As the Creative Director of Balmain Hair Couture, Parisian-born Arab wunderkind Nabil Harlow is at the height of his power but is leaving a little room for imperfection.
By Jon Roth
Photography An Le
Last year, master hair designer Nabil Harlow made history in the fashion and beauty circles when he was appointed Creative Director of Balmain Hair Couture. It’s an unprecedented position: in addition to overseeing Balmain runway and campaign looks from the ears up, he’s also the figurehead of a global hair empire, with an exclusive Parisian atelier, partnerships with salons across the world, and a constantly evolving product line of sought-after sprays, shampoos and straighteners. That he is still so young, and an Arab man of Moroccan decent in an often lily-white industry, makes his climb to the top doubly impressive.
But Harlow’s career didn’t start out in fashion. As best he can remember, it really began with old movies, which he watched as a child in the living room with his grandmother. He’s credited the movie sirens of the ‘40s and ‘50s - Greta Garbo, Lana Turner, Joan Crawford - as silver screen inspirations. “I learned about perfection from them,” he says. Inspired, he started cutting hair for family members at 13, and enrolled in hair school by 17. Harlow helped cover the cost with a few modeling gigs, and eventually worked backstage with greats like Orlando Pita. Three years later, he moved to New York, learning English while he colored hair at the Frederic Fekkai Salon on 5th Avenue. After four years, it was back to Paris, where he was reunited with his first love: the cinema. He began doing hair for films.
It wasn’t until an agent approached Harlow that his career left the screen and reentered the fashion world, but since he began working with Balmain, many of the skills he learned behind the camera have been brought to bear on the runway. He credits his film background for his strong technical abilities (you can’t create hairpiece for a 13th-century period piece without really knowing your trade) and that acumen shows in his recent work for the French fashion house. In the past year, he’s created a hat-trick of technically ambitious looks — swapping the hair colors of models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner with carefully designed wigs, creating two-foot dreadlock extensions for the men’s Fall-Winter 2016 runway show, and crafting dramatic, Mod-inspired pony tails in the Spring-Summer women’s show. Each new look had fashion crowds (and Instagram followers) abuzz.
“I have my own ways. It doesn't mean they are better than others, but they seem right to me.” - Nabil Harlow
And that’s only half the job. Balmain Hair Couture, originally founded back in 1974, is enjoying a renaissance under Harlow’s creative directorship. This includes a luxury line of styling products (their sprays, shampoos, and hair perfumes are top sellers), tools like brushes and straightening irons, plus extensions and wigs geared toward a fashion crowd always eager to switch up their look. For a man who’s moved largely in artistic circles, it’s hard science, and big business, helping to formulate new releases and expand the reach of the brand.
But it’s not about business for Harlow. It’s about a feeling, and that’s evident in his work. He praises glamour (thanks to those silver screen stars, no doubt), but also loves imperfection. He’ll create beautiful shapes and textures, then remove some of the polish. Performing at the top of his game, the charismatic Harlow understands the allure of hair as few others could. Today, he’s on a mission to empower women around the world, one tress at a time.