Originally printed in the March 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Nabil Harlow is one of a kind. The master hair designer for Balmain Hair Couture – the first fashion house with a creative director of hairstyling – has pioneered some of the brand’s most iconic beauty looks. To wit: the powerhouse ponytails that hit the runway for SS16. He was also behind Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid’s color swap for FW16 that generated a social media storm. This season, he’s starting fresh and favoring long, clean hair with a deep side part. “I love a gorgeous, sharp cut with clean lines,” he says.
Growing up in Paris, French-Algerian Harlow was surrounded by strong Arab women. While developing an eye for style, his mother defined his love for glamour. “She really looked like an actor, a kind of Isabelle Adjani,” he says. Reminiscing of his grandmother spraying a cloud of Elnett into the air above her coif, he continues, “They had the Arab way of taking care of themselves, with so much precision, but with that French spice added in.” He became fascinated with black-and-white movies from the 30s and 40s, and remembers watching them with his grandmother. “I was obsessed with the aesthetic of the women. Especially their beauty, and the way their hair was moving. In the era I live in, hair doesn’t look or move like this. I wanted to change that. I wanted to bring back a new kind of glamour.”
Quitting school at the age of 16, Harlow pursued an education in hair. It took him a year to convince his father of this move and he booked a few modeling jobs to help pay for the costs. During this time, he worked for hair legend Orlando Pita. He relocated to New York at 19 to learn English, and colored hair at the Frederic Fekkai Salon on Fifth Avenue. Moving back to Paris seven years later, he began to work on shoots and counts an editorial job with fashion editor Benjamin Galopin as a defining moment. From there, he transitioned to the movie industry. His ambitions grew as he mastered techniques that can only be achieved by working on the set of a film which takes place in the 13th century. After being approached by an agent, Harlow transitioned back to the world of fashion, and soon began his role at Balmain.
Founded in 1974, Balmain Hair Couture has seen a resurgence since Harlow took the helm. He is in charge of everything from product design to the hair looks for the runway shows. “I create my own campaigns, choose my teams, my models, my pictures, and the hair I want to see for the season,” he says. His dedication is unwavering. For his first show, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing asked him to create dreadlocks. “I spent one month locked in the atelier and handcrafted every single one so that it matched every girl’s natural hair color.” With Natasha Poly, Isabeli Fontana, and Doutzen Kroes all walking, the pressure was high.
Harlow has since worked with everyone from Kim Kardashian West to actor Leïla Bekhti and model Pat Cleveland. He now considers many of them friends. “If they work with me, it’s because we understand each other. I can’t work with someone who doesn’t trust me,” he says. Turning Natalia Vodianova into a strawberry blonde is one example. “I think hairdressers are like designers. If you go for a Gaultier gown, it’s because you want it to look like Gaultier. I want the hair of my clients to look like a signature.” Harlow derives his from where his story began: “Don’t follow any rules. Hair is a feeling. When you cut, you don’t need a direction. You need a result.”