Some hairstylists create memorable styles, while others challenge the way in which we view hair as an art. Odile Gilbert is the rare talent who does both, quietly impacting the entire industry with her work for clients like Chanel, Vogue, Dior, W Magazine all while consistently evolving her aesthetic. Gilbert approaches the craft of hairdressing with the precision of a sculptor and the utmost respect for hair’s transformative impact. As the only hair stylist ever to receive France’s prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Gilbert’s work holds a special cultural significance and can be seen everywhere from the Met’s Costume Institute to the pages of the latest glossy. Exploring the method behind Gilbert’s extraordinary coifs is a journey through fashion’s storied past and a glimpse into its future.
A Models.com interview by Janelle Okwodu
Cover photo backstage at Jason Wu by Billy Rood for Models.com
You’ve been doing this a long time – what would you say has changed the most since you started?
Odile Gilbert: What has changed is that it’s faster now.
Very true, I suppose you also have to do a lot more in front of the camera stuff as opposed to when you first started in the business?
OG: Yes, but that doesn’t affect the work. With me, I work with my hands and things so it’s always something manual that you’re doing, you know, working with your hands and creating things. What really changed is now we have the internet, and there’s so much more going on with that, because of that there is so much more information available.
What would you say sort of defines your aesthetic as a hair stylist?
OG: My style is not one style. It’s very personal and I’m creating looks on people and doing everything from big hair to small hair. I don’t see myself having a style, I feel like I have the opportunity to do everything. We do fashion shows, sometimes it’s long hair, sometimes it’s short hair; it’s always changing because of fashion. People think I have a style, because of course they recognize a certain style I’ve become known for, but it’s not something I can quantify – it’s just something I do.
Things happen and sometimes a hair style you create becomes kind of a signature, but I have no idea why! For me, it’s more important to be able to work with every kind of people, from any country, and with any type of hair. When you do hair you have to learn the differences by country, because I mean in Japan the hair is different than in Mexico or Russia. So you end up learning a lot.
So, you really have to be able to adapt in order to evolve.
OG: Yes, because if you work with an Asian girl, or if you work with a Black girl, or any ethnicity it is always different whatever you do, it’s never a job where you can say ‘oh I know how to do everything.’ You’re always going to be learning new technical things, finding new inspiration, it’s work in progress, always.
“..if you work with an Asian girl, or if you work with a Black girl, or any ethnicity, it is always different whatever you do, it’s never a job where you can say ‘oh I know how to do everything.’”
Now since it is some sort of an ongoing learning process how do you continue to find inspiration?
OG: Everything is inspiration! It could be the street, it could be movies, it could be paintings – anything you expose yourself to. I believe that if you’re naturally curious you are always finding inspiration, and for me everything is inspiration. Ultimately you’re always searching for a kind of perfection. True perfection is only found in nature, but we’re always trying to improve on what we’ve done before to get a little closer to that ideal.
You do so many different shows, how do you collaborate with the designers on the look for each season?
OG: For me it’s always like doing the hair to describe the feeling of the collection, and of course not forget to try to make the girls look beautiful. It’s what we call ‘giving a style.’
You spoke earlier about the wealth of information on the internet – what it is like for you to look back on your work from years ago, now that it is all archived online for all to see.
OG: It is nice to look back, but it doesn’t change things for me. I think the information is most important for the new generation, because they have access to more images and can get a lot out of that. At the same time, though, let’s not forget it’s not the computer that’s going to do your hair, it’s gonna be my hands! Doing hair is always going to be about that: really working with your hands and learning how to express yourself that way.
Speaking of expression, you’ve collaborated with so many amazing photographers throughout the years, is there anyone or a couple in particular you really feel that you enjoy working with?
OG: I work a lot with Peter Lindbergh, I work a lot with Mario Testino. It’s all the big names in the industry – I was lucky enough to work with the real greats. I meet so many of the big photographers, and through them you learn a lot, like different lighting and a different way of seeing things, and it’s sort of incredible
That’s amazing, now what was it like working with Avedon?
OG: It’s magic. Because I mean we’re talking about somebody who had photographed everybody in the world, and who had major control over the image. I was very impressed by his technique and his demeanor.
“…let’s not forget it’s not the computer that’s going to do your hair, it’s gonna be my hands! Doing hair is always going to be about that: really working with your hands and learning how to express yourself that way.”
That’s obviously before things sort of switched over to digital, so how are shoots different now?
OG: Let’s say that digital is one thing, but if you love photography and if you have a chance one day to buy a print, digital is very different than the world of print. Print is really something that makes you go ‘wow.’ Digital is another thing altogether.
Was working during the print days just as different?
OG: You had more time, but we had to guess and do things and then you would see the picture after. Today, we can see the picture on the screen, which is such a difference.
Do you find that helpful?
OG: It is great! But there are a few photographers who show up with, like, real cameras and that is incredible. It’s always a surprise when you don’t see it right away. I like real prints. I think it’s nice.
Do you collect prints?
OG: I have a collection, I love photography. I have some Peter Lindberghs, a couple from Steven too.
What makes you want to collect photography as opposed to collecting paintings or sculptures?
OG: For me, photography is like an eye-witness account of the times, like maybe it’s a full culture of things that you wouldn’t have seen in your life otherwise.
“It takes a long time to be able to work in fashion because you have so much to learn, so the experience and knowledge is very important… I think it takes years. You work and work and work, and then things happen.”
Can you tell me a little about some of the work with Chanel, you’ve done some amazing hair for them.
OG: I worked 15 years for Chanel. I worked with John Galliano, with Gucci; I worked with a lot for young designers in America and France, and I guess I still do shows and things because my technique is part of an experience. It takes a long time to be able to work in fashion because you have so much to learn, so the experience and knowledge is very important… I think it takes years. You work and work and work, and then things happen.
Obviously each show is its own sort of experience, but when you are working with a brand that you are really familiar with and you’ve been working with them for years, is it harder to keep things fresh, as opposed to a new designer?
OG: Oh yeah, you always have to think about evolution in fashion. So it’s very important to always be fresh in your mind… so thinking fresh is very important.
Now you also work with a hair company as well, how does that process work? Do you come to them with products that you would like to see developed?
OG: No, not really. I’m basically using the products that I have cultivated a relationship with… you work with your hands and create things, you know, like mousse and gel and things that help you create looks, and I love products because every girl likes products. I’m a girl, so I myself use all the products as well.
Are there any things in particular that you absolutely love, products that are your staples that you always go back to?
OG: Honestly, today the hair products have become exceptional, the quality is much better because they protect your hair, and it’s much more defined than it used to be. Especially in America, everybody uses products!
Now I know that you worked with Sofia Coppola when putting together Marie Antoinette, can you talk a little bit about that experience in working with a director in a movie as opposed to a fashion show?
OG: Well I think she saw my work in my book. I think she liked the approach, the hair in Marie Antoinette was very important for capturing the look of that era. Sofia is such a lovely person and she’s so elegant and modern at the same time. For me, it was an incredible experience.
You work with your hands when you’re creating hair; do you feel that you’re almost like a sculptor in that way?
OG: No, no… I mean, yes… sometimes you need to think like if you’re sculpting but I always think each art is its own special thing. Because sculpting is like something else…. you have the painters, the sculptures you can be inspired by when doing hair, but it’s nothing alike. You know you do hair, but hair grows. You have to do it and then undo it.
Is there plan for another book?
OG: It could be, but I just need time. Everything is timing. I’m booked until the end of September, everything goes so fast… there are people that want me to do another book but I just need to find the time to do it. Between all the fashion shows, films, pictures, and other things…
Since you’re always working, always doing more things, what do you do when you have your free time?
OG: I take care of myself instead of taking care of everybody. I go to the spa. I go to see my family. I have a normal life, sometimes!
How does it feel to sort of be one of the most awarded and respected hair stylists in the industry. That’s a very special position to be in. How do you feel sort of knowing that basically you’ve become one of the most well known hair stylists working right now?
OG: Let’s say, it’s not me who decided this. You know? Because I work and I love to work. I enjoy it, which is another side of the situation, but I didn’t decide to work to become well-known and famous. I think it’s the reaction of people: they like the hair that I do. A lot of people are like ‘oh my god I’m the best!’ and I’ve never been like that. I think that if you say to yourself that you are the best, then you have to prove that you are the best…
Is there anything you haven’t done just yet that you’d like to explore? Any other side of the business?
OG: New things will come. New hair styles, new things, of course there’s always new things, but I let things come to me – I’m open.
That’s the way it should be!
OG: Yeah! Don’t expect anything and just be surprised!
“New things will come. New hair styles, new things, of course there’s always new things, but I let things come to me – I’m open.”