What makes a great hairdresser? Precision of hand and eye, a feel for design, an ability to see a face and know what will enhance it?
Yorkshire hairdresser Robert Eaton believes great hairdressing begins with the ear. “It’s the ability to listen to somebody,” he says. “It’s understanding the needs of every single client and making sure whatever style works for them.”
On Monday, Robert, 39, will find out if he has won British Hairdresser of the Year 2019. The creative director at Russell Eaton, which has salons in Barnsley and Leeds, he will join hairdressers from across the UK for a grand dinner, show and ceremony to celebrate the Hairdressers Journal British Hairdressing Awards. Since their launch in 1985, these Oscars of the salon world have sky-rocketed the careers of top names including John Frieda, Charles Worthington and Nicky Clarke.
The high street may be struggling, but hair salons continue to be its backbone. More than 287,000 people work within the industry in the UK, contributing £7bn to the economy each year. As a nominee for British Hairdresser of the Year, Robert Eaton joins a select band of super-stylists. If he wins, he will be one of only three Yorkshire champions (following Andrew Barton of Barnsley in 2006 and Mark Hill of Kirk Ella, Hull, in 2000 and 2003).
This year’s nine nominees are already multi-award winners. Robert is already a British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame member and has won North Eastern Hairdresser of the Year three times. At the ceremony, he and his fellow nominees will recreate their entries for the audience, including his father Russell, mother Karen, sister Isobel and wife Libby, a nurse. This is very much a family story. Russell Eaton was founded by Russell in 1978, above Rita Britton’s Pollyanna store in Barnsley, before moving to Wellington Street and then Shambles Street. In the early 70s, he worked at Vidal Sassoon. Russell himself takes up the story. “In those days, Sassoon didn’t have Northern salons so it was off to Bond Street and while I was there, they decided to open in Manchester and a few years later in Leeds so, being a Northern lad Vidal asked me if I would go back North.
“It was so different from what everybody else in hairdressing was doing. Salons were much more traditional, setting and dressing hair, but with Vidal it was about design and working with the hair structure and the way it fell.”
There was no grand plan that his two children should follow him. “They both started helping me on a Saturday in the salon and they just took to it,” he says.
Robert joined in 1996 as an apprentice. “When it came to deciding what to do when I left school, I loved it already,” he says. “I used to look at all the different styles that the teams were creating, but also at what they looked like themselves – so creative and so different.”
Isobel, also a multi award-winning hairdresser (North Eastern Hairdresser of the Year 2017 and 2018), says there has never been any sibling rivalry. “I’ve always been really proud of everything that he has achieved,” she says. “It’s been a 20-year journey for Rob and this is the ultimate award.”
Mum Karen manages administration at both salons (the Leeds salon opened in 2012). Robert says: “We always say she is the most important Eaton because she does all the bookwork, wages and keeps it all going. We just do the hair.”
Some might find the idea of working with family challenging but, for the Eatons, it’s a winning formula. Robert says: “Dad was always supportive, but gave me a lot of constructive criticism as well. He didn’t make it easy for me, but it’s great that he was like that. He made me start at the bottom and work my way up. He wanted me to learn all aspects of hairdressing, go on as many courses and seminars as I could, watch as many people as I could. It certainly has helped me, because the trend in hairdressing has moved away from separate colourists and cutters.”
Awards can seem avant-garde and irrelevant to the high street customer, but Robert points out that, by taking part in creative competition, hairdressers show that they are constantly evolving, learning new techniques and ideas. The industry, he says, has changed massively over the years and not just in terms of product technology improvements. “Ideas and trends and inspiration are shared so much now on social media, so that’s made trends become mainstream much more quickly,” he says. “It’s not about an iconic celebrity-inspired haircut, as it was with the Jennifer Aniston cut or the Victoria Beckham bob. It’s much more about little micro trends. Clients actually come in to us with loads of ideas, set up with their own Pinterest boards.”
For many clients, he says, hair is an affordable luxury as well as the ultimate fashion accessory, but there’s more. “Hair is one of the first things that you notice about somebody. It’s one of the ways that we describe people. It’s a big part of somebody’s look and if somebody doesn’t get it right, it can change the way that you feel about yourself.”
The transformative power of hair is something Robert, a trained trichologist, has come to understand in particular through working with women and men who have lost their hair to cancer treatment or a medical condition. “I find that part of what I do the most rewarding. You can see the confidence come back into people,” he says.
There has never been a better time to enter the hairdressing industry, he says, adding that it should no longer be seen as a career for those who don’t do well at school. “There are so many areas you can go into with hairdressing, whether it’s film and TV, owning your own salon, being a freelance, combining make-up and hair.”
It’s a career that Russell, who continues to work at the Barnsley salon, would also recommend. “It’s not like work,” he says. “I’ve always loved what I’ve done. The skill is only 50 per cent of it. Personality and dedication is the other 50 per cent.”
Russell dare not think about Robert actually winning the Hairdresser of the Year title. “It would be absolutely amazing,” he says. “I am very proud. These days family businesses are probably somewhat of a rarity and there aren’t too many in hairdressing. I feel very privileged that I’ve been able to work with my children.”
Robert can do no more for now, and whatever happens, he is delighted with the nomination. “I’m up against some of the most respected names in the industry,” he says. “From my perspective, I’m just really glad and grateful to be there.”
The HJ British Hairdressing Awards sponsored by Schwarzkopf Professional take place on Monday, at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London.
Russell Eaton is at Boar Lane in Leeds on 0113 2469162 and at Shambles Street in Barnsley on 01226 244809. See www.russelleatonhair.com
NORTH EASTERN HAIRDRESSER OF THE YEAR 2019 FINALISTS
These are the finalists for the North Eastern category - and five of the six are from Yorkshire.
Their creative hairstyling and exceptional skill in cutting and colouring ensured their photographic work stood out from the rest. After submitting an expanded trend-led collection of images, the finalists will find out who the winner is on Monday night,
Ross Charles, from Ross Charles in York: Ross said: “The calibre of hairdressing recognised in these awards is widely known, and I’m very proud to have done so well. There are many amazing hairdressers in my region, and I’m thrilled to be nominated.”
Joseph Ferraro, from Joseph Ferraro Hair in Harrogate: Winner of the title in 2016, Joseph is the owner of two salons in the centre of Harrogate, eponymously named Joseph Ferraro Hair. His 2019 BHA collection, entitled Evocative, is a nod to the hedonism of the swinging 60s and glam-rock 70s.
Emma Simmons, from Salon 54 in Thirsk: Emma said: “The calibre of hairdressing recognised in these awards is widely known, and I’m very proud to have done so well. There are many amazing hairdressers in my region, and I’m thrilled to be nominated.”
Also nominated are: Alexander Turnbull, from Alexander Hair & Beauty in Hull
Rick Roberts, from Rick Roberts in Beverley (Rick is also in the final for Afro Hairdresser of the Year)
Jonathan Turner, from Hooker & Young in Newcastle.