From the cover of The Face to creating the luxe loveliness of Burberry hair, session stylist Neil Moodie is a genius at delivering the hair that women want now. He tells us how this Brummie lad became a favourite of the fashion A-list.
Things might have been very different. You see, hairdresser extraordinaire Neil Moodie’s first love was the stage. “When I was at school I was very big on music,” he explains. “I learnt the oboe, violin, piano and recorder, but actually my best instrument was my voice. I trained in theatre singing and that’s where my love for the stage came from.”
Singing in school plays, after-school clubs and basically wherever he could, Neil’s voice was his meal ticket. Or so he thought. At the age of 14 his singing career came to a halt. The lead in his school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Neil jumped his cue and started singing in the wrong scene. It was the kind of moment that leaves a kid scarred. “It was horrific because I’m a perfectionist, so it knocked me for six and I decided I didn’t want to sing anymore.”
Neil put treading the boards on the backburner, turned to working behind the scenes and got involved with hair backstage. “It was the ’80s, we were all playing around with colouring our hair at home – mine was burgundy. That’s when I decided I want to be a hairdresser.”
A Brummie born and bred, Neil worked at the now-closed David John salon in the city before he went to the then salon du jour, The Rizzo Group. “They were all very ‘Sassoon-y’, very avant-garde. Two of my models for hair were Katie Grand (now a super stylist and editor-in-chief of LOVE magazine) and Liz Collins (now a fashion photographer) when they were 14 – even then they were cool girls,” he says. But London was calling. Finding himself there on jobs in the week for The Rizzo Group, Neil was also going every weekend to hang out. “London was the hub. My head was telling me this was where I needed to be if I wanted to make something of my life and pursue a good career in hairdressing.”
Cue a job in the city with ex-Trevor Sorbie stylists Greg and Rebecca Cazaly at Cazaly and Co, Covent Garden; and Gavin Hodge, the famous ’60s hairdresser and graduate of Leonard of Mayfair alongside John Frieda. Being fully entrenched in the salon world, his first piece of editorial came about by chance. Trying his hand at a different side of the trade, in 1991 Neil found himself working as a colourist (“I was bored, I needed a change”) at Toni&Guy’s prestigious salon in Kensington. “It was at the time when Guido Palau worked for them. Whenever he needed a model’s hair cut or coloured, he would bring them into our salon. I got asked to colour Emma Balfour’s hair for a shoot for The Face and Guido wanted her hair bleached blonde”.
Teetering on the edge of a session career, everything changed the day he met British fashion photographer Corinne Day. Introduced to Corinne by her then flatmate and mutual friend, hairdresser James Brown, one day she asked if Neil would colour her hair. “She had so much hair it used to take hours and we got on really well. She used to send me models who needed their hair coloured for her shoots. One day she said ‘I’ve got this model with mousey brown hair and I want her bleached, but with roots and some pink bits on the ends”, so he did it (“I was just helping a friend”). But three days before the shoot, the scheduled hair stylist cancelled, and Corinne called, asking Neil to step in. He reveals: “I said yes because I wanted to help out a mate and I didn’t think much of it”.
The shoot was to be the cover story of The Face in 1993 and the image of a girl with a mohawk with pink dip-dyed ends (“I was ahead of the trend,” he jokes) was to be the image that changed his career trajectory. Neil accepts that it was a perfect storm. “Do you know what the weird thing is? None of it was ever really planned. It was almost like it was meant to be. It was very spontaneous.”
What was to follow, Neil wasn’t prepared for. The Face shoot had been out for a week when he got a call at the salon (“in the middle of highlights!”) from someone insisting on speaking to him. “The receptionist told me I needed to take the call – it was Italian Vogue. Thinking someone was winding me up, I picked up the phone, saying, ‘Who the hell is this?’” Well, suffice to say, it was the bookings editor from Italian Vogue. They had seen the shoot and wanted to book him in Milan the following week. “I went with the smallest kit in the world, I was so unprepared. All they wanted was for me to bring ‘the pink spray’,” he laughs.
Using Corinne as his mentor and benchmark for advice, Neil didn’t get an agent for a year and a half. “Corinne advised that I just take it slow. I felt a bit out of my depth, in a way.” When he did come to getting an agent, shows really came into the mix, but it wasn’t a natural progression. “My agent advised I do shows, but I didn’t want to and I turned them down for about three years. It was too stressful, too manic an environment. I had assisted on shows with Sam McKnight and I just remember being so overwhelmed by the whole thing.”
Fast-forward a few years, and it was the hair at Burberry that created a buzz. “Burberry was such a major show. It’s about understanding who the Burberry woman is,” Neil explains. “If you understand the aesthetic you’re welcomed in. They have a phenomenal brand identity that’s hard to replicate. When you do a show it’s not about you, it’s about the designer and the clothes and the women they are trying to represent. Sometimes people try to make the hair a bigger statement than the clothes and sometimes it works, but you have to go in much more humbly than that.”
Which is why Neil probably gets asked on a daily basis how to create ‘Burberry-esque’ hair, the hair that every woman wants. “I like doing attainable hair. Even when I do something a bit avant-garde I like to think that people could look at it and say, ‘I would like to have that hair’.”