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Cutting edge: the 80s hair salon that styled the future of fashion

Before London became the atomised, hyper-capitalist international transit terminal it is today, it was the capital of Britain. The remorseless globalisation of the city makes Sarah Lewis’s first feature, No Ifs Or Buts – premiering at the London film festival in November – an essential historical document that charts, over two decades, the probably final moment when British culture dominated the city.

Told through the story of Cuts, a Soho hair salon launched in the 80s that became a seminal influence on UK fashion and music – serving a clientele that stretched from Boy George to Goldie – the film depicts in microcosm the brief flourishing of British sexuality, creativity and multiculturalism that occurred in London before it was globalised to the margins.

The Australian film-maker brings a sharp outsider’s eye to the quirks of her subjects and their world as she spent 19 years following the shop, started by the late James Lebon, a hair stylist and model who surfed a post-punk, new romantic wave of inspiration. His laconic charm lured celebrities, artists and beautiful people to the business, which was turbo-charged when Steve Brooks became a partner. Together they plugged into the grid of Britain’s youth culture and advertising: a chaotic, drug-fuelled rise that would claim a plethora of victims – and their relationship.

“I grew up in 70s Australia,” Lewis tells me, when I ask her what so intrigued her about Brooks and Lebon. “It was a very misogynist environment in which women seemed to express themselves through supporting roles. I didn’t want that for my life and was fascinated by that male energy, how these two men made so much happen.”

An incisive study of masculinity, the film contrasts two very different characters. Lebon is tall, straight, good-looking and has an easygoing manner, which he uses to draw women and to skilfully court the gay worlds of style and fashion. Brooks is much shorter, excitable and painfully insecure about his homosexuality and appeal, constantly asking people whether they find him attractive.

The love between them is touching: a straight man accepting of his best friend’s gayness, more so than his friend himself. Lebon was a sexual groundbreaker, pushing for gay equality and also the advancement of heterosexuals in hairdressing. “I feel very strongly about that,” he tells Paula Yates in a TV interview. At one point, he employs a young black, clearly gay hairdresser partly because he thinks he will help Brooks out of the closet.



Horsing around … from the documentary No Ifs or Buts. Photograph: Mark Lebon

Cuts opened its doors to black talent, and its appropriation of London street culture helped bring it to the commercial mainstream – a move steeped in the racial dynamic of black kids creating the styles, moves and beats, while older, market-savvy white people get paid for it.

I reflected on the era with the writer David Matthews, who told me: “The black man was the white man’s plaything, in his clubs, his bedroom and the cells of his police stations. The lack of diversity was striking … I had no sense of being in any movement. People were too busy feasting on each other to have any real sense of solidarity.”

No Ifs Or Buts flags up Britain’s ever-confused politics. There is a lot of complaining about Thatcherism, with Cuts regarded as a guerrilla movement against capitalism and intolerance, and a wanton amnesia about how even more racist and homophobic the country was before Maggie.

Lebon and Brooks would ultimately become estranged, their relationship destroyed by drugs and dysfunction. A deeply buried childhood trauma suffered by Brooks was the force that both propelled Cuts and led him to a breakdown.



Ephemera from No Ifs or Buts, Sarah Lewis’ documentary about the Soho barbershop Cuts. Photograph: Mark Lebon

“I’m very sensitive to male fragility,” Lewis tells me. “In Australia, I was very aware of men acting out and the deeper emotional drives of which addiction and bad behaviour are just symptoms.” This sensitivity has produced a vivid window on to how poorly men cope with psychological pain, channelling their anguish into ambition and compulsion rather than processing it.

Filming began in 1996 as a year-in-the-life project, one that stretched to almost 20. “It was an unconventional film-making process,” Lewis says, “which mirrored the freewheeling energy of Cuts. Dealing with all those different personalities, life stories and moving back and forth to Australia made it difficult at times, but that’s the messiness of life”

The salonbecame a haven for all sorts of waifs and strays, providing an outlet for self-expression as they struggled with their demons. It’s unsettling how many people associated with the shop fell into addiction and have died.

Lewis’s film is an intriguing look at the dance between damage and creativity in a very British context, capturing the mania and naivety of that period when Thatcherism segued into the Cool Britannia of the Blair years. (Cuts gave Fran Healy of Travis his signature sub-mohican “fin”.) It was a time when the British leapt excitedly from their post-imperial deathbed in the mistaken belief that they’d again make themselves of consequence in the world through a combination of innovative pop culture and having sex with black people.

It’s a fitting irony that an immigrant has cast her lens on this period before the tsunami of global capital and talent crashed into London, washing its previous inhabitants and way of life to the sidelines. The historical value of Lewis’s film should not be overlooked.

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