21 December 2021
MY EARLY EXPERIENCES SHAPED MY LIFE
Why did you get into hairdressing? What was your motivation?
To be honest I never really considered hair. I didn’t really think about my career in general until fairly late. I left school early with no real focus, no qualifications AND dyslexia. So, I hung out with my mum who used to go to her local hair salon three times a week. We were very, very close and one day she said “Lee, you love fashion, you love style… What about working with hair?” She managed to find got some numbers of salons in Essex and London. I made the calls and she even went with me to some of the interviews. I don’t think that happens anymore! One of those salons was Neville Daniel, he liked me and offered me a job. I got stuck in and loved it.
How important are those early weeks/months as an apprentice?
Huge. Neville Daniel was a big West End hairdresser based on the Kings Road, London. He drove a big Mercedes, which impressed me at the time! The whole experience was very aspirational – there were celebrities, models and photographers in and out of the salon all the time. The people working in the salon were at the top of the game, making waves and passionate about the industry. Now, for a 16 year old it was exciting and inspiring. I thought it was incredible. I was bitten by the bug. However there was a problem, the trade-off between my hard work and the training the salon promised was imbalanced. I was working like a dog. I had a four hour commute with no real money to spend because it was all going on travel. This wasn’t a problem but I did expect one thing, good education and training, but nobody in the salon was interested. This felt unfair so I decided to leave.
What was your take-away?
The salon was full of leaders who in their way were inspiring and aspirational. They were achievers and successful, that was inspiring for me. I wanted to be as creative and exciting as them. I wanted their life.
What happened next?
I went back to mums house and set-up a salon in her front dining room!
I was 16 years old and had some clue but not much, and started cutting friends hair. One thing led to another and the business grew through word of mouth. At the time I didn’t really have the patience to work for anybody else. I wanted immediate success so took matters into my own hands.
In hindsight, this experience was a double edged sword. On the one side I was my own boss and working as a stylist on the other I was learning on the job. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing and I made lots of mistakes and when you live in a small town the bad haircuts are hard to avoid in the local pub. There were many times had to leave when I saw one of my creations sitting on top of an unhappy ex-customer. I did have some wins but in the early days they were few and far between.
Do you regret leaving the salon so early?
Yes, I should have stayed. Doing well in a salon environment is not difficult. Find a talented mentor in a great, nurturing salon. Look at how he/she works absorb and learn. Also the amount of contacts you make is priceless. You can really fast track to success IF you work hard. I loved my time in the dining room but it proved a painful, challenging time without a mentor to learn from.
What happened after the dining room?
I was there for six years! I needed to get a shop. I found a space in my local town and that’s when I really panicked. I had no real technical experience so I had to re-train and I quickly became the Vidal Sassoon Academy’s best student for nearly 10 years. I went back to education and learnt my trade. All of my money and days off was spent at Vidal Sassoon, Toni and Guy and Trevor Sorbie, desperate to learn techniques and refine skills. I was dying for it and I loved it.
Did you share this knowledge with your team?
Yes, this was my first experience of working in education. I came from London buzzing after my times at Sassoon and would host seminars for my team and teach them everything I’d learnt.
When you opened your first salon how did find new talent and how did you nurture them?
In the very early days I really focused on giving something back to the new talent. I’ve already mentioned my bad experience when that transaction between employer and employee was imbalanced. I was determined not to repeat this in my salon. I was committed to offer a good education because it improved my team AND I learnt to teach and train. The word soon spread so all the talent came to me. It underlined that if you treat people well and deliver value they will come to you BUT I expected hard work, commitment and motivation – they needed to be 9 or 10 out of 10 all of the time.
How did you feel when the new talent went onto achieve great things, any examples?
I get messages from my old assistants all the time telling me how they’re doing and how grateful they are. There are many but one stands out, my good friend Adee Phelan. We worked together at my first big salon in Essex when I took him on as an apprentice. He worked SO hard. Looked and learnt, followed me closely and achieved great things in his first two years culminating in Men’s British Hairdresser of the Year, a TV series and his own salon!
Any advice for the kid who's thinking about a career in hairdressing?
Hairdressing has been voted the happiest profession. You’re talking to people, friendships are created you’re making people feel great. If you love it and have a genuine interest and you put the work in, you can achieve great things. Make sure you get educated by great people, find a mentor and be inspired!
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