Nabil Harlow

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Portraits of Nabil Harlow (De Facto) by Nagi Sakai (De Facto)

Balmain has made history by becoming the first fashion house to appoint a creative director of hairstyling. The groundbreaking “master hair designer” position has been awarded to hairstylist Nabil Harlow who will develop trends, work on campaigns, and expand the hair product line. We spoke to Nabil about his early start, his old-Hollywood influences, and his new ideas for the Balmain glamazon.

So tell me all about yourself. How did you first get started in the industry?

I started when I was 16. I always loved hair because I was a big fan of old movies. I used to watch them with my grandmother on TV, and they were these amazing black-and-white movies with Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Lana Turner, and Joan Crawford. All that era of MGM movies back then made me love everything with that certain taste. I learned about perfection from them since they were very precise with the clothes, the makeup, the hair, they way they moved, the way they talked. It was a lot of overacting and drama.

I started doing my sister’s hair, my mom’s, my friends’, when I was maybe 13 or 14 just to have fun. Then at 16, I asked my parents to enter hair school but my dad didn’t want me to so I went to college. At 17, my mom finally pushed my dad to accept and I started hair school. I started going backstage and doing shows where I worked with Odile (Gilbert) and Orlando (Pita) to get experience. Then, at 20 I moved to New York since I wanted to learn English so I came and entered Frédéric Fekkai salon on 5th Avenue as a colorist. After 4 years I went back to Paris working in the movie industry doing hair. An agent asked to sign me as a hair stylist and that’s how I got started on my own.

And how has it been transitioning from the Hollywood world into high fashion?

To be honest with you, when I started working in fashion I thought “this is easy!” Especially, now in 2015, I feel like hairstylists don’t take enough chances to really mess up the hair. Perhaps it’s because the photographer is scared to mess it up so they want to play it safe. So now you see a lot of wet hair, a lot of hair combed back, a lot of hairpieces on the face because it’s very hard to retouch hair.

In the movie industry it’s very different because you can be working on a movie that is happening in the 13th century so you have to be very technical and need to learn everything that is possible for hair. You need to be skilled in wigs, extensions, and it’s double the work. I was an assistant forever because I wanted to learn everything and then you find your own ways and create your own taste.

And how would you define your own personal taste or aesthetic?

I love glamour. I think that women aren’t glamorous enough now. Everybody is very rock & roll and it’s cool but I don’t think it fits every girl. I think that it’s cool to work in a glamorous way but you can make it modern by undoing it a little bit or messing with the texture. I like to create texture and sculpt into it. There’s no dated hair to me. You can always make it for the now.

So how do you bring that aesthetic now to this joint venture with Balmain as the “Master Hair Designer”?

They trust me and we’ve been talking for a long time before this all happened. They wanted to make sure I was fitting their vision and they were also looking for someone who envisioned how they could expand. I explained to them my taste for hair and how I like hair that doesn’t look like you’ve been doing it for 3 or 4 hours, even if it’s super glamorous. I want it to look natural like the girl put her hand in her hair and the texture fell by itself. So, if the Balmain girl is something to me that would be it.

I always think about Balmain as being about the strength in femininity and Olivier gives power to that idea too. What words are you trying to bring to that Balmain woman?

Olivier’s woman is very graphically strong and it’s the right way to think about femininity. There is always that strong shoulder, that tight waist, the inner power shines through. The word I would bring is self-actualization. I don’t like to change someone and I didn’t like the word makeover. You have to work on what you have. When you have a diamond you just polish it and a woman is the same. Maybe there was something that she didn’t understand about her look and you just polish it so she can shine through and find herself.

As the Master Hair Designer, define more of your role.

Right now I’ve been developing the product line and expanding the range. I’m very excited about the campaign. When you’re working with photographers as a hair stylist, you’re doing your own thing but at the end of the day it’s their vision. It’s exciting that it will be about my vision this time, expressing myself, and the way I see hair. It’s also about creating trends and a lot of surprises for next year.

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Explain the product line a bit more. What are you working on?

We have a full line including a holding hair spray, mousse, hair perfume, oil, a salt texturizing spray, and a cleansing shampoo and conditioner. Right now I’m working on perfecting the wax and more texturizing products. I want to have a hairspray with no alcohol for my curly haired girls so it’s not too dry and weighing down curls. The hair perfume is great as it acts like a sealer and gives a great sheen.

It’s interesting how a lot of fashion houses focus on makeup and not that much on hair. It’s interesting to see how Balmain has taken a bit of a risk here.

They love risks, they always do. Balmain isn’t afraid of taking chances on new talents and Olivier was evidence of that. You can’t be scared and you have to really believe with conviction. The people will follow!

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To see more of the products, go to the website.

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