My Best Teacher;Interview;Nicky Clarke

As a fashion-conscious 16-year-old I'd heard of Leonard, the hairdresser who gave Twiggy the look that made her famous, but when I went for an interview to work as a junior at his Mayfair salon, I didn't meet the man himself. In fact even once I was working there, it was quite a while before I saw Leonard. He only worked two days a week, when he attended his famous clients who included most of the European royals, film people like Robert Redford, and the super models: Jerry Hall, Marie Helvin and Twiggy. Most of the time he was up in his office on the top floor.

He was an enigmatic figure. He had a distinct aura about him and unbelievable style. He was very imposing, incredibly good looking, very dark and every day he dressed in an Yves St Laurent suit. He hardly spoke and was quite vague sometimes, which I think only added to the mystique. There were lots of stories about him - like the times when he would leave people under dryers and forget about them.

He was quite tactile with his clients. There was a lot of hair flying around. He wasn't showy, he was very, very stylish. It wasn't camp affectation with hands going everywhere - though there was a little bit of that. His hands worked fast. Hair would be towel-dried then he would stand back and look at things from all different angles and stand people up while he studied their hair.

I was paid pound;12 a week and I worked for many stylists at the salon before I graduated to assisting Leonard. I can remember on training nights, early on, when I didn't have a clue what was going on, I went up to him and asked if he would personally come and check my model that evening. Partly it was because I wanted to have his input, but really it was mostly just because I wanted him to notice me. There were probably about 15 of us trainees and I wanted to stand out.

I was educated at Tennyson's Grammar School in Kennington, south London. Although I come from quite an ordinary family from the Old Kent Road, we were fairly academic. My sister has a first class honours degree so when I only passed two out of eight 0-levels I was not in Dad's good books. I'd played around at hairdressing since I was 13 or 14, doing friends' and siblings' hair and was keen on everything to do with fashion. I remember turning up to my interview at Leonard's, dressed head to foot in black which was then quite ahead of its time. I wore French-cut trousers and a fitted jacket with wide lapels.

The way I work now is almost a direct copy of the way Leonard works, with a few individual touches in between. My mannerisms are much like his too. At the time I was working in his salon, he used a particular whalebone comb which few people used, so I insisted on using one. He also used a certain type of scissor, six inches long, when a lot of people were still using very small scissors that were a kind of Sassoon affectation.

Leonard's method, which I still adhere to today, involves sectioning the hair, cutting it according to how it falls. It's based on mathematics, dividing up the dome of the head using geodesic sections which create diamond facets. I do a wet cut first, then when the hair has been rough-dried, a double or treble cut.

I'd only been at Leonard's for a couple of months when one of the stylists started taking me with him on photographic shoots and soon I was working with all the top magazines for the best photographers in the world. After 10 months I started taking my own bookings, which I think is a record.

I view Leonard as a real genius. His influence is still evident. London hairdressers today are divided into ex-Leonard or ex-Vidal Sassoon stylists. The Sassoon group's work is more geometric, more angular. The Leonard style is more fluid. Leonard was very good at encouraging young people. Daniel Galvin, Michaeljohn and John Frieda are all ex-Leonard too.

Like me, Leonard is a Gemini. He was a London boy, too, from a similar background. He's been into my salon many times. I was a bit scared of him when I was young and even now, I'm still slightly in awe of him.

The Duchesses of York and Kent and models Yasmin le Bon, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell are among the clients of hairdresser, Nicky Clarke, 39. He and his wife and business partner, Lesley, have two children, Harrison, 13 and Tellisa, 10He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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