I think this debate is only two sides of a third thing: in my mind, nuance reigns supreme over both doing it right and making it new.
I was asked to participate in this debate because I make documentaries, but by trade I’m a hairdresser, splitting my time between clients in the salon and working on big campaigns and runway shows in the fashion world of New York and Paris. Hairdressing is almost entirely subjective. It’s a mysterious combination of fundamentals, taste, and trends, complicated by the fact that you may have to sacrifice all three to appease the client. A toolkit is important, as is procedure. The fundamentals are key to a nice haircut, but they can also lead to stale and uninteresting results. On the flip side, while there’s an ingenuity built into an amateur approach, often times the results can feel clumsy and, well, amateur.
Doing hair in the fashion world is a process of unlearning procedure and falling back into very unconventional means to an end. This can lead to clumsy results (see fashion), but it can also lead to brilliant results. For example, last summer I was working on a couture show in Paris. The show was getting ready to start and I was helping the key hairdresser finish the final look. He pulled out an oversized bright orange piece of foam and said “We’re going to put this on her head.”
On the surface this sounds tragic, but in context it was quite beautiful, and with that particular model it made her look stunning. It was the endpoint of a long process in which in-the-moment inspiration based on attention to detail plays a crucial role. A tremendous amount of work goes on behind the scenes before a show starts. Designers and casting agents go to exhausting lengths to make sure they find the right models for the right looks at the show. Hairdressers and makeup artists go through rigorous test days before the show begins. They sit with the designer and are shown the collection as well as a board of inspiration references, trying out various looks on a model until the designer and stylist are satisfied. This is a delicate dance of technique, taste, and trying to decode the references. Because the process of making it all look right is so subjective, a hairdresser needs to be willing to improvise. The best improvisers often have the biggest toolboxes.
As we were finishing, a reporter from a fashion magazine approached and asked the routine, typical question: “So, what was the inspiration for this look?” The look in her eyes suggested that she expected to get a very complicated and very pretentious response of the kind that appeases the fashion crowd. Instead he looked at her and said, “Inspiration is a hard thing to find and can come from anywhere. Just last week I was walking home late one night from the pub and saw a yoga mat lying in a pile of garbage. And I thought the composition of it could look quite lovely on a model and here we are.” The reporter was shaken. In no way could she write about such a prestigious fashion event and equate it to a pile of garbage. As she walked away, he looked at me and said, “Nuance is critical.”
Without strong references, diligent research, and dedication to your craft, doing it right and making it new can both fall flat. In my mind, nuance is what elevates both sides. You can be an untrained amateur and still make great work, just as you can have strong fundamentals and make great work. But without nuance we just find ourselves treading in our own wake.
Mike Martinez is a documentary filmmaker and hairdresser. He is the co-creator and co-producer of Everything Is Stories (eisradio.org), an ongoing audio survey of tales from the underground, the underdog, the outlaw, the outcast.