In addition to working magic on star clients like Moss and Sienna Miller, the Croydon-born beauty pro has several TV projects and his own hair product line under his belt. This year also marks his 20th year in the business — not bad for a wannabe jockey who grew up slicing and dicing the hair of his sisters' dolls.
Here, Brown reveals what it's like to work on the most famous heads in Hollywood, how Karl Lagerfeld took him under his wing, and why he wants people to just quit it with the ombré already.
When did you first realise you wanted to do hair?
"All my life I wanted to be a jockey, but at age 12 I was very tall and they thought I would fill out. I had three sisters, all with long hair to their waist, and my mum, and I always just loved their hair. So, basically from age 12, I wanted to be a hairdresser. It was all I wanted to do. I was obsessed. By age 14, I was cutting everyone’s hair in the neighbourhood. My sister had a collection of dolls and I would cut their hair."
Did you get in trouble?
"Oh my God! She cried. She had a collection that she’d had all her life. You know those Victorian ones with the velvet outfits and the long hair? I used to make them look like Debbie Harry."
It’s been 20 years since your first fashion shoot. Tell us about working with Kate Moss and Corinne Day.
"We were all very young and were just doing what we loved. That was Kate’s first-ever Vogue cover. It was certainly my first one, and I think I’m still the youngest hairstylist ever to have a cover. We were just working and doing what we loved — we didn’t really think about Vogue, or a cover, or anything like that. We were just doing pictures we loved. It was sort of a reaction to the Versace look and that really big hair, which wasn’t what I related to, that '90s excess. It was just a more simplified, beautiful, natural look. "
How does it feel to be celebrating your 20th anniversary?
"It feels really weird because I feel like I’ve just started. I don’t feel like I’ve been around that long, really. It’s just gone so quickly. But what’s been really funny is that last fashion season I was getting calls from different hair and makeup people and stylists and models, and a lot of the backstage reference pictures for the hair were early ones that I’d done with Kate. I was like, 'Wow, how has that happened?' It seems like yesterday, it really does. It was just such a fun time. It’s only now I realise how much fun it was, and how innocent we were. It was a really good era for me."
Are you doing anything special to celebrate?
"I’m just at the moment getting together a lot of my old covers and I’m going through my portfolio. I’ve got tear sheets that have been in storage for years, and I really didn’t realise how much I’d done. So, I’m just collecting all my stuff, and I possibly might do a book. I’m not sure yet. I’m just at the moment going through everything and see what there is. It’s been an amazing experience — quite cathartic."
What has been the proudest moment of your career, thus far?
"I think my first Vogue cover, just because I was so young. I don’t think anyone’s had one that young in terms of hair and makeup people. And, also bringing out my own range. I was proud that I was brave enough to do it."
Photo: Courtesy of James Brown
And your most surreal moment?
"Oh my God, there’s been so many. The first time I met Karl Lagerfeld he said, ‘Come with me,’ and he showed me around his whole house. We were there for hours. He was talking to me about all his artwork, and what did I think of this picture? Just to be alone with Karl Lagerfeld in his house for two hours while he was showing me all this mad, mad, mad stuff that he had. It was incredible. It was such an education — the best education anyone could have in two hours. It really opened my eyes up to art and the history of art as a different element of fashion."
What hairstyles are you into right now?
"I’m just into really glossy, natural, healthy-looking hair. After that whole dip-dye thing that everyone was doing and all the different colours and the '80s styles, I’m just really interested in natural, beautiful hair."
You have your own product line now. What was your goal when it came to developing the James Brown London range?
"It’s got to be affordable and it’s got to work. Those were my two main things because when I started doing my line everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you can charge this and this.’ And I said no way, I’m not interested in charging a fortune. I want it to be available for everybody. I wanted to bring all of the celebrities I’ve worked with, all of the queens and princesses I’ve done, and take it to Joe Public, and women in the street, and my sister who’s in Ireland. I wanted to give everybody a slice of that lifestyle, with their hair."
Are there any other hair tools that women should keep close at hand?
"Good elastic hairbands — ones without any metal on them, so there’s no snagging. The Goody ones I love. Also, a good hairbrush and a good once-a-week hair treatment. Women do their face masks once a week but they never treat their hair like they do their skin."
What hair trend drives you crazy?
“If I’m honest, that whole dip-dye thing just drove me crazy. When I walk around now, I almost want to just take my scissors and cut all the ends off. All the girls have got beautiful, glossy hair, and at the end they have this stripe. I just don’t like it anymore. Well, I never really liked it, but I really don’t like it now. I see lots and lots of girls in the street with long bobs and I think basically, all the girls had long hair, had that [dip-dye], and now that it’s cut off it’s left them with this beautiful hair that they haven’t coloured. They’d stopped colouring because they wanted to have this grown-out look, so consequently, they’ve got really healthy, beautiful hair again. I’ve seen a lot of really shiny, healthy hair, which is fantastic, so something good’s come out of a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.”
What’s the most versatile cut a woman can have?
“Long, layered slightly around the face, with pieces hanging at least to the shoulders. You can do so much with it. My favourite length of hair is what I call ‘bra strap length.’”
Any other looks you’re loving this season?
“I’m really into brunettes at the moment. Maybe my head clicked and I’m just noticing them more now. I had this phase where I’d just seen so many blondes, everywhere blondes. But, I’m also really into well-cut short hair on girls. I like the Anne Hathaway thing.”
Photo of Brown with Kate Bosworth: Courtesy of James Brown