There are restaurants that become famous for being social hubs as much as places to eat. Clubs too. But not many hairdressers – and not 30 years ago, back before most hairdressers reinvented themselves as ‘hair stylists’, as brands in their own right. But if you’d have been in Soho, London, at the time, and you were in the right crowd of scene-setters, you’d know Cuts.
This is was the place where the likes of David Bowie, Boy George, Goldie and The Clash’s Mick Jones went to get the latest style, where models Nick and Barry Kamen, Bond producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, product designer Tom Dixon and singer Neneh Cherry – then a leading light in Malcolm McLaren and stylist Ray Petri’s seminal ‘buffalo’ group – got their do done.
Cuts was founded 40 years ago this year by James Lebon in the then achingly hip Kensington Market (it moved to Soho later). Lebon died in 2009, but by then his contribution to the cultural history of London, and to men’s hair styling, was guaranteed. He studied at Vidal Sassoon’s academy before launching Cuts, doing so by making a short film – a common enough thing to do in today’s smartphone/social media age, but then suitably avant garde. “Ten of us in a line, all sitting on stools, getting our haircut – just one minute for each haircut, razors, clippers, scissors flying,” recalled photographer Jamie Morgan.
Such was the success of the business that Lebon – the son of a plastic surgeon to society ladies, so imbued with the idea of transformation – soon became referred to across London simply as ‘James Cuts’, known especially for the vogueish flat top style and the ‘fin’, which he introduced for men, and androgynous styles for women. When Lebon used clipper to cut a line through one of his eyebrows – in a bid to persuade a customer with a scar they hated that, in fact, it looked exotic and cool – London’s leading edge of young creatives all started sporting what became known as Cuts’ trademark ‘boxing scar’ eyebrow.
Lebon would be called to session work in the US and would come back with tapes of this new music called hip hop. Later he opened the Language Lab, the UK’s first hip hop club. Having made a serious amount of money as a hairdresser, he grew tired of salon life and re-invent himself as a film-maker, making videos for the likes of Bomb the Bass and Kylie Minogue. But not before re-inventing both what the male hairdresser’s could be – a long way from the traditional barber’s – and what male hairstyles could be: expressive, different, challenging, radical.
Cuts was so influential then that it’s been celebrated now both in a book – ‘CUTS’, a collection of portrait shots by Steve Brooks, Cuts’ co-owner, taken through the 1990s and 2000s – and in a documentary, ‘No Ifs Or Buts’, the first feature from director Sarah Lewis (premiering at the London Film Festival this month). It’s the product of 20 years of following Cuts’ story. It’s an homage to the style and creativity of a time and place that still resonates.
‘Cuts’ is published by Gimme5 and DoBeDo books.