Meeting with Yuseff Smyth, Downtown NY Image-Maker
“I was inspired by the Velvet Underground culture of New York and the European Runways. In the 80's, I styled Punks on King's Road in London, UK and stirred it up with Reggae aestheticism. My salon work in hair dressing spans from Madison Ave, Vidal Sassoon to John Sahag. Presently I am taking appointments during the week at Sacha & Olivier salon in Flatiron district. On Sundays in my Soho Atelier I do complete make-overs, hair and photo portraits”
Yuseff, thank you for having us. Tell us a little more about what you do.
I am an image-maker. I work with everybody’s personal style and I try to embellish it. When I first meet someone, I see the potential of taking him or her to another place. People rely on me to help them, to be the hands that transform them to where they need to be.
How did you get into hair?
It all began while I was working myself through undergrad, seeking a degree in pre-law. I was totally independent and wasn’t receiving financial support from my parents. Working my way through college, I was looking for a backup plan to support my education and lifestyle.
Also there was a conflict in beliefs inside of me. Going into Law seemed political and too conforming to my free spirit. I had a hunger for the "Bohemian life", I saw in novels or films. Love for Life and true expression of one's soul. "Fashion" was the door that I opened and it set my soul free.
At the age of 19, I was walking in the street and I saw a hairdresser in a window designing wigs. He was like this maestro making these beautiful shapes, transforming this block of hair in something really special. I was mesmerized watching this.
So I did some research about hairdressing and top stylists and I thought “wouldn’t it be great to work on rock stars”. It was an addiction. To me, fashion was always an addiction.
What fascinates you about fashion?
I was a trendy kid who was into different rock’n’roll groups, people like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley… They were my heroes, wearing really cool clothing. It was something that caught my attention and I think that when you find something that speaks to your inner self, it is meant for you to explore it.
So how did you get absorbed in that world?
I wanted to go to Madison Avenue first and then to places like London, Paris, Stockholm, Milan… And it happened. I have been able to create some special relationships. I did a two-year apprenticeship with Vidal Sassoon. However André Matheleur took me as a stylist. He gave me the opportunity to further my repertoire by mastering make-up and hair colouring. I wasn’t allowed to use natural colors. At this time, fashion was leading to the punk movement so he led me to that. He saw the punk movement coming and he got on board. It swept fashion to a new level.
Cinandre salon in New York (where Yuseff worked with Andre Matheleur) - Andre got the salon chairs painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Balayage technique with cotton at Cinandre
Andre Matheleur working as a maestro
Andre Matheleur and Olivier Mikhailoff
How were you able to connect with Madonna?
Living downtown and hanging out with various personalities like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Maripol exposes you to a lot of opportunities. Maripol was the creative force that developed Madonna’s style. Being French, she enlightened Madonna to the world of intimate apparel.
How were you being experimental?
In the 80’s, I was working with the original MTV people. We took kids and did crazy things to their hair like giving them dreadlocks, dying it blue, purple… For the first time global Caucasian kids were saying “I want the black experience”, they wanted to look like Bob Marley. MTV made the connection of global images possible.
So you said you were always between New York and London.
Yes because this is where the heaviest influence of fashion were emerging with the young kids. That was the underground, most exciting scene.
Have you changed since that time?
Mais oui! With fashion you have to keep moving, the audience is changing. You get better and you just keep evolving. You keep being fresh, listening and observing the culture. The Internet has influenced all of us. It’s up to you to reinvent yourself.
Today you have your own studio?
Yes. This is where I create. It is like a laboratory because I have control. It is where I have the costumes, my lighting, my tools…
How do you define transformation?
Transformation can be subtle but effective. You can brush the hair in a certain way and it really makes a big difference. You can just put them into a chignon and you got something else. Transformation does not have to be so extreme.
The recent videos that I saw like the Marie-Antoinette transformation… Why does it fit in your work as an artist?
It’s important to pay tribute to iconic images that I think are pretty valuable for us to remember. I figured out how to make it fun, how to make it different. Marie-Antoinette was a shift from decadence to a more humble lifestyle.
One example of transformation work by Yuseff : Marie-Antoinette
You said that you get to work with the most beautiful women. But what about men?
I am credited having worked with Basquiat, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Ice T… Our culture dictates that women spend more time at the hairdressers.
Why “cut hair dry”?
Vidal Sassoon revolutionized hair styling in the 60’s by cutting hair wet reason why you cut quicker. However cutting hair dry, you have more control, you see shapes and the client can see it too.
What is your next adventure?
This summer, I have been given the opportunity to visit and work in Berlin. My circle of friends there includes film maker, writers and painters. I am curious of the happenings there.
Will I find "Haute Bohemian" in the West as compared to "Bohemian" in the East of Berlin? Consumerism in America has shattered "La vie en Rose". New York City has displaced the artistic communities that once flourish in the 60's or 80's from lower Manhattan. Smaller groups now reside in the outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx…Landlords, charging tenants high rents, have changed the face of business. Yet somehow the artists find their ways to express themselves.
Berlin is one of those great culture capital cities, attracting the Bohemian spirits to its Walls. No two cities are alike… Like no two women are alike. Only appreciate the beauty that it has to offer to you or the drama that will unfold.
Thank you Yuseff for sharing your insights with us.