It’s not often that the opportunity arises to sit down with the equivalent of royalty in the hair industry, but we were fortunate to do so with Kris Sorbie - Redken Education Artistic Director and President of Kris Sorbie Inc. This two-time Master Stylist winner and seven-time nominee and finalist of the prestigious North American Hairstyling Awards (NAHA) has been Lead Stylist in many New York and LA Fashion Week shows. She's also been a guest speaker at TeenVogue Fashion University and for several years, board member and judge for NAHA, as well as many other international industry awards. In 2014 she was named ‘Icon of Color’ - a prestigious honor granted to her for the ﬁrst time by Intercoiffure USA.
One of the most dynamic and inﬂuential hair stylists in the world, Kris is best described as passionate, creative, innovative, and a true master at her craft. Learn firsthand how the queen of creativity got her start, how she finds inspiration, and her advice to this and the next generation of hair artists.
Q: How did you get your start in the hair industry?
KS: At the age of seven, I discovered my passion. I would often go to the salon with my mom, who was having a perm, and I realized that I just had to be a hairdresser. I was ready to leave school immediately to pursue my dream, but obviously, that wasn't going to happen because I was only seven. My mom made me battle my way through school and at 16 I left and went straight to beauty school. I had started working in the salon when I was 13 because that was the youngest legal working age in England at that time. I worked Thursday and Friday after school and all day Saturday and got paid maybe two dollars. I thought that I was rich and I gave my mom half.
My parents were really not interested at all that I wanted to be a hairdresser. They thought I should have been a doctor or a lawyer or something. My mom told me that I would get varicose veins and that I wouldn't earn any money - she was right about the varicose veins. Other than that, here I am 51 years later and absolutely loving it!
Q: What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishment in this industry?
KS: When I created the Ombré hair color technique. It was 1996, and I was bored coloring hair the conventional way that I had been taught - I wanted to do things differently. I've always been a rebel, and I guess I'll die being a rebel!
After hours and hours of not really knowing what I wanted to do differently, I started to look at animal fur. I thought it was interesting because it wasn’t the same color all the way down the strand and that then pushed me in the direction of studying the fur of different animals. I started going to the Natural History Museum in London and studying various animal hair, and after countless hours, as well as tubes and bottles of color, I kind of thought there was something in it. I thought things were looking good, but people laughed at me. They felt that I was crazy and that no one would ever wear hair color like that with five different colors in one strand with dark roots. Thank God for my obstinacy, because I thought to myself, no damn it, I like it. I believe that it looks beautiful and if something looks gorgeous and animals have it, then why can't humans have it?
That was my most significant achievement but from that, knowing that thousands (of hairdressers and colorists) have made a lot of money off of this technique, and knowing that it's opened the minds of the public to wearing different colors in their hair, that's what I feel great about. It’s a legacy to the industry, which has been able to expand creatively to do what we are doing today in the world of coloring hair.
Q: Where do you find your inspiration?
KS: Everywhere. I could look at a brick wall and get inspired by the way it has aged and weathered. With social media channels such as Pinterest or Instagram, there are so many fascinating things posted by other hairdressers. Then there's the British Hairdressing Awards, the North American Hairstyling Awards, L’Oreal Color and Style Awards, and indeed everywhere.
I just feel that once you have ignited that curiosity and you’re always looking for something else, then you can't help but notice things that inspire you. Whether it's in shape, or color, for the way colors merge together or even the way you can create illusions with hair color and make something really stand out, to add shadow to give it depth as well as dimension and drama. So, I walk around with my head in the clouds all of the time looking for things that I like the look of.
Thank God for iPhones, for any smartphone for that matter, as it's really changed how we do this process. In fact, I can't wait for the new phones to come out so that I get a better picture and a better video. That's something that I feel has changed our world, especially in our industry. Because we are recording things that we could never have afforded to do before. It would have meant going into a particular studio, hiring a photographer and videographer, and all of that. So in one respect, it’s wonderful, but in another, now everybody is a photographer, which doesn't always work. It takes a trained eye, between the lighting, the composition, and all of the rest. But in the meantime, there are some interesting things posted on Pinterest and the like. It’s a place for inspiration, even if we are inspired not to do it that way.
Q: What advice can you offer up-and-coming artists who want to make it in the industry as an educator or platform artist?
KS: Ultimately it requires education and dedication, as there are platform artists, and then there are platform artists!
My pet peeve is going to a hair show, for example, and feeling that the person on the stage, thinks that they are above everyone else. They are sort of teaching at you sometimes with an inflated ego. To me, that's a turnoff, and the audience is not learning from that person. However, if we are talking about a platform artist who is one for the sake of education, that's not just a platform artist. They are so much more.
I think if you are creatively inspired but don't really care for teaching, then stick to photographic work and get your work out that way. But if you're going to put yourself out on a platform to teach other people, then you need to be taught how to teach, because it’s all about learning.
That's where I feel that I have been so blessed with Redken, having been educated to be one of those platform artists that teach the audience, so they actually learn something. We have an incredible program at the Redken Exchange, and it's called Centerstage. It’s a program that specifically offers coaching for being a platform artist. We have people from all sorts of different companies coming to learn how to do it and what's great about that, is the audience are all hairdressers in the same program. They are the ones coaching each other to see what worked and what didn't work. That's where we learned so much about what an audience may think about the way we present ourselves or about what we're teaching. We found it to be hugely successful as a tool for stylists that want to go down that path (as a platform artist).
Q: How can an educator hone their speaking skills?
KS: One idea is to videotape yourself while you're speaking, that way you can watch it later can learn from it. There are times that I'll be teaching a class in the salon, and I'll go ahead and video tape it so I can watch my performance later and see what works and didn't work. I look to see what was the audience response was and so forth.
Sometimes we are our hardest critic, and sometimes we see things that we didn't realize we do. There are lots of things that we do through nervousness, and it becomes a distraction to the audience. I would highly suggest watching the video without the sound so that you're looking solely at the body language, positioning, facial expressions, and so forth. Next turn your back to the video and just listen to the sound. That way you can see if you're grounded in your content and ask yourself if you're putting across the points that were intended. Last you can examine them both together and see what you think. If you find yourself hitting delete, then you know you've got to start again.
Q: How important is doing photo shoots and building a portfolio? How is that different than promoting oneself through social media?
KS: Oh, I think that's like chalk and cheese - two very different things. I think what we need to do is look at the sort of images that we’re posting to promote ourselves and ask, are we promoting ourselves just to get a million followers or are we promoting ourselves to get clients sitting on our chairs in the salon? They are two very different areas of the photographic world.
When we are doing professional photo shoots, it's usually for a specific purpose. If they're going to be images that you'll be using on your website, which is a 24/7 window into your world, obviously those images need to be done with professional models, with the right lighting, with a professional photographer and so forth. This type of session is when you want to portray yourself at your best because you are illustrating your brand for the salon and the kind of client you want to attract. Or if we're doing a shoot for an ad campaign or even your own portfolio, for sure that is not something that can be shot by ourselves if we're not a trained photographer.
If you're shooting for social media, then it doesn't have to be a professional image, however, at the same time, it should be as professional looking as possible. You want to have an area within your salon perhaps with a step-and-repeat screen with your logo on it or at least a wall or backdrop of paper. I think it's important to be in an area with good lighting, and that doesn't always mean natural light because that isn't always the best; however, there are inexpensive ring lights that can help. Look at it in a way that would be as kind to that subject as possible, because let's be honest; not everyone has Kate Moss as a client. So, they need to be touched up and so on. And at the same time if the client doesn't have a perfect face, or there isn't a makeup artist available in the salon for you, then shoot it in a way where you just see the hair.
Q: How does a hair artist get into session work? How is the work different than what is produced behind the chair?
KS: The world of session work is a very different world than that of a stylist behind the chair. It doesn't mean a session hairdresser can't work behind a chair or vice versa. It's whether that person who is working in the salon, if they aspire to be a session hairdresser, what does that look like and what is involved.
Session work is such a vast world, and it's very different than being a stylist in a salon. It's a lot of years of working for nothing and being prepared to shadow the best possible session hairdressers that you can connect with. It’s also about being excellent at everything, every skill set that is out there for hair whether it's cutting a wig or putting on a bald cap or styling for theatrical or historical hairdressing. You have to have done your research because you never really know what we're going to be asked to reproduce. So, where we thought all of those pin curls, finger waves, and Marcel waves that we did in beauty school were boring, actually a lot of that is involved in the work of a session hairdresser.
It's also about behavior on set. What the ground rules are in the studio and how you’re expected to work with others. Naturally, it all depends on the photographers you're working with, the models, the creative director, basically all of the above.
It’s always the photographer who requests the hairdresser, and they want to work with people who can deliver any and everything that they need. The photographer is the one taking the brunt of what those pictures look like, including the hair. So if the hairdresser doesn't deliver, then they won't get booked again. Certainly not by that photographer. And when it comes to attitude, let’s face it; no one's going to choose a prima donna to work with. They’re going to want people they can have fun with so you better be fun, and you better be damn good at what you do.
People think session work is such a glamorous life, but in my opinion having done it, I think that's one of the most stressful areas of our industry. It takes a long time to get to the top, to build a name for yourselves and a reputation. What it comes down to is that you need to ask yourself if it’s worth the sacrifices that have to be made to get there. How much do you want it? There is only one Guido Palau in the world, and he's flown all over the globe for a reason. If you were to ask him what it took to get to his level, he would tell you that it was blood, sweat, tears, and starving for many, many years. But that was his passion, and he went for it. Now he's one of the top in his profession in the world.
Q: How do session and theatric platform work differ regarding preparation?
KS: For session and stage work, preparation and practice are key. If you're doing a project with any theatrical presentation, then that's a whole other area. For example, for the Redken Symposium, we would probably work on the contents of that, in terms of the opening night for about eight months before the show. That's a lot of planning, making wigs and hairpieces, and practicing the looks and how they are attached to the head, the rehearsals, and timing and all of those sort of things. I have the utmost respect for any hairdresser that is doing that type of work. It’s a lot more work than anybody realizes.
Q: What should every session artist have in their kits?
KS: A good assistant (laughs)! Doing a lot of things by ourselves is difficult. In doing session work in the photographic studio, the chances are that going to have more than one model to prepare, or you may have multiple looks on those models. Because everyone is budget and time conscious, we need to be as well. A creative director is going to organize a shoot to get the most for their money, and you having an assistant is a good investment as it helps streamline the process. Have somebody with you that can assist you whether it's shampoo the next model, do a blow dry, whatever it is that you need to make your job easier and more efficient.
As far as what to have in a session kit, frankly, I don't know where to stop. You need to bring pretty much everything. Depending on the project, you could need hair pieces, wigs, curling irons, flat irons, blow dryers, pin boxes; you name it. You’ve got to be ready for pretty much anything and everything.
If I were doing a show for fashion week, for example, I would have a meeting with the designer to explain to me what they wanted to go for. After looking into what the clothing is going to be like, I would present some ideas. Once we agreed on a concept, it would give me some idea of what that session kit should contain. At the same time, the designer could come up after seeing one model and tell me that they changed their mind and you need to be ready for that. And if I don't have what we need, then we are in trouble.
A kit is always huge, at least a large piece of luggage if not more to be able to contain all the different sizes of curling irons, hot rollers, and the like. The list is endless. It's just easier to say all of the above.
Q: What are some of your must-haves or go-to products and tools?
KS: As far as go-to, must-have products, my two most “cannot live without” products are Redken Guts, which is a brilliant styling mousse a hairspray called Control Addict. Both products just do so much more than I think even most people that use them even realize. You could build a monument with those two products, and sometimes we have to.
Q: Tell us about what your mentoring program is like and what a stylist can expect to get out of it.
KS: Any and everything. It's interesting how when somebody approaches me; they don't always know what it is they want help with. They just know that they are stuck or that they are not happy doing what they're doing, but they still want to be in the world of hairdressing. In other cases, they want to learn more on the business side and how to expand on it or how to motivate their staff, or how to put an educational program together for their salon, how to do photoshoots, etc. It really is about any and everything.
Q: How does the process work?
KS: If there's somebody who's interested in doing the program, I will ask them to send me an email to outline what it is they believe they want help with. After reviewing all of that, I get a better idea of what they're looking for and offer a complimentary 15-minute consultation on the phone. That allows us to prioritize what it is that they need to do to get to the next point if that's the point that they want to get to. We then analyze what the steps are that we need to be taken, how long it will take, and if the sessions have to be done in person or can be done remotely. In some cases, it’s something that could be done on the phone or Skype. If it's a particular skill-set, some of that cannot be done over Skype, as it takes that face-to-face interaction to make it work. In such cases, if I'm not there standing next to the person, it's almost impossible for me to observe and respond correctly.
So many people are commenting that they wouldn't be where they are if they hadn't been through all of the mentoring with me. I have several clients that have now been mentoring with me for a while, some on an ongoing basis for a couple of years, while others find that one day is good. Others believe that an hour will give them some guidance, it really is whatever the individual wants and needs. I'm more than happy to say I don't think I'm the right person to teach you what it is you need to learn; I will only teach them what I am equipped to help them with. It's critical that people are transparent with me and vice versa because I don't want to waste people's money or time.
The mentoring program really is very much on an individual basis. I'll do up to 15 people in a session but no bigger than that because I can't give them my undivided an individual attention. Even with a larger group like that, it's always about hands-on and specific skills, whereas when it comes to “can you plan my life for me,” then that's a private matter that has to be addressed individually.
Q: What’s the story behind your mannequin heads?
KS: I was in a beauty school teaching one day, and I looked at the shelves and saw some of the most incredible work done by some of the students. And not just on the student’s level but some of the most amazing work I've ever seen, and it was done by students. I was like OMG these heads are just brilliant, but the faces weren't so brilliant nor were the way the hair was implanted into the head. That’s when a thought struck me.
If you were going to take a picture of your work, you're going to choose the best model possible with the best face. I thought, wow if these incredible hairstyles were done on beautiful faces, you’d want to show them off. Just think how great that would look on social media. For the students in this beauty school, they made do with what they had. But what if they didn’t have to?
That’s when I came up with the idea of creating school heads that not only looked attractive but the hair is implanted and knotted in a way that is like the natural hair fall. This method is more conducive to learning how to cut hair because we need to understand natural fall, not just in cutting hair but in coloring.
I started off with two mannequin heads: a schoolgirl and a schoolboy. The KS SchoolBoy, which has pliable ear tips for realistic clipper cutting, is straight off the runway of a Gucci men's show while the KS SchoolGirl is adorable. We knew that we had to make them affordable so beauty school students could buy them and use them. Obviously, everyone is on a budget, and we have to be very conscious of that. To make the heads affordable and still have really great quality, we made the head a slightly smaller size, so we're using less hair.
Later I thought why not make other heads for stylists to practice on so I created the KS Color Head the KS Long Head, both which are the size of an average human head. Obviously, they're more expensive because more hair goes into them and are more human-like for professionals to practice on.
Q: Do seasoned pros really need to practice?
KS: If you're serious about what you do, you should absolutely practice your craft. A surgeon doesn't go into the operating room doing major heart surgery and practice on a real patient. They practice on a cadaver and then with a surgeon in tow so that they get the experience before going in on a real patient.
As hairdressers, how often do we practice what we want to do? Consequently, if our work is the same all of the time because we're scared of doing something differently or maybe new to us, then where are we going to practice? We're going to get bored and go off and do something else instead.
To become great at something, you’ve got to put a lot of hours in. You know what they say: “It takes up to a thousand hours to practice something to become an expert in it.” As professionals, we’ve got to keep ourselves motivated by challenging ourselves with new techniques and constant playing. To create something that's pretty enough to post on social media like a lot of people are doing now. Not for the sake of showing off, but for sharing what’s you’ve done to help educate and motivate others.
To keep up on our higher education is absolutely crucial and it shouldn't be a choice because we're not that interested in what we are doing. If you're not interested, then do something else. I'm serious! I've met a lot of hairdressers that it's just a job to them. I'm sorry but we are servicing people, and we can make or break their week or year if we cut their hair too short. So, let's take it seriously. Besides, if we put the hours in, we can charge what we deserve to charge. Also, we have so much more fun behind the chair if we're doing something different all of the time. I'd rather shoot myself than do the same old thing all the time.
Q: In addition to education and practice, how else can we stay current?
KS: Take a good look in the mirror. Do you look good? Can you look in the mirror and say I feel like I'm on trend? Are you on trend for your age group and within the realm of what’s sensible for you? How can we talk to the client and recommend what is trending or what is suitable for them if we are not even looking good ourselves? That's not very inspirational, and we are a client's inspiration. If we are not totally up to speed with everything, then do we honestly have the right to be that authority and call ourselves professional? It's something I feel strongly about because they're not enough hairdressers that really are that serious about what we do. Too many piss and moan about the fact that they live here or there and don't have such opportunities, and I call foul. That's BS because you really can make it wherever you are. It's about looking at ourselves and making an investment in the things that enable us to have the life that we want.
Photos courtesy of Kris Sorbie & Redken