x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The mane man: Frédéric Fekkai

Feature With an innate sense of style, Frédéric Fekkai has the ability to fashion hair in a simple, natural cut that matches a client's personality and complements their face - and many of the world's most beautiful women love him for it.

Paulo Vecina / The National
Paulo Vecina / The National

Frédéric Fekkai has run his hands through more celebrities' hair than he can remember, which must put him on a par with Calum Best. "Naomi Watts, Catherine Deneuve, Salma Hayek, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford," he recites, ticking off names on his fingers, then frowns before throwing his hands up in the air. "There are too many, I can't remember all their names."

Some of these might jog his memory: Scarlett Johansson, Heidi Klum, Renée Zellweger, Jessica Lange. Hillary Clinton, Gisele Bundchen... the list goes on. But why would they all be queuing up to let Fekkai trim their tresses? According to the celebrity hairdresser, it is because he chooses a cut that suits their style and bone structure rather than adhering to the latest trends. Even the most difficult actresses have been known to become putty in his hands as he fashions low-maintenance, uncomplicated cuts that can easily be managed at home.

"Your hair is your most powerful accessory," he says on a flying visit to Dubai to demonstrate his skills and promote his haircare products. Fekkai says his signature is "an effortless style that frames and enhances the silhouette and the bone structure. "It is a cut to suit the face. Hair for me is like a fabric. I love the wind and hair that moves, not a style that is rigid. I do not believe in trends. Your haircut should match your personality, lifestyle and career."

It was Fekkai who persuaded Clinton, then First Lady, to ditch her regimented bob - "they can be very dowdy" - and replace it with a softer, layered look in the 1990s. "It liberated her and created effortless elegance," he declares. "It was fresh and energetic for her: it said she was a working woman." For Lange's portrayal of Frances Farmer, in the 1982 film Frances, about a volatile actress who spent time in an asylum, he whipped up "an explosion" of hair to represent her internal turmoil.

And when Klum begged for a change of image for a magazine cover four years ago, he gave her a fringe. "She looked amazing," he recalls with a smile. It took a while for Fekkai, now 51, to discover his special knack for hair. The son of Moroccan parents, he was born in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France and was destined for a career in business. While studying for a law degree, he did some modelling to make ends meet and came across a stylist who had everyone in her thrall.

He can no longer remember her name, only that "people were very respectful to her. When I met her, I realised this was a trade. "She was in real demand and it was a glamorous, exciting environment with celebrities and models." Fekkai quit his studies, to his father's dismay, and moved to Paris in 1979 as a 21-year-old apprentice to the acclaimed hairdresser Jacques Dessange. "I learnt to cut as well as style hair for fashion shoots and became his creative director," he says. "There I realised I had a skill, not just with hair but with training. I was attracted to the artistic side of things as well as the business."

Three years later he moved to New York to launch an American salon for Dessange, before opening his own salon in the city's Bergdorf Goodman department store in 1989. Clinton submitted to his expert hands in 1992, followed in 1994 by her husband Bill, who was then president. The stars were not far behind. In fact, if the celebrities he deals with are used to walking the red carpet, the gong for "best-tressed" should surely go to their hairdresser. He teased Emma Thompson's coiffure for the 1993 Oscars when she won Best Actress for Howards End, and Lange a year later when she picked up the same award for Blue Sky. His popularity with the stars even landed him a cameo role alongside Reese Witherpoon in Legally Blonde 2.

When Martha Stewart went to prison for five months in 2004 for lying about a stock sale, her first call was to her lawyer and her second, so legend has it, was to Fekkai. The television host was said to have flown him across America to style her hair as soon as she was released and taught her fellow inmates how to blow-dry their hair using his special technique. But if you are hoping for the latest celebrity tittle-tattle, you'll be sorely disappointed: Fekkai is the soul of discretion.

"So many celebrities are just great," he says. "I do not have a favourite. I work in a world of beauty and happiness." Showing how to "have a great style and be beautiful" means that even the most difficult actresses soften to him, he claims. "I like to give guidance and have a great success rate." Fekkai, who has two children, thinks part of his appeal is in offering a complete package rather than simply dealing with his clients' hair.

He says he has an innate sense of style and what looks good, so proffers tips on make-up, fashion and grooming at the same time. It has paid off, with a string of eight salons across the US, including outlets in Beverly Hills and Palm Beach, a hair care range - available in department stores in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - and a host of A-list clients, who pay Dh2,750 (US$750) for an hour-long appointment preceded by a consultation.

After three decades in the business, the hairdresser no longer cuts hair himself and concentrates on training his 350 staff - so while Sandra Bullock's sleek mane had the Fekkai touch at this year's Oscars, where she picked up the Best Actress award for The Blind Side, it was his team rather than the man himself who tamed it. "The key to the success of a style is having healthy hair," he says. "If the hair has sheen, half the job is done but a lot of people have hair that is dull or flat. I bring life to the hair."

He says anyone can achieve a groomed look. Take this from his book, Frédéric Fekkai: A Year Of Style, published in 2000: "Style is not about age, or height, or weight - it's about a sense of ease, a sense of dignity and a sense of individuality shining through." The tome is a month-by-month guide to upping your status in the style stakes, from renting a red sports convertible to instructions on how to sip a citron pressé, showing that his clients value his unerring judgment on how to live just as much as they do his ability to create the perfect natural cut.

"I learned to observe by sitting at the terrace of the famous Deux Garçons café in Aix-en-Provence," Fekkai says in his book. "To this day, I am still spellbound by its colours, its movements and its sounds and by the way the beautiful sunlight exalts the shape and texture of almost everything. "I noticed that men and women who have style are often people who are in contact with nature. Simply put, this is the ultimate secret of style: be natural. Don't go against nature… work with it. "From the way you smile to the way you walk, dress, eat, or talk, be authentic."

Frédéric Fekkai's tips on dealing with hair in the hot and humid UAE.

• In a hot climate, it is important to ensure the hair retains moisture. That is also important indoors, as cool air pumped through air-conditioners can leave hair flat and dry it out.

• Soft water can affect the condition of your hair so alternate your shampoo every time you wash it. If you use a full volume shampoo one day, for example, change it for one with a gloss factor the next day to help maintain the shine.

• Wash hair every day and use conditioner after washing. Only use conditioner from the earlobes down, not on the roots or hair will become too greasy.

• As the sun can make hair dry and dull, use products with ultraviolet protection.

• Humidity makes curly hair frizzy so use an ion-free serum to smooth out curls and lock in moisture.

• To deal with the harsh effects of desalinated water and chlorine, wash with an apple cider shampoo to get rid of deposits. You can make your own final rinse by diluting a little apple cider vinegar with water for more manageable hair.

• Use a glossing cream after washing to add shine and give texture.