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“We’re better than New York, Milan and Paris” - Mark O’Keeffe on how Ireland became a global hairdressing leader

Despite the devastation of Covid-19 closures, the future is bright for Irish hairdressers, writes Sugar Culture salon group owner Mark O’Keeffe. However, today’s world-class stylists owe a great debt to the legends who blazed a trail down through past decades

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Mark O’Keeffe, hairdresser and managing director of the Sugar Culture Group. Photograph by: Barry McCall

Mark O’Keeffe, hairdresser and managing director of the Sugar Culture Group. Photograph by: Barry McCall

Taylor Odigie photographed for Life magazine in 2018. Hair designed by: James Coleman, Brown Sugar. Photograph by: Ian James White @ianjameswhite; Styling by: Roxanne Parker; Assisted by: Anne O’Shea; Clothing by: Colin Horgan

Taylor Odigie photographed for Life magazine in 2018. Hair designed by: James Coleman, Brown Sugar. Photograph by: Ian James White @ianjameswhite; Styling by: Roxanne Parker; Assisted by: Anne O’Shea; Clothing by: Colin Horgan

The 2015 L’Oreal Colour Trophy winning hair design by Aimee Penco and Elayne Archbold of Brown Sugar by Sugar Culture; South William St, Blackrock, Ranelagh, brownsugar.ie

The 2015 L’Oreal Colour Trophy winning hair design by Aimee Penco and Elayne Archbold of Brown Sugar by Sugar Culture; South William St, Blackrock, Ranelagh, brownsugar.ie

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Mark O’Keeffe, hairdresser and managing director of the Sugar Culture Group. Photograph by: Barry McCall

Ireland has one of the best hairdressing industries in the world. Whether it’s colouring, cutting or styling, we stand head and shoulders above many of the global epicentres of hair and fashion. Yes, I’m saying that we are better than New York, Milan and Paris. I believe that we are up there with London’s best, where a lot of our inspiration has traditionally come from.

In Ireland, our education and training are second to none, and we produce world-class professionals who are in demand in salons and at fashion weeks all over the globe.

Although I own and run some award-winning salons and invest heavily in training at Sugar Culture, neither myself nor my contemporaries can take all the credit for the current standard of hairdressing in Ireland — that came from those who came before us. If we are good now, that’s only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

1970s: Birth of a rock ‘n’ roll industry

The year was 1971. The city was Dublin. Rock ’n’ roll was everywhere. Brown Sugar and Stairway to Heaven were the songs that all the teenagers were playing on vinyl. Emerging from the shadow of the Stones and Led Zeppelin was the coolest band of the decade, Thin Lizzy. Then there was The Witches Hut. Sporting various takes of the bang-on-trend Dublin mullet, its superstar members looked like a band. But they were not the new Thin Lizzy — they were hairdressers. Under their boss, Tony Rodgers, they cultured, shaped and coloured an entire industry.

After training with Vidal Sassoon, London-born Rodgers had opened his famous salon in a basement on Dublin’s South Frederick Street in the mid-1960s. By the early 1970s, The Witches Hut was considered the top hairdressing salon in Ireland, where all the in-crowd went. The cuts were superb, but the customer service was unpredictable. You could be left waiting all day or kicked out for no reason. No one was ever sure of an appointment, but if you were lucky, you could be certain your hair would look amazing.

Dublin had never seen anything like it; music blared, staff danced, sang and snipped their way through the day. During the summer, the stylists took their work outside to showcase their skills to a passing audience.

“Every cut was a performance, and the cut had to be flawless. It was theatrical, it was fun, but it was always about the passion,” super-snipper Zorro (the blade-wielding moniker says it all) told Totally Dublin of his time there.

What was particularly noteworthy about this group of hairdressers was they would take all they learned in the salon and use it to sow the seeds for a top-quality industry around the country. Zorro — real name Joe Power — took his art to Wexford where his salon is still in operation.

In 1973, Robert Chambers opened his own salon in Dún Laoghaire. Chambers subsequently played a pivotal role in the Irish hairdressing industry, opening his eponymous salon on South Anne Street in Dublin, and, in 1983, Ireland’s first hairdressing academy.

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The Witches Hut colourist Hugh Campbell brought all he had learned back to Limerick. He started small in a city basement, but over the years grew his business and now owns and runs four of the top salons in Limerick: Melo Yelo, Cats and two Marbles locations.

After working at the salon in Dublin, stylist Darcy O’Neill moved to Cork to manage the city’s newly opened Witches Hut. Three years later, in 1978, O’Neill went out by himself to set up Salon Darcy’s Design Team. In 2005, he added a second Cork salon to his portfolio and his son, Frank, now runs the chain.

Elsewhere, three now-legendary names were also making waves in Dublin the 1970s: Frank Hession, David Marshall and Joseph Kramer. Today, Hession Hairdressing and Joseph Kramer each have three Dublin salons, while David Marshall’s is a city-centre institution on Fade Street.

In 1974, the Irish Hairdressers Federation (IHF) was formed. Since its establishment, the federation has worked tirelessly under the likes of Maeve O’Healy Harte, David Campbell, Eoin Wright, Irene Devereux and current president, Danielle Kennedy. My own father, Frank, was given the honour of being the IHF president during the 1980s.

These industry professionals give up their time and offer their expertise for free to raise the status of hairdressing as a profession in Ireland, and to promote professional service and a standardised training system within the industry. The IHF has done stellar work representing the industry throughout this pandemic.

The 1970s is often joked about as a decade taste forgot, but for hairdressers it was a decade of extremes. For men, inspiration came from George Best, as well as the rock stars of the day. For ladies, it was either natural, flat and long, or permed and highlighted.

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Taylor Odigie photographed for Life magazine in 2018. Hair designed by: James Coleman, Brown Sugar. Photograph by: Ian James White @ianjameswhite; Styling by: Roxanne Parker; Assisted by: Anne O’Shea; Clothing by: Colin Horgan

Taylor Odigie photographed for Life magazine in 2018. Hair designed by: James Coleman, Brown Sugar. Photograph by: Ian James White @ianjameswhite; Styling by: Roxanne Parker; Assisted by: Anne O’Shea; Clothing by: Colin Horgan

Taylor Odigie photographed for Life magazine in 2018. Hair designed by: James Coleman, Brown Sugar. Photograph by: Ian James White @ianjameswhite; Styling by: Roxanne Parker; Assisted by: Anne O’Shea; Clothing by: Colin Horgan

1980s: Top of the crops

By the 1980s, the hairdressing industry in Ireland was well established. Peter Mark — first founded in 1961 by Meath brothers Peter and Mark Keaveney — continued its movement across the towns, suburbs and shopping centres of Ireland. In Dublin, two notable salons upped the ante: Reds, which opened in 1984, and Cats, which arrived the following year. Both of these salons spawned and nurtured some of the next generation of top talent, including Lisa Eccles who now owns and runs Zinc in Dublin’s Kilmainham.

In 1989, Sean Taaffe opened a one-man operation in Killorglin, Co Kerry. Over the following years, Taaffe put Kerry firmly on the Irish hairdressing map — he now owns and operates six salons in The Kingdom.

With the birth of MTV and the rise of the music video, we were massively influenced by music. Irish women were becoming more confident and were experimenting with cut, colour and finish. Hair was big, bold and brash, often chemically treated and unnatural looking. New salons sprang up all around the country to cope with the demand for perms and highlights.

1990s: Arrival of the supersalon.

The 1990s may be known as the era of the supermodel, but it is also the time of the ‘supersalon’. A cool, new, London-born but internationally grown franchise, Toni&Guy, arrived in Dublin in 1993 courtesy of hairdresser Alan Boyce. This seriously upped the game in terms of both training and fashion in Ireland.

It was during this decade that my own career really began. I became manager at Peter Mark, St Stephen’s Green, a salon at the heart of creativity and innovation. At that time, I looked up to industry greats Shay Dempsey and Andrew Dunne. Shay opened the doors to Zoo on Aungier Street in Dublin and ruled the 1990s and early 2000s. He is now doing really well in LA. Andrew was considered the colour king. He won multiple awards, and worked on photoshoots for international publications before setting up Mane on South William Street.

Across the Liffey, David Campbell and Susan Byrne opened House of Colour in 1997. Now with five salons, its teams are known in the industry for their talent and enthusiasm, and always make their presence known at awards shows.

Elsewhere, David Murray was making a name for Drogheda with the opening of Chameleon (now called David Murray@21) in 1997. He would go on to win multiple industry awards and would serve as president of the IHF.

By the end of the decade, freelance stylist Michael Leong was making waves working in fashion and in the media. Suddenly, the country’s most successful hairdressers did not need to be tethered to a salon. Leong’s success inspired the likes of the brilliant Jennifer Lil Buckley. She has worked for powerhouse brands such as Chanel and Fendi at fashion weeks around the world, styled models and celebrities and has assisted the incomparable Sam McKnight.

Short cuts — à la Halle Berry and Gwyneth Paltrow — were popular at the beginning of the 1990s, and The Corrs made sleek, dark hair the desired look in the late 90s. However, there is one look that sums up the entire decade: The Rachel. Inspired by Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends, it is far from my favourite look. Boring and brown? Yes. But also achievable, manageable, adaptable and universally wearable.

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The 2015 L’Oreal Colour Trophy winning hair design by Aimee Penco and Elayne Archbold of Brown Sugar by Sugar Culture; South William St, Blackrock, Ranelagh, brownsugar.ie

The 2015 L’Oreal Colour Trophy winning hair design by Aimee Penco and Elayne Archbold of Brown Sugar by Sugar Culture; South William St, Blackrock, Ranelagh, brownsugar.ie

The 2015 L’Oreal Colour Trophy winning hair design by Aimee Penco and Elayne Archbold of Brown Sugar by Sugar Culture; South William St, Blackrock, Ranelagh, brownsugar.ie

2000s: The South William Street revolution

The early 2000s were incredible for me: I was managing a salon in the centre of Dublin and was busy working on shoots with models and celebrities for TV and print. However, inspired by what was happening in New York and London, make-up artist Paula Callan and I wanted to offer women a super-luxe hair and make-up experience.

Though just a stone’s throw from Grafton Street, South William Street was relatively quiet at the time. Zeba was the first big-brand salon to move there. The Drumgooles brought their cool boutique salon from Stephen’s Street, around the corner, to much bigger premises in 2000.

I knew that this could be Ireland’s answer to a style hub like Covent Garden, and fell in love with the quirkiness of the premises that would become Brown Sugar. We opened our doors in 2005, and we were very fortunate to be embraced by media, celebrities and the general public alike. I like to think that we brought hair and make-up up to a level never before seen in Ireland.

Dylan Bradshaw also opened his incredibly stylish doors on South William Street, where he does brilliant work. Other hair and beauty salons were drawn to the area in subsequent years.

2010s: The explosion of the barbershop

The teens saw colour get really interesting. On one hand, pared-back looks and balayage (painted-on highlights) became popular. On the other, women were choosing fun, completely unnatural colours – like RTÉ’s Sinéad Kennedy whose stand-out grey was the work of Brown Sugar Blackrock stylist Aimee Penco. Inspired by new, cooler techniques, in 2013 we opened Sugar Cubed — a sister salon designed to appeal to a younger crowd than Brown Sugar.

In 2014, industry doyenne Zara Cox opened her salon on Dublin’s Wicklow Street, and continues to run a top salon with her team of exceptional stylists. The beautiful Wildflower salon in Ranelagh, run by Danielle Garner, also opened. Another lady making waves around that time was Katrina Kelly. An industry innovator, I love what Katrina and her team do at her Phibsborough salon, Cut Social.

Another major trend of the 2010s was the explosion in male grooming and the subsequent springing up of barber shops. I opened two Sugar Daddy locations. Superstar barber John Keegan began the decade by launching The Academy Barber. There are now branches in Celbridge and in Maynooth. In the 10 years that he has been in business, he has amassed an array of Irish and international awards.

In Cork, Paul Mac has done some great barbering and has won a load of awards over the past few years. I look forward to seeing what comes from him in the future.

2020s: The best is yet to come.

The last year of lockdowns has been incredibly tough for everyone. As a hairdresser and business-owner, I was initially concerned that my industry might not survive the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the salon closures highlighted the intense and somewhat emotional relationship we have with our hair. The correlation between mental health and hair became a national issue, and it’s clear that Irish people really appreciate the services of their hairdressers.

This period has not stagnated or regressed an industry. Indeed, in the longer term, I believe that the pandemic will ultimately progress it.

I predict that social media will continue to influence and drive our professionals. By providing a platform for stylists to highlight their work, skills have already been sharpened. Social media also allows us to showcase our incredible talent globally, further cementing Ireland’s international reputation. Look at Conor James Doyle, who has adapted his teaching style for the Covid-19 era, offering detailed professional tutorials from Instagram. Or Limerick’s Niall Colgan, who posted a lesson that got 12 million views in just a few days.

I firmly believe that the best of Irish hairdressing is still to come. I see the exceptional talent in my own salons among the next generation of hairdressers and I get really excited. When our salons reopen, among them will be new places like NHO (New Hair Order) on Dublin’s South William Street, which belongs to Brown Sugar and Zeba alumnus Mark Byrne. I predict brilliant things from him.

The next global hairdressing superstar will come from Ireland — I see that promise every day. I began this article by saying that Ireland had one of the best hairdressing industries in the world. I have since changed my mind. We have the best industry. Maybe we just had to temporarily lose it to really appreciate it.


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