By Sergio Burns
‘Why not?’ he asks, referring to people from humble backgrounds who find success. Hunger and passion, he believes, are what you need, because that’s what drives hard work. Malcolm Edwards should know. The world renowned hairstylist has worked with the world’s top make-up artists, fashion designers, photographers and pop stars – Charlotte Tilbury, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Tim Walker, Mario Testino, Kylie Minogue, Bjork and Kate Bush. Brought up in a humble household, with a penchant for eyeliner and colouring his hair, it was not the look you wanted to develop on a working class estate in Irvine.
“I mean it didn’t go down well,” Edwards admitted with a degree of understatement. “When I was at Greenwood Academy I used to get my head kicked in constantly.”
He laughs warm, genuine, friendly. ‘Constantly’, is the significant word.
Edwards, of course, has become a success. In 2010 he was inducted into The Scottish Fashion awards Hall of Fame, has worked and lived all over the world, and must wonder, by comparison, what became of his tormentors?
“There was a sea of people looking the same. I just didn’t relate to that,” He says dismissively. “You don’t need to be the same as everyone around you, there is nothing wrong with being different. From when I was a kid I didn’t care about being the same as everybody else, and I was very focused. I (thought) I want to do hair, that’s what I am going to do and I want to do hair for photographers.”
Edwards is convinced it is his ‘ordinary’ Ayrshire/Scottish upbringing that has gifted him with the tenacity, energy and unflappable demeanour, needed to make it in such a cut-throat industry.
“Working in the Scottish suburbs, working in Irvine, working in Ayrshire, on to Glasgow you had to hustle,” he explains. “You can spot a crock of bull a mile away.
It was lots of people skills, being fast, being good…juggling clients. I wasn’t really fazed by anybody. I treat everybody the same, I don’t get fazed meeting celebrities or big models…because I am just myself.”
Edwards originally trained with Kenneth Arthur in Kilmarnock before moving to their shop in Irvine and then transferring on to Francis John in the same town. But if Ayrshire gave him his independent soul and determination it wasn’t able to hold his restless ambition and he was soon migrating to Glasgow.
“I worked with Alan Edwards and his partner Elaine Hill,” He spoke about his move to the city. “I always wanted to do hair for photographers, so, I had to work in the salons to get my skills, but I didn’t want to own a salon or work in a salon all my days. That went well in Glasgow…the three of us used to work really hard and then they offered me a partnership. I said thanks but no thanks and the next week I was in London, because I knew if I didn’t leave and do what I wanted to do I was going to get stuck.”
Inspired by a documentary he witnessed as a schoolkid, Edwards was determined to follow his ambitions. Armed with raw belief, a willingness to take risks and work hard, as well as a philosophical undertow that left him unfazed in the presence of celebrity, he moved south.
“I had a hero,” he admits. “A guy called Oribe (Canales). He was amazing, he was doing all the Versace campaigns. Then there was Sam (McKnight) and there was a guy called Guido (Palau)… he was kind of coming through and he was doing a lot of interesting textures so I wanted to assist him, and he was with Toni and Guy at the time, (but) I had no idea how the machine worked with associations and people, you know it is a massive maze of complicated contacts and people crediting things. The whole business is massive.”
Guido needed new people for his team and the young Ayrshireman was already in London and didn’t have to be asked twice. But London, Edwards found, was fast and disorientating and he had more to learn than he had ever imagined – and not just about styling hair. More than that, he was about to find out what he had always wished for was not how he had imagined, nothing, he discovered, is ever completely as it seems.
“I had to retrain,” he told me sounding surprised. “But the thing that was brilliant was learning about things, learning new ways of doing things. The downside was realising that the thing I wanted to do since I was a child was actually really complex. Lots of human dynamics and lots of egos and lots of tantrums. I basically kept my eyes and ears open…and I worked really hard. But it was more the stuff I witnessed and the dramas that I saw and the silliness and I thought oh my god it is quite exhausting. So, I thought I would take a sabbatical, just kind of get my head round things. I wasn’t sure that was really the world for me.”
He falls silent, he is a big guy – 6 foot 2 inches in his socks – remembers, takes time to reflect. He is not fazed easily, toughened by a hard upbringing among the bullies, but sporting a certain and endearing sensitivity.
Having reached this crossroads, Malcolm almost walked away. But,was thrown a lifeline, grabbed it and was pulled from the ocean of disillusionment.
“By chance I met lots of people through assisting Guido,” He revealed. “Alistair Mackie and Katy England. Alister Mackie I knew from when I worked in Scotland, we used to do hair for the art school fashion shows. Katy England was the stylist….working with Lee (Alexander) McQueen. She called me and said ‘listen we are really needing…good assistants for this show with McQueen’.
I said, ‘Of course, I would love to work.’ I ended up doing a lot of the hair and unbeknown to me the woman who was heading the make-up was Val Garland (herself a former successful hair-stylist).”
Garland watched Edwards work from her mirror, and impressed, she offered some life changing advice.
“All she could see was me rattling out all these looks,” he remembered. “It was fiddly hair to do…quite technical. She came up to me afterward basically saying, ‘who the hell are you?’ She said…’You need to meet my agent’. So, it was a case of I was going to take a wide berth and see how my head was about everything, and I was in the right place at the right time and a week later I had an agent.”
Now, Malcolm found himself on his own, and no longer the assistant, he made all the decisions.
“You’ve got all the responsibility, you’re not assisting anybody,” he explained. “You’re getting booked on your own merit. You are investing a lot of your own money, start building relationships with photographers, a lot of meetings. If you went to New York or Paris there was a lot of graft. Basically the same rhythm…models have to do.”
Eventually Edwards crossed the pond and worked in New York before returning to his present base in London.
“In the beginning, the more you start to do depending on the concentrations of where people work,” He told Ayrshire Magazine. “Sometimes it’s LA, sometimes New York. When I moved to New York all the concentration of photographers you wanted to work with was in New York. It is a hub for models to live in because it’s easier to travel and there is more work for them to do, so it was… a progression. So, often it makes sense to get an apartment and live there. It was really exciting falling in love with New York. Unfortunately, when I moved it was right before 9/11. The dynamic… changed…but I lived there for six years. It is very, very fast, very formulaic with some great opportunities.”
This is a lad from Irvine, with a mum he describes as ‘colourful’, who has lived in London and New York and worked with the best in the fashion, photography and pop industry. How many can say that?
He has worked with his childhood hero Kate Bush and talks about boosting the confidence of supermodels when they have a ‘wobble’. But, for those school mates who gave him such a hard time he hasn’t really changed at all.
“They see where they come from as holding them back,” He explains. “You know the last time I was there (Irvine/Ayrshire) I thought O.M.G. It’s so green! It’s so beautiful! When you go back you have a different appreciation of things. The patter of the people. Stand in a queue at Tescos in Irvine… a chip shop, a taxi rank… you’ll hear something that makes you laugh.”