Jacques Dessange has made a fortune styling sexy bedroom hair, from Brigitte Bardot's tousled chignon to Jane Fonda's tumbling curls. "Roger Vadim brought all his women to me," he chuckles during a recent interview at his Paris headquarters.
"I don't like it when women are overly sophisticated. I prefer an architectural haircut that's styled in a natural and feminine way without hairspray," he says, referring to his trademark "decoiffe" look.
"And I would rather be in the position of disheveling hair than putting it up," Dessange adds his green eyes twinkling. "I'm one of the few men in my profession who really loves women."
The 73-year-old Dessange hasn't actually cut or coiffed hair for 30 years, but that's because he has a empire to run--one of the largest salon franchises in the world, with sales topping $400 million. There are more than 700 Dessange salons worldwide in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and planned next year in the U.S. with more than 75 new salons opening across the country. The lower-priced Camille Albane salon franchise in Western Europe is also part of Dessange group.
With salons dotting the globe, Jacques Dessange has built more than a
$400-million empire. But salons, albeit important, are just a part of Dessange's fiefdom. On the product front, he has a growing accessories and cosmetics business produced under license and worth some $135 million annually. His Competence Professionnelle shampoo, marketed by L'Oreal, was the top seller in France last year. Meanwhile, the distribution of his signature skin care and makeup lines will expand in the U.S. this year.
Dessange grew up in a small town in Sologne, a region south of Paris known for it's hunting and fishing. At 16, he dropped out of school to apprentice with his father, a barber in the local cafe where clients drank red wind during cuts. Several years later Dessange moved to Paris to trim politicians' hair in the venerable barber shop in France's National Assembly. Eager to learn women's hairdressing techniques, he switched to a salon with a female clientele. Then, at 28, he opened his own salon just off the Champs Elysees. And the rest is history.
"I would rather be in the position of disheveling hair," says Dessange, eyes twinkling, "than putting it up."
Widowed with two sons, Cyril and Benjamin, who both work for the company, Dessange has none of the pretensions of the star hairdresser. He has a no-nonsense, businesslike manner and even dresses like a banker in a trim gray suit and tie. He's also reluctant to talk about his clients, many of whom are personal friends. But he will allow that he started bleaching Bardot's hair before she was famous. He also notes that all her short hairstyles were actually wigs that he made for her. "Bardot has had the same long hair since she was 19," he says, "give or take an inch."
He created Bardot's carefree, messy chignon, called the "choucroute," or sauerkraut, for one of her early films, Babette Goes to War. He says it's still in style in Russia, where he has two salons, he also lopped off Jean Seberg's mane for her role in Breathless. "Jean-Luc Godard insisted on that cut," Dessange recalls. "Before I cut her hair, we tried all sorts of wigs that were all different lengths. At one point, I put a very short wig on her, and Godard loved it. So I chopped her hair off on the spot. At the time, no one had a cut like that."
If he hadn't been a hairdresser, Dessange claims he would've liked to have been a painter. And he's long been a patron of the arts. Years ago he let a young artist paint portraits of his clients in the salon to pick up extra money. Some of the women still don't know that they own valuable portraits by Christo, the world-famous wrapper of bridges and buildings.