Once upon a time there was a land where girls and boys walked around with boring black, mousy brown, and dirty blonde hair. A time when we described hair colors as chestnut, mahogany, ebony, and platinum. That was until Bleach exploded like a grungy glitter bomb showering east London with all the colors of the rainbow. Just look at Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Grimes, and Sky Ferreira. The list continues and goes on and keeps going. And then there's seapunk. Currently, you can’t throw a bottle of Crazy Colour or Manic Panic without hitting a musician, or a member of the public who isn’t experimenting with pale tips dipped in fuchsia, aqua, or lavender. The girl at least 67% responsible for this is 25-year-old Alex Brownsell. It all started with a kitchen-cum-hair salon where her friends—me included—would go to get a funky tint. Word spread fast and she soon set up shop at the back of Wah Nails in Dalston (set up by another entrepreneurial sort, one Sharmadean Reid). The buzz surrounding Bleach—named after Nirvana’s debut—was so intense that in the space of about five minutes they were opening a salon in Topshop’s flagship store in central London. The color craze had officially landed. I skyped with Alex to find out where her green-tinted spacecraft would take her next. America? New York, specifically? Well, actually, yeah.
Noisey: Hey! So lets talk Bleach. It basically started in your bathroom didn't it?
Alex: Actually it was my kitchen. There were a few phases of the salon in the beginning.
I remember when we first met, I used to hassle you to do my hair all the time and you'd be like, “Yep come over, I have a salon chair in my bedroom.”
It was the lounge [living room]. I took it over and made it into a salon. It had a few names too. Initially it was Sylvester Salon. There was a sign that said it on the door. To be honest, I don't think that’s funny anymore! Then it became Heartbreak Hair. There was a hole in the ceiling, so when people were round it would literally rain on them. It takes like three hours to get your hair bleached, so there would be a lot of girls talking about their boyfriends breaking up with them. Then on top of that, the ceiling would be crying!
Just go round Alex's and get your heartbreak hair-do. So then what happened?
My house was starting to get a bit busy, so I got a couple of chairs in Wah Nails, in Dalston, with Sharmadean and teamed up with my friend Sam [Teasdale] and Bleach was born.
What was it that inspired you to experiment so much with color and create that DIY look?
I think it's the phase you go through when you're in your teens, where you wanna experiment with your hair. Most people never really go back to it, but there are a few of us who never really grew out of it. I found those people in London and started dying their hair and they were cool girls. So lots of people started wanting to come over to the crying ceiling room. Wait. Was that the question?
Alex and photographer Bella, and Alicia.
I feel like you created the dip dye. Am I right?
Well yeah, I mean the dip dye was actually a 90s thing, but I don't think people really jumped on it as a massive trend. It was our friend Bella Howard our friend who said, "You know in the film Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s hair looks a bit rooty?" Well she wanted to copy that kind of look. So we did dyed in roots, which is now on our menu.
Yeah it's a menu, like a colorful menu. What do you wanna eat? What do you wanna drink? What color do you want your hair dyed? But yeah, when I did it on Bella, we thought it was so cool. Actually a brand came to me and wanted to pay me to tell them what the next big hair trend would be. So I said dip dye and called it “Recession Roots” because no one could afford to get their roots done. Get it?
Yep. Very good.
But you know, I was blagging it, I just wanted the money.
One of the things that makes Bleach stand out from other hair salons is their kind of unorthodox hair practices. I mean you don't just use normal hair dyes to color hair do you?
Well, chalks are around now which are cool. We sometimes use eye shadows over platinum blonde to create wash out colors, you know if people want something that will wash out straight away. I use Sharpies and felt tips [color markers] in my hair too. Probably not very good for my hair to be honest!
You need to re-read the Bleach Bible.
When Bleach took off and started to become popular, everyone wanted their hair white blonde and all these girls, who had never really dyed their hair, were coming in and asking for green and blue hair. They had no clue about taking care of it post-color. They were coming back a week later and asking loads of questions. They didn't know about silvering shampoo and were asking why their bleach was yellowing, so I compiled all the hair tips and tricks and advice into a bible. Because if you wanna have bright purple hair and keep it long, it's actually quite hard and you really have to take care of it.
Let’s talk about music. Do you think that music and hair go hand in hand?
Yes of course! Growing up in the 90s I was massively influenced by the hair going on in the grunge scene. Even though I was a bit young for it, I revisited the era as I got older. You know, the swampy look of Nirvana and Courtney Love's platinum blonde. Shirley Manson from Garbage always had good hair. When I started Bleach I always tried to imagine what Kurt Cobain would have been like as a girl, I feel like he would have colored his hair a lot. I mean he did anyway, but you know what I'm saying. He loved a funky swampy tint.
Alex with funky swamp tint, photographed maybe, probably, definitely sitting on the toilet. Alex with Bleach co-founder Sam Teasdale.
I feel like grunge is a big look at Bleach—kind of washed out seaweed greens and navy ocean blues. What other looks have you created because of music?
Well there was vunge of course.
Vunge! Yes I remember that!
Vampire Grunge. It’s basically quite gothy and quite punky. Like when The Horrors were around, but you didn't wanna look that 60s, you still wanted to look 90s.
Naturally. You keep an inspiration book don't you? Like a scrapbook?
Yes, all our stylists do, they’re essentially just lots of cut out pictures from magazines. Kind of mood boards.
Do you think they’re all quite similar, or do they each have a specific style?
They all come from the same place, but it does have a lot to do with what music each stylist is into. I feel like music influences how people do most things: how they dress, how they do their hair. If you listen to rap you probably do hair differently to someone who listens to Placebo.
Placebo! When I was at school my email address was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even kids want in!
Remember when you used to put on that DJ night called Grot Bags. What was that about again?
Me and Bella wanted to pull lads so we started a club night. Every one had its own theme, body bags, blood bags, fun bags. For the blood bags one we had tampons hanging from the ceiling. Quite riot grrrl.
Didn't you put on a gig at Bleach a few months ago?
Yeah it was for Splashh. They’d just come off an American tour and wanted to play a show somewhere really small and with all our mates. So we did it in the salon and it was all spilling out onto the street. It’s like doing a show in someone’s really girly bedroom. I think we are gonna do another one actually.
You do lots of musician’s hair don't you?
Yeah. It's actually much harder to do a musician's hair because you're working with their own personal style. With a model you just use the theme of the shoot to figure out what to do with the hair. With a musician you definitely have to understand their music if you wanna get to grips with how they wanna look.
Alex and Florence.
Do you have a favorite musician that you've worked with?
I work a lot with Florence Welch. She's my favorite, partly because I've worked with her for years, so I know what she likes.
Is she a real red head?
What is this Trade Secrets?! I'm keeping quiet on that one.
I was most impressed that you did Kim Gordon’s hair.
That was quite brief though, I wouldn't say I really did her hair. I basically blow-dried her hair for 10 minutes before she went on stage. I did get to meet her though, so that’s something.
I’ve written down in my notes in caps locks the name SUSAN BOYLE.
Ha! Su Bo! Unforch she is not a regular client of mine, but I have done her hair a few times. When she came off the show, Britain's Got Talent, they promised her a makeover. So I went and colored and cut her hair.
Did you guys have a sleepover and braid each other’s hair?
Yeah we made friendship bracelets.
Stunning. Okay, I have to go soon, but lets quickly talk about the exciting prospect of a Bleach NYC. I mean, you have a great salon in Dalston and central London, but tell me about the new one.
The dream is to have one open by the end of the year. Maybe a pop-up space. See if people over there like it—hopefully they will. I want it to be the same as it is here.
So exciting, I can oversee things in NY you like?
Yeah! Make sure there are people outside swigging bottles of [super-ghetto alco-pop] WKD Blue.
Ha! Totally. I forgot to mention your Boots range!
Oh yeah, me too. Duh. Yes, we’ve made a home coloring range for Boots consisting of bleaching kits, dip dye, temporary color stains, and everything to get perfect platinum hair. Plus aftercare and styling products specifically to keep bleached hair really healthy.
I have a prototype of the dry shampoo. I stole it from your house. Sorry. I really like the scent.
Do you? That's good. I made it up when we went to the factory. I told them I wanted it to smell like cigarette smoke and Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel. Oh also our hair dyes are named after bands. Like we have a “Big Pink” one cos of your boyfriend, and we have a color called “Out of the Blue into the Black” after the Neil Young song and we have one called “Bruised Violet” after The Babes in Toyland song. We have one, that in hindsight we should have called “Blood Orange,” but we forgot.
That’s annoying. Okay, lastly, if you were in a band what would you play?
Er. The flute?
Alex's Bleach Playlist
Nirvana - "Hairspray Queen"
Pavement - "Cut Your Hair"
Beck - "Devil's Haircut"
INXS - "Suicide Blonde"
Shampoo - "Trouble"
TLC - "Unpretty"
Style Stage is an ongoing partnership between Noisey & Garnier Fructis celebrating music, hair, and style.