Star Stylist: Trevor Sorbie

Four-time Hairdresser of the Year and MBE, Trevor Sorbie talks to Fringe

My sister in law had cancer and she knew she was going to lose her hair. She asked me to get her wig. She put it on, and it looked like a wig. I said, let me try and make it a bit more natural, and when I was finished, she cried tears of joy. There was something extra special about cutting that wig, it really touched me. I decided to continue to do it and mynewhair was born.

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At the time I was doing a lot of television, I was on This Morning, Lorraine, and they found out I was doing this kind of work. I spoke about it and the press picked up on it and just snowballed. I met senior nurses who are lecturers in the North West, they heard what I was doing and we decided to train other hairdressers to do what I was doing. L’Oréal gave me their academy premises free of charge and every month I train 15 hairdressers. I’ve been doing it now for ten years. We are now opening up in Canada, Dubai want to get involved, we want to try to take it global. Having been in this profession for over 50 years, I’ve always known the importance hair is to a woman – if you mess up a woman’s hair you’ll know about it! It hasn’t happened too often but I’ve had the odd occasion. If you take hair away from a woman for whatever reason, you’ve just lost half the woman: their femininity, their confidence, it has a massive effect on their life. I’ve met four women over these years who have refused treatment rather than lose their hair – my wife’s best friend is one of them. She’s got terminal cancer, but she doesn’t want to lose her hair.

That’s how devastating it can be and I don’t think a lot of people realise that. When a woman comes in, they don’t know what to expect. They are in a very dark place in their life, they are scared and nervous, you can see it in their body language. When they leave me, it’s completely
different, it’s fantastic, we sometimes go out for a glass of wine afterwards. It’s a lovely experience in a funny sort of way. It’s very satisfying and I’ll continue to do this until I can’t stand up anymore. Most of the people who come to my seminar have been touched by cancer: they’ve either had it or know someone who has, and they are very sensitive to this person. It’s a different conversation to ‘where are you going on your holidays.’ I think you have to be a bit worldly to do this, it’s not for every hairdresser. One of my staff asked if they could come to the seminar and at the break, she told me there was no way she could do this, she was very open.

Hard work pays off

Career Highlights
I’ve had many highs, including winning Hairdresser of the Year four times, getting an MBE from the Queen was a very special day, and next week I am being awarded a doctorate from the University of the West of Scotland. I’m absolutely bricking it. They sent me a tape of last year’s candidate and it was this guy who invented the Doctor Who series and his speech terrified me because he was so intelligent and so amusing. I’m a very nervous person and I get really scared when faced with public speaking and this is freaking me out! The interesting thing is I’m pretty sure none of them want to be hairdressers, they want to be doctors and professionals. But the one message I can give them is that it doesn’t matter what you do in life, to have any success in life, hard work will always be involved, but the most important thing is to have a passion for what you do. I came from nothing. We had to share an outside toilet with the people upstairs, it was very modest. But coming from that background to owning a multi-million-pound company will be inspiring to young people, that ‘hey if I can do this, you can certainly climb the ladder to success.’

Finger on the Pulse
I work in all five of my salons. Yesterday I was in Richmond, later today I’ll be in Covent Garden and the reason I do it is simply this: if a client comes into any one of my shops and asks, ‘oh does Trevor ever come here?’ the answer is yes, he does and I think that’s important. I don’t sit in the office, I sit in the staffroom with all the kids because I want to know them and they want to know me. Being head of a company, I think it’s important people know who they are working for and I know them. You have to understand the young. The youth of today is not like the youth of yesterday or when I was growing up, it’s a completely different world. around the salon and spoke to all the assistants, he went up to every client and said, ‘My name is Vidal Sassoon, you are in the best salon in London, enjoy your haircut.’ That alone is something I will never forget. If I could be half the man he was I would be happy with myself. He was humble, polite. Yes, he did great haircuts and invented the cut and blow-dry, he was responsible for modern-day hairdressing but that day when he came in and shook everyone’s hand, that just blew me away. I walk around all my salons and I introduce myself to clients like Vidal did and chat with them. I think that’s a really important part of my business, that’s the part I enjoy most these days, meeting clients. I took a leaf out of Vidal’s book and it works. I like to lead by example: I still sweep the floor in all of my salons, I’ll occasionally shampoo a client’s hair, I’ll make the coffee or help them on with their coat. My philosophy is if I can do it you can do it. Leadership by example is high on my priority list. I want people to grow, I encourage people to grow. Eugene Souleiman, Antoinette Beenders, Angelo Seminara; these are all people who have worked for me and they are very, very successful in their own right. If somebody has a natural gift and a talent that is extraordinary, I can spot that a mile off. I will encourage that. I’m in the business of growing people not suppressing them. 

Still Sweeping

Creative Times
For me the 70s and 80s were the most creative times in hairdressing, it was very experimental in those days. Now, it’s different. I don’t like to see girls with shaved bits of hair, I’m not saying it’s not creative, it’s not my taste. For me, I want a woman to look like a woman and feel like a woman. Yes when you’re 17, 18 you do crazy things, bleach your hair or have it bright red or shave bits off, I get that but I don’t personally like it. I like a woman to look groomed and natural. Inspiration is all around, I don’t look at pop videos or fashion shows, I can look at a material and see how it’s woven and that can spark me. I can look at a plant and think, ‘there’s something there, if I could do that with hair, it could look beautiful.’ It’s having an awareness of life, it doesn’t come from any one source. Any living thing – birds’ feathers, flowers can be very inspirational. It can come from the most obscure place, be it a building.

Celeb Following
When I heard Grace Jones was coming into the salon I was scared because her image is so sculptured, so aggressive looking, so unusual and amazing at the same time, I thought she was going to eat me when she came in! That lady was the nicest person you would ever meet. She was more interested in my career and what I was doing in my life. She was lovely. Her videos and the way she dressed was not really a reflection of her real personality. That was manufactured, Jean-Paul Goude was the fella that gave her that image, he created the look which she is known for. The product line I was at the New York beauty show, at the back of the exhibition. The only way you could have found my stand was if you’d got lost. I had just created scrunch drying and I was on the stage demonstrating how to scrunch hair and I had a big crowd around me. There were four businessmen in suits standing there for a good couple of hours. They came up to me  afterwards and said, ‘Sorbie, how would you like your own product line?’ I said, ‘yeah, alright.’ I thought I’ll sell products with my name on it and sit at home and wait for a big fat cheque to come in every month. I was so wrong. I worked my arse off for ten years. I signed a contract and I had to be in America for four months of the year, every year for ten years. I was doing about twenty shows a year throughout the US. In the end we got the rights to have the products in the UK and Boots approached us and said we’d like to stock your products in our stores. The most popular product is Curl Cream, it defines curls beautifully and that’s my favourite because it works.

Staying Motivated
My motivation is satisfaction in what I am doing: seeing people grow, seeing the company grow. It’s been a long road but it feels very short. There’s still some steam in the old engine yet. I’m not a very healthy, clean living person. I eat a lot of fried foods, I don’t go to the gym, I smoke and I drink but these are pleasures. My motivation is in what I do, I don’t go to work, I go to do what I love doing. I spoke with a woman yesterday, she flew over from Switzerland to have her hair done, and she asked me, ‘why are you doing this why aren’t you on a desert island somewhere?’ I said, ‘I still love it!’ And as long as I still love something, why would give that up? I regard myself as very fortunate in so many ways, coming from nothing to a multi-million-pound company, how the hell did that happen, I still scratch my head. I’ve got no qualifications, I can’t spell very well, I don’t read, I had nothing to shout about. If I can do it anyone can do it but you’ve got to have the passion. And passion is my motivation. I’ve had down times, everyone thinks it’s been a smooth ride to the top, it’s not. There are bumps in the road and you have to get over them and come back stronger. I’ve been hospitalised with depression, I’ve been sectioned once. Life hits everybody in a very similar way, I don’t think anyone escapes the bumps. But I wouldn’t change much if I had my time again. ✂