true that the products were less easy to use than the ones we have now — they were a lot riskier — but it really was a craft. I was lucky to be hired at the age of 14 by an old colorist who was passionate about all that, and who immediately taught me the finer points of this beautiful profession — not just giving everyone the same highlights.
WWD: What was your big break?
C.R.: The first ad campaign I did was with Stephanie Seymour for a L’Oréal product. She didn’t want to dye her hair. She absolutely refused because models at the time — Tatjana Patitz, Karen Mulder, Christy Turlington — did not dye their hair. They kept their natural color, and they would rinse their hair with lemon juice and go out in the sun, and that was it. I gave her a light gloss color with a little oxidant, which gave her shiny hair, and then everyone wanted it. It’s like when you start eating chocolate, you always want more. That’s what happened. Stephanie told Elle Macpherson about me, and she told Claudia [Schiffer], who told Linda [Evangelista]. It was the beginning of the supermodel era, and they all wanted a new look four times a year, at least. Luckily for me, people became fascinated by top models and even more so by their entourage. People started talking about me, and hair color was really taking off around that time. Then the actresses got in on it. The actresses were very envious of the top models, who were stealing their thunder.
WWD: Your most famous client is Catherine Deneuve. How did you meet?
C.R.: I was working with a lot of people in fashion. One day, Catherine was at a dinner with Claudia Schiffer, and she went up to her and said, “Listen, I love your shade of blonde. Since the Carita sisters retired, I can’t find anyone to color my hair the way I like. Who does yours?” And Claudia told her, “Go see my friend Christophe Robin, but I warn you, he doesn’t do blow-drys” — because I was dealing with girls who had their hair done 20 times a day, so I didn’t have a hairdresser. The girls would leave the salon with hair packs that they would leave on overnight and rinse off in the morning before heading to their next shoot. Once Catherine came, everyone else followed.
WWD: How does your salon experience feed into creating products for L’Oréal?
C.R.: I work with a lot of actresses, models and singers, but I have also been working with regular women for 20 years. That’s really valuable for my work with L’Oréal, because we try to understand their expectations beyond what they tell us. We try to anticipate long-term changes. It goes way beyond trends because trends are easy. My work with actresses is useful because they take better care of their hair than most women. They often have to change their hair color, they have their roots done every six to 10 days, they go through a lot of styling, so I try to feed that into product ideas, too.