bleach london founder alex brownsell has transformed the way we do our hair
From bleaching her hair as an act of teenage rebellion to starting a salon in her living room, Alex Brownsell's Bleach has revolutionised the way we do our hair one rainbow coloured strand at a time, and she's even collaborated with Barbie.
Alex wears bra Topshop. Bra (worn underneath) Alex’s own. Trousers Reiss. Necklace simone rocha. Bracelets Alex’s own.
London based hairstylist Alex Brownsell started hairdressing at the age of 12, having grown up surrounded by tint trolleys, backwash units, blow dryers and gossip in her mum's salon in the Midlands. Moving to London five years later, Alex's lounge became Sylvester Salon, before spilling over into the kitchen as Heartbreak Hair, and eventually settling in a pool of pastel hues as Bleach (named after Nirvana's debut album), at the back of Sharmadean Reid's WAH Nails in Dalston. Set up with best friend Sam Teasdale (Sam handles the business, Alex does the hair), Bleach is the capital's coolest salon, opening a second space in Topshop Oxford Street and inspiring girls nationwide to chase their own rainbows. Alex has transformed the tresses of Sky Ferreira, Alice Dellal and Florence Welch, created runway ready locks for Ashley Williams and Thomas Tait, collaborated with her first hair idol - Barbie®, brought out a product line with Boots where hair dyes are named after songs (Tangerine Dream, Bruised Violet, Out of the Blue...), and opened a pop up bar. As Bleach's colours spread far and wide, Alex talks us through its rise from an East London sink to changing the follicles of a generation.
What's your earliest hair memory?
I was about eight, and my mum - who's a hairdresser - had left her scissors behind so I cut my friend's hair into a lopsided bob. I got into so much trouble, but it didn't deter me!
I bet you were pushing to be let loose in your mum's salon?
I thought my mum was so cool. She had peroxide blonde hair, wore double denim and she had her own salon. It was all about getting into her world. I used to beg her for a job, so by 11 she let me make the tea and by 12 I was sweeping and shampooing.
Aside from your own, whose hair did you bleach first?
My first attempts at colouring were mishaps. I remember melting a friend's hair off at 13. I left the bleach on for over two hours, and she was practically bald when I rinsed it off. In a way, it was good to mess up so early on because I've been so careful since. It gave me an understanding of how bleach works.
Thankfully you now have the Bleach Bible that you can share online to prevent such mishaps happening again!
Totally. Bleaching your hair is one of the first acts of teenage rebellion. Before you can get a tattoo, before you can drink and smoke, you change your hair colour. It's good for us to be able to show people how to do that without damaging their hair.
When you started bleaching, who were your hair heroes?
I was a geek at school, a total book worm, so my hair heroes came from Sci-Fi and Fantasy fiction, Tim Burton films and Nickelodeon cartoons. Then came women like Courtney, Patty, Debbie, Siouxsie. The first time I bleached my own hair was after watching No Doubt. I wore a bindi and dyed my eyebrows black. They're such obvious references now, but at the time, that was counterculture because everyone else was into So Solid Crew or Blazin' Squad. It's weird that those 90s references are so popular now.
Bleach has certainly played its part in their revival.
I guess it has. Bleach has managed to turn One Direction fans on to bands like Sonic Youth and it's great to see their timelines changing.
Did the salon start out life in your living room?
Yes, it was living room first and then we moved into the kitchen because we needed the space back. It was strange because I started out doing my mates' hair, but they just so happened to be Fran Burns, Katie Shillingford and Karen Langley - real influencers of the time.
Bleach was also the beginning of the new dawn of street style photography, and your work featured heavily.
I remember one of Tommy Ton's shots of Katie after she had one of the first dip dyes and it received something like a million reblogs. It was insane.
How crazy were those early days?
It grew naturally, but it was crazy because I was developing my own name as a stylist too. I remember one time, we'd just got two kittens, the ceiling had a hole in it, so there was a bucket on the floor, and we had all broken up with our boyfriends, so at least four people were drunk and crying. Mandi Lennard was there as a client, and she was having to shampoo for me. I'm not even sure most people paid me; they just brought a bottle round!
Every visit to the salon should be like that. It was a fun time, but Bleach still has that.
That's what I was always trying to do, to take that sterile environment of a hair salon - that clinical spaceship, where you talk about beauty - and make it fun and easy. It shouldn't be intimidating.
You then took up a space in WAH Nails on Kingsland Road. Was that your big break?
Sharmadean Reid [WAH Nails Founder] helped us hugely. My housemates were sick of having hair paraphernalia everywhere. We had one guy come over who said, "Look girls, I need to have a chat with you about your habit," because he had seen the hair foils in the bathroom and assumed it was heroin, ha!
Was WAH Nails a source of inspiration?
Sharmadean is amazing. She gave us the confidence. Every business person we had met previously told us that we couldn't do it by ourselves, but Sharma was the first person who believed in us and gave us the opportunity to make a go of it.
Has the extent of Bleach's success surprised you?
Developing a range was very organic. I've always mixed my own products, for colour and styling, and I used to give them away, but people told me that they could easily be a product.
How do you balance Bleach with your own styling work?
My social life is always the first thing to suffer, but that was one of the reasons for the Bleach Bar. It's important to work with my peers, they are my main inspiration. When people step out of this arena and focus on their brands, they lose a certain something. Bleach is one branch and styling is another, it's not all rainbow hues and dip dyes.
Who has had the most amazing hair you've ever worked with?
I worked with Kim Gordon once and she was amazing because she was just how I imagined her to be, a little mean. I wanted her to be spunky and she was.
Whose hair do you long to get your hands on?
The Queen's. Cindy Sherman would be great too and I'd love to make Grayson Perry a wig for when he's Claire.
What excites you most about tomorrow?
I've got tonnes of ideas up my sleeve, for my editortial and styling work as well as Bleach. I've also just got a kitten and I can't wait to see him later too.
Ultimately, where would you like to take Bleach?
I'd love to open a themed hotel, like a cross between the Alton Towers Hotel and a strange spa, in some random, desolate seaside town. Opening the Bleach Bar has opened our eyes a little. Closing the doors for the final time was like breaking up with a boyfriend that you know is really bad for you...
Text Steve Salter
Photography Angelo Pennetta
Styling Victoria Young
Hair Sharmaine Cox at The Book Agency using BLEACH.
Make-up Thomas de Kluyver at D+V Management using M.A.C.
Styling assistance Andrew Glover.