The man who shaped the best-tressed list

By John Lichfield

Hairdresser Alexandre de Paris catered to the rich and the royal and they catered for him. John Lichfield looks at the life of the first celebrity hairstylist.

In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor fell seriously ill while making the blockbuster movie Cleopatra in London. What thing, or person, she was asked on her sick-bed, could make her feel better? She replied, instantly: "Bring me Alexandre."

"Alexandre" was not a lover or a doctor or a friend or a pet or a child. He was a hairdresser of the highest order, the man who turned women's, and occasionally men's, hair into an ephemeral art form.

For half a century, "Alexandre de Paris", who died this month at the age of 85, was hairdresser to the royal, the rich and the celebrated: from the Duchess of Windsor (one of his first clients), to Claudia Schiffer, via Princess Grace, Princess Margaret and Greta Garbo.

Alexandre was born as Louis Alexandre Raimon in St Tropez in September 1922. He was still dressing the hair of his final clients - Sophia Loren and the Countess of Paris, wife of the pretender to the French throne - into his 80s. He retired to his birthplace three years ago where he died.

Alexandre was a wiry man with a 1930s-style pencil moustache. He was once memorably described as looking "like a cross between a P.G. Wodehouse character and Salvador Dali". Although high camp in style and conversation, and a close friend of the bisexual French writer and artist Jean Cocteau, Alexandre was married with two children.

For more than 50 years, he catered to the most glittering of client lists - he was the Duchess of Windsor's hairdresser for 30 years; Sophia Loren is said to have had more than 500 appointments with him; Greta Garbo was a client but also "a friend".

He also dressed the hair of Jackie Kennedy, Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, and Romy Schneider.

Fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier called him Alexandre the Great. Paco Duffo, Alexandre's assistant for 30 years, before setting up his own salon in Barcelona, once said of his mentor: "There are a lot of barbers and few hairdressers ... Monsieur Alexandre makes love with hair ... He is so quick with his fingers: I pass him pins and it is as though they grow from his fingertips - it's magic."

Alexandre described the secret of his success more succinctly: "Never disappoint a woman."

As a young man, his parents, restaurateurs in St Tropez, wanted him to be a doctor. But the young Alexandre was interested in only one part of the human anatomy: hair.

As a small child, he would practise hairstyles on his grandmother's waist-length blonde locks. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to Antoine de Paris, one of the most celebrated society hairdressers of his day.

Antoine was celebrated for always wearing white and sleeping in a coffin. He had made his name by styling the hair of the actress Sarah Bernhardt and creating the so-called "garcon", or boyish look, for Chanel in the 1920s.

Alexandre once said of his early hairdressing career with Antoine: "My mother took me to a fortune-teller. The first card she turned over was the Queen of Hearts. 'You will meet a king's wife and she will determine your future path.' Naturally, I didn't believe a word. Two years' later, in 1946, I actually met a king's wife who made me famous."

Alexandre had styled the hair of the wife of the Aga Khan for a ball to celebrate her marriage. The guests included the Duchess of Windsor who was living in gilded exile in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

"The very next day, [the Duchess] called me and asked me to go and see her," Alexandre said in an interview with the Independent in 1998. "She gave me a thousand explanations as to what she wanted and then I did her hair. The next day I got another call. 'What did you do to my hair?' she asked. 'I disobeyed you and did exactly the opposite of what you requested,' I admitted. 'It's wonderful!' she said. 'For the first time in my life, I woke up with my hair exactly as it was when I went to sleep. From now on, you will stay by my side'."

The severe, elegant hairstyle which Alexandre said that he had "knitted" for the Duchess became her trademark.

His association with the Duchess changed his life. She and her husband persuaded magazines to write profiles of him. The Duchess introduced him to 400 wealthy or celebrated clients.

Alexandre went on to become not only the favourite hairdresser of the world's richest and most beautiful women but the most sought-after high fashion hairstylist. For 34 years, he created the hair "look" at the shows of Yves St Laurent.

He was celebrated especially for creating the "chignon", or elaborate bun, which dominated women's hair fashions in the late 1950s. He also worked with Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.

Alexandre said the secret of his success was "to recognise a woman's personality and match her hair to it". He also once said: "I express myself through hair. I can translate my dreams."

Asked for "tips" on how women should look after their hair, he would give two pieces of advice. First, they should change their brand of shampoo every two months. Like bodies and minds, hair thrives on variety, he said. Second, women should brush their hair at least 100 times before going to bed.

- Independent

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