hair guru holli smith on her career and the industry's gender imbalance

Backstage during New York Fashion Week, the top hair stylist discusses the appeal of 'don't fuck with me' hair.

by i-D Staff and Alice Newell-Hanson
14 September 2016, 8:55pm

The most well-known masters of cutting women's hair, like the masters of cutting women's clothing, are disproportionately male. Like Prince or Madonna, their influence is implied by their lack of a last name: Guido, Kenneth, Suga, Christiaan. If you look for women working today at that same top level of the hair industry during Fashion Month, you'll find approximately three: Odile GilbertTina Outen, and Holli Smith. "It's always hard when there aren't role models," says Holli, "but things are changing."

Holli has worked with every big-name magazine and a roster of big-name photographers. For i-D, she frequently teams up with partner photographer Collier Schorr to create beautiful, iconic covers. This spring, she styled Lineisy Montero's cropped hair for The New Luxury Issue, choosing to keep her curls in a natural face-framing halo. For fall 2015, she switched Elle Fanning's angelic blond locks for a modern Cry Baby-esque pompadour for The LGBTQi-D Issue, finding a radically tough (but still sweet) look for the actress. Holli understands the transformative power of a hairstyle, whether it's one that her subject arrives with or one that they might never have imagined they could pull off. "There are so many possible layers to ourselves dying to come out. Haircuts do this for a person," she says.

It's that intuitive understanding of a model or brand's individuality — the fact that she just "gets it" — that's helped Holli land jobs styling everything from the most recent Raf Simons campaign to some of fashion month's most high-profile shows.

And when you're tasked with conceptualizing the hairstyles of more than 30 models and 13 celebrities, as Holli was for Opening Ceremony this season, that appreciation for difference is essential. What works for a model may not work for Fred Armisen, and what works for Fred Armisen will likely not work for Whoopi Goldberg.

Related: Hair stylist Odile Gilbert on Helmut Newton, Kate Moss, and being a girl

When we meet backstage before the show (T minus two hours), Holli is a vision of chill. Or at least she seems that way, talking curious editors through the looks that her team of Bumble and bumble stylists are currently creating on a sea of seated models punctuated here and there by actors and comedians on their phones.

Models with short hair, she'll leave be, because "they already look super amazing." Some models with long hair will just get a little thickening spray, "So it's healthy-looking, but with a little bit of crunch." And other models will get a striking V-shaped parting that will frame their face in a way that mirrors the graphic patterns of the clothes. Holli calls it "this really sick sectioning," like a true Californian. At the back, those models will also have strands pulled out of messy buns to create a mullet-like effect. (Fred will just get a little neatening up.)

Is it a coincidence that Holli, the owner of a fantastic short-with-texture-at-the-back cut herself, is giving the models similar styles? "I mean, I'm basically just trying to make them all look like me," she jokes.

"My cut now is strong woman, don't fuck with me, don't give me objectifying attention," she explains when I ask her to describe her own do. It's buzzed on the top, softly curled at the nape of her neck, and shot through with light-catching silver throughout. "My attitude softens the look. I like the balance," she says.

The very first haircut she remembers sporting was also a short "sorta boyish" situation, in the sixth grade. "My mom had to blow-dry it for me because I had curly hair," she remembers. "I wanted a short cut with a tail and a step in it, like the girl who was a skateboarder down the street from me. But my mom convinced me that my hair couldn't do it. I was so disappointed. I still feel that pain from that day."

After living through a later period of being forced to wear pigtails, Holli still decided to go into hair. She worked for the celebrated stylist Guido Paulo (known simply as Guido), after approaching his agency, Art + Commerce in New York, and being selected to travel with him to the shows in Milan and Paris.

In addition to Guido, Holli lists hair gurus like Bruno Pittini, Yosh Toya, and John Shahag among her influences. But she's also honed her craft giving cuts to her friends. Specifically, her best friend, musician Kim Ann Foxman, whose hair Holli has been experimenting with for 18 years. "I have gotten to keep this constant evolution of weirdness in my life because she let's me do anything I want! It's still pulling brand new things out of me," she says. (According to her Instagram, Kim Ann is currently working a magical, sculptural creation that lands somewhere between a bob and mullet, shaved at the front, party at the back.)

Of course, it hasn't always been as easy as walking into an agency and accompanying a top stylist to Milan. "No one who comes up in beauty thinks it will be easy, so maybe it's easier just assuming it will be hard," Holli suggests. But she does think that forging a successful, long-lasting career in hair is becoming more possible as a woman. "It was a very small world, a club, but the club has changed," she says, "There are so many women photographers working today, which shows clients and editors of magazines that there is a lot missing, that there's still a lot to do."

Read the rest of our NYFW coverage here.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Jane Houle, courtesy Bumble and bumble

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