A different kind of empire: Wiel Essers on the art of hair and his quest for freedom

Text: Interview by Gwen Teo

 

Being acknowledged as one of the world’s most innovative hairdressers, Dutchman Wiel Essers has inspired people all over the world. Still, he never strived for fame and fortune. “All I ever wanted, was the freedom to create.”

 

Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself. Words by Greek philosopher Plato that seem appropriate to how Wiel Essers (1954, Margraten, the Netherlands) approaches life as well as business during his 52-year long career. All he ever wanted was ‘the freedom to create’, Essers says. We are talking in one of his favourite coffee bars in Maastricht – the city he has been calling home for a long time now. Curly hair, delicate glasses, all dressed in black, Essers speaks with a soft-spoken voice about his life today and his childhood. Being one of twelve children with parents busy running a bakery and a pharmacy, Wiel quickly learned work never really ended. “I would see mothers of friends prepare dinner for their families every night, how they would all gather around the table to enjoy meals and each other’s company. That didn’t happen at our house.” Essers envied those moments his friends got to experience, but once he became older, he began to appreciate his early-gained independence. “It has enabled me to do the things I’ve done in life.”

Young Wiel aspired to be an artist. He couldn’t envision himself working in the family businesses, as four of his brothers would do later, but being dyslexic meant going to art academy wasn’t an option. His practical parents also pointed out the struggles that often come along with trying to make a living as an artist. They suggested using his talent for a profession with more prosperous financial perspectives, while continuing creating artwork in his free time. It was the beginning of Essers’ career as a hairdresser. His first entrepreneurial steps would soon follow: when he was only eighteen, Wiel opened a hair salon in a small village called Nuth with the support of his mother and father, who were his guarantors. He says he will be eternally grateful for the confidence his parents displayed in him. “It is such an important thing for children to experience. The way my parents had my back, made it possible for me to really pursue my dreams.” 

World wasn’t ready’
Dreams sprung from the soul, that is. Not the endless hunt for fame and fortune that seem to be on the minds of so many young people nowadays, Essers emphasizes. It is one of the life lessons he hopes to pass on to the people he meets: follow your passion. Don’t just chase money. “Expressing my creativity has always been my number one priority when it comes to the choices I’ve made during my career, which certainly wasn’t always easy.” During his first years as an entrepreneur Wiel didn’t want to do ‘what everyone else was doing’ in the hairdressing business, so he decided to provide his customers with a new kind of experience. “I would spend one-and-a-half-hour on each of them. In those days people would pay three-and-a-half guilders for a ten-minute haircut. I charged twenty-seven. Unfortunately, customers couldn’t appreciate my approach. They really weren’t used to anything like it. And keep in mind: time wasn’t considered as precious as it is nowadays. The world simply wasn’t ready for me yet.”

The consequences were dramatic, Essers says, as he saw other salons thriving while he struggled to keep his business afloat. “I remember thinking more than once: have I made the wrong decision? And wishing I had become an autonomous artist.” Nonetheless, the Dutchman remained true to his vision. Which includes ‘always being the initiator’. “People may come in convinced of a certain hairstyle that they’ve seen on a celebrity, or that they love on their friend, but a good hairdresser must be able to create a look that will make that one individual truly shine. In my salon you have to surrender yourself completely to my vision. Such a thing is only possible if there is a high degree of trust. The relationship with my customers is one of great mutual respect, and I’m very grateful for that unique bond. It is beautiful to let things happen the way they are supposed to, at that specific moment in time, with that specific person. Because once talent, knowledge and experience come together, hairdressing can become a form of art.” It’s that same vision that excluded Essers from chasing trends or following the annual indexation within the industry. “I’ve always trusted my gut when it came to making creative as well as financial decisions. You have to decide what you are giving people is really worth. I’ve found it fascinating to provide customers with more than what they are actually paying for.”

Fame
Throughout the years, people began to appreciate the Dutch hair artist more. Respect for his work grew, in the Netherlands as well as internationally. Along with his then-wife and best friend to this day Ell, Essers rose to fame in his field. In 1997 the couple were recognized as the world’s most innovative hairdressers when they won Hair Innovation, a prestigious competition organised by the world famous Alternative Hair Show. Since then Wiel Essers has travelled the globe, inspiring colleagues and young hairdressers everywhere. He has shared the stage with the biggest names in the industry, like Anthony and Guy Mascolo, the brothers behind Toni & Guy and TIGI, and he was a guest at Vidal Sassoon’s birthday party.

Still, you won’t find Wiel’s name on shampoo and conditioner bottles when you go shopping for hair products. Most people probably won’t even know where to find his salon – since he only owns one and his name doesn’t even appear on the window. You can enter Essers’ world at a cozy square in Maastricht’s city centre, not far from tourist hotspot Vrijthof. It is a world that has provided many opportunities for aspiring hair artists throughout the years. Opportunities Wiel himself and many others never had when they first started their businesses. According to Essers, the late Vidal Sassoon is responsible for the way younger generations now see the trade. “Vidal did such ground-breaking work for our industry. Forty, fifty years ago, hairdressers weren’t people owning multiple businesses, let alone being household names. The way Vidal expanded his business and brand has made it possible for young talent nowadays to have international careers we could only dream of back then. Some of the best hairdressers are almost rock stars now, earning huge amounts of money. They have Vidal to thank for a lot of that.”

Societal challenges
Although Wiel Essers never aspired nor led a rock star lifestyle, he’s well aware of how far he has come. He has accomplished what he longed for while growing up: the freedom to create, and it has made him extremely appreciative for all the good things in his life, of which his son Puck is the most important one. Parenthood is the one aspect the renowned hairstylist seems less sure about. “When you see your child stumbling and hurting its knee, you let it happen. When you think it will hurt its head, you intervene. Perhaps my parental concern has been somewhat of an obstruction in my son’s life, who’s an extremely talented hairdresser. But he has always felt a lot of pressure living up to the many expectations the world has as a result of Ell’s and my own achievements. Even though we have always emphasized that other people’s opinions don’t matter when it comes to these kinds of things.”

Essers, who says he’s fascinated with researching ‘what causes certain things in life’, believes young generations now are constantly looking for societal confirmation. “Don’t forget about me, I am here! is what many of those duck faces basically scream on their social media profiles. So whenever I work with young people I want to take them on an exciting rollercoaster ride. They take part in photo shoots, travel to demonstrations – there is hardly any time left to worry about other stuff. My intention is to show them that they can absorb whatever they want from these experiences, and then go on to create their own path in life. When you see someone’s confidence grow or hear parents say they had to cry as a result of their child’s accomplishments, I always realise what a privilege it is to be part of someone’s personal and creative journey.”

Giving back
It may not come as a surprise to hear the Dutchman say giving back to society is important – when done with the right intentions. “Not to please someone else or to feel better about oneself. There should be no expectations whatsoever. It is simply about making others happy, contributing to other people’s lives, whether it is by teaching, giving something or donating money.” One project dear to his heart is Paint for Life. “For a quarter of a century Ell and I have asked 33 members of the Alternative Hair Show to participate by creating a work of art. During a special benefit gala these artworks will be auctioned. All proceeds will go to The Alternative Hair Charitable Foundation, a foundation that supports fighting leukaemia by funding as much research as possible.” Impressive names in the industry, such as Clive Coleman, Tony Rizzo, Vidal Sassoon and John Frieda, have shared their artistic visions on canvas throughout the years. “For Tony Rizzo and his wife Maggie, the couple behind the Alternative Hair Show, and for Ell it’s also an extremely personal project: they’ve all lost loved ones to leukaemia.”

Ultimate happiness?
Now that Essers is 65, it wouldn’t be a shame to slow down a bit – or a lot. In a few months he will in a way, when he closes the doors of his hair salon for the last time on March 14th. It is the end of an important chapter, but certainly not the end of Essers’ creations. Like his parents suggested half a century ago, Wiel has embarked on several art journeys in his free time throughout the years. “I have been going to Estepona, Spain, for eleven years now. It is beautiful there, right by the sea. I would love to discover more of its surroundings, but somehow I never have enough time to do so, since I always feel so immensely inspired when I am there. I spend my days strolling, reading and drawing. Many of my artworks originate from time spent in Estepona.”

Wiel Essers’ soul probably won’t stop talking with itself anytime soon. Nor will Essers acquiesce in the thought that becoming older means doing less, like he says he sees many people of his age doing. He is convinced that kind of mind-set often marks the beginning of the end: mental decline followed by physical decline. He admits it is probably easier to stay curious, to keep exploring and challenging yourself when you’ve always been innovative. “Even though I’ve never dreamed of opening dozens of salons all over the world. After all, I can only be in one place at a time. To me, work is pure passion. It’s an emotional process; every single experience with customers, every show, every demonstration, just like it is with creating any other work of art. Life isn’t about wanting everything, it is about finding balance. We all have many responsibilities. Perhaps working less means you will have less money to spend, but you can use the time you get in exchange to do things that make you happy.” He smiles. “Although I never hope to find ultimate happiness. This way life stays interesting.”

made by Puck essers 2019