It's a great story. Take a dollop of Shampoo, the 1975 film starring Warren Beatty. Sprinkle this with the fantastic, insouciant decadence of Warhol. Cut it with the sardonic acid of Truman Capote and you are close to getting there.
The journey is less of a drift and more of a chrome-plated pinball ricochet from Limerick, to London, to LA, to New York. A gorgeous salon above Fifth Avenue on the top of Bergdorf Goodman, the sky above, Central Park ahead.
The salon is an exquisite hang-out where the beautiful and the blessed - models, socialites, actresses and the occasional composite of all three - leave looking more beautiful than they did when arrived. Inbetween they succumb to the easy, discreet, occasionally disgraceful, and confident charm of John and his precisely-honed team.
It all works how it should. The charisma offensive can make you forget that John has a gift that is part surgeon, part artist. The atmosphere distracts you from the fact that you are here to get the perfect haircut. Time passes too quickly. Then you see your reflection. Not a hairstyle as such, perfect hair, just so.
The languor and sense of fun does not suggest that this is arguably the world’s busiest hair salon. More than seventy thousand clients walk out of here with the feline stealth that comes with having perfect hair. Call it singular animal instinct.
The gorgeous nonchalance of the salon comes from John himself and his gently-composed aesthetic disarray. The beautiful unordained fall of well cut hair is an easy elegance that never looks like it is trying too hard.
Imagine if Brice Marden used tresses of hair and scissors instead of oil paint and tapered sticks. Again, close but not quite the full picture. The salon was designed by David Collins Studio. The relationship between John and The Studio goes back forever. Like the best unions, how it started is slightly vague. John became aquainted with David though Iain Watson. How and when exactly remains vague and shrouded in soft-focus.
Designing the salon was akin to creating a film set. Albeit a film set with a permanence and the ability to perform under pressure. It is appropriate to say it is ageing with an assured grace. It does not look or feel brand new. Nor does it feel old. It just looks beautiful, feels comfortable and is sublimely glamourous.
Maybe it has had the odd bit of very subtle work here and there. It would be wrong to say.
I meet John at the end of what has been a long and elegant lunch at Colbert in London. The table is still resonating with the fade of rich conversation. Certain elements I am requested to keep out of print. To John’s left is the exquisite actress Aileen Atkins. She explains that her morning was with John doing what he does beautifully. It needs no saying that her hair is wonderful, a perfect gamine, her face framed by the elegant disarray of bohemian ease. It is the hair and face of an Edna O'Brien novel. Aileen leaves and we chat. The room is effervescent with pre-weekend anticipation.
Graham Erickson: What brings you to London?
John Barrett: Well, a lot of this. Friends and social stuff. It is all delightfully fun but it becomes a pretty rigorous exercise. Also, the main reason is to see The Inheritance tomorrow at the Young Vic. But, you know, it is always nice to come to London.
GE: How long ago did David Collins create the salon you’re in now?
JB: A very long time ago. I think it was ninety-six. God, twenty-two years. Who would have guessed?
GE: How did you brief David on what you wanted?
JB: Well, I instinctively trusted David with regards to the design and the aesthetic values. I simply knew, and explained, that I wanted to offer the absolute best hair service with a genuine niceness. A politeness different to obsequiousness. Just a nice, easy, environment where one could get the best hair-work. Beyond this, David was given absolute freedom.
GE: Were you happy with the result?
JB: Well, as we just mentioned, it was done almost a quarter century ago and it still exists. I am not, I suppose, a person who accepts things which disappoint me so I must have been very happy. I remember certain features and details which at the time I felt almost embarrassed by. Certain flashes of flamboyance which provoked even me! Strangely, I think the salon now looks more contemporary than ever. I quickly fell in love with the bits which I was unsure of at the time. David and his Studio had an incredibly prescient vision.
GE: Will you ever pull it all out and start again?
JB: No. Not because of sentimentality or economy, only that the place feels perfect. It is a part of an identity. As long as early clients and new clients keep coming and appreciating the place it would seem wrong. We will, however, be doing some work, with David Collins Studio, to just reset a precise balance. Not a refurbishment in the usual sense. It will probably be difficult to tell the difference. That is my philosophy to hair: not to look immediately new or done but just, you know, perfect.
GE: The loyalty to David Collins Studio is lovely. What enables that?
JB: Oddly, a lot of it is value. When we originally did the salon there were gasps from various people about what was perceived as extravagant or indulgent. Of course, David Collins Studio is defined by beautiful material and mastercraft production values. This comes at a cost. But then you spread that cost over twenty two years of hard work and those figures become very prudent. So, an odd mix of very good value and devastating glamour!
GE: How has New York changed in the years you have been here?
JB: Well, I can never remember who the mayor was when I arrived. I know that it felt more dangerous and less refined than it does now. But maybe that was the environment I explored as a young man. Now of course, New York is definitely home and that makes it hard to be objective about. I am very defensive of my New York.
GE: There is something eternal and timeless about your aesthetic, the salon and what you create. What do you choose: fashion or style?
JB: No question. Fashion brings a lot of work into the salon! I love observing fashion and find it fascinating. I dress in a way which exists outside of fashion and I am very comfortable with that. So, style, for me, is the important one. That saying about fashion gets noticed while style gets remembered is certainly true. Style is aligned more to confidence. Most of our clients have this confident intuition for timeless style. I would also add that there is nothing morally wrong about fashion. It often gets bad press, but it should be enjoyed as fun.
GE: Hairdressers were always the real idea of rock and roll abandon. The friends I have who are hairdressers are the ones who I am almost afraid to hang out with...is that still the case or has it calmed down?
JB: Well, I am in London for a few days and I barely have a free moment. Age brings a calmer energy. Tomorrow I will see The Inheritance. I cannot wait. It is around 7 hours long with a break. This signifies the excesses and indulgences of my life at this point!
GE: Do you ever think about what it would be like if you had stayed in Limerick?
JB: No. I don’t tend to spend time reflecting. The now and the coming are fascinating enough. I left very young, I mean really young - one way ticket, you know?
GE: Where did you meet David?
JB: I knew Iain Watson, how, I cannot really remember. Iain introduced me to David and we had an immediate rapport. That much I remember. That earlier question about the hedonism of hairdressers probably has a lot to do with the hazy vagueness!
GE: What did London feel like after Ireland? I’m calculating you hit London just in time for punk to detonate. A kind of sea change for hair I guess. Do you remember it happening?
JB: All I remember was desperately trying to survive. It was an early ambition to simply get employed long enough to qualify for holiday pay. I lived an urchin's existence which, I think, distracted me from noticing what was going on.
GE: Is there a what next for you? I mean I could understand if you never wanted to move from this life but ambition is a hungry animal and it must eat.
JB: Well, New York is my home now. The salon is such a part of me but there are, of course, always ideas that gestate. Some of these go nowhere but some will, maybe, develop. From leaving Limerick I never really had a strategy. Surviving and then achieving success all seemed to be almost fate or predetermined. It’s hard to explain. A lot of it is down to the blessed fortune of meeting significant people at the absolute right time. You cannot really plan that. At least I couldn’t.
I still, after all of this time, fail to fully comprehend how I came to land on top of Bergdorf Goodman! Back to my default of looking forward rather than checking the rearview.
GE: Who cuts your hair?
JB: Whoever is somehow not busy at the point it needs cutting. I have absolute faith in everybody who works with me. It is after all only hair! You know?
And with that he is off. I always hang back to write notes. John is a strong case for the essence of glamour being derived, or found in, transformation. The reinvented self. John, although he doesn’t detail it, is candid about the poverty of his early life. Then, to sit in Colbert, in the company of distinguished actresses discussing art, theatre and luxury with the same person is to be in the presence of personal transfiguration. To understand glamour.