Meet Bleach: Cult London Duo Named After Nirvana Album, Turned Punk Hair Color Into High Fashion

One of the Bleach London muses, aka "cool friends" of stylist Alex Brownsell and agent Samantha Teasdale Credit: Matt Irwin

Like many girls growing up in the 1990s, London stylist and colorist Alex Brownsell spent a lot of time watching music videos, enthralled by the songs and visual style of bands like TLC and No Doubt. But she took her fascination to the next level, striving to mimic the colorful hairstyles of singers T-Boz and Gwen Stefani through a variety of ad-hoc DIY dyeing methods. "It was always about ignoring the rules," she says.

That philosophy has paid off well for her: after becoming a private stylist to some of London's most fashionable clientele (designers, stylists, editors), she launched her own salon with partner-in-crime Samantha Teasdale last year in Dalston, East London's grittiest cool district. Cleverly dubbed Bleach, the company named itself after its speciality dye job (the white-out look that is very au courant) and the Nirvana album (whose famous font it shares). Through word of mouth, it quickly became one of the city's hottest new salons, one that attracted a devout following from both the music and fashion communities. In twelve short months, the likes of Florence Welch, M.I.A, Sky Ferreira, Romily (of the Japanese Voyeurs), Pixie Geldof, Paloma Faith, Thrush Metal, and The Kills have passed through their improvised salon's tiny quarters, and emerged with cutting-edge looks.

Bleach is known for specializing in utterly unconventional dye jobs and have almost singlehandedly put cotton candy hair back on the radar. Everyone from Rihanna to Katy Perry to Britney to Lady Gaga are enhancing their natural hairdos with spunky pink and red and blue tones these days, expanding the normalized hair color spectrum and making pastel hues as commonly accepted as hair extensions. As Brownsell and Teasdale note to Rolling Stone, "Bleach made it acceptable first." 

What is Bleach's backstory?
Alex: Me and Sam met about 4 or 5 years ago; I actually did her hair and we used to see each other out and about. She does the business side, and I do the hair side. I  started hairdressing when I was 12; I worked at my mom's hair salon in the Midlands before moving to London when I was 17. Then, I started doing freelance [hair] fashion work, and the coloring side of it began to evolve as that happened. I learnt the basics and took into a new direction. My influences stemmed from music videos and magazine editorials, and I used unusual dyeing methods to achieve those looks.

Is it a renegade beauty process?
Alex: Yeah, it's quite DIY in that sense. You know how when you're in school, you'd dye your hair, and you use your hands or your friend does it? We take that hands-on approach and mix it with high-level products and more advanced techniques. What you end up with is an interesting mix of grunge and sophistication. A lot of people who do color do it very cleanly, so you end up looking like you just walked out of a salon. We think that's wrong and looks contrived; that's the opposite of the look we're going for.

What are the signature looks?
Alex: Dip-dyes and ombre effects. Quite early on those became favorites. Sometimes it would mutate: we'd do the clean bleach (our namesake) look on friends, and then they'd get bored, so we'd run pink through it, or put in pastel highlights. People began to love the two-tone hair, the signature Bleach look. Pink, green, muli-color highlights are the most popular hues.

Sam: Girls get blonde-o-rexia, where you obsess over making your hair as bleached as possible. Then it turned into a gray fixation for awhile, another extreme. We also did a lot of those looks.

What makes Bleach's aesthetic contemporary and relevant?
Alex: We're offering something that no one else is doing.  You can go down to Camden Town [London], and get a pink dye job. It won't be the same. You'll end up with a punk look, and what we do is a refined version of that. It's more fashion. Someone who might usually go to a very expensive salon can come here; we straddle the high and low worlds; that's what makes us stand out.

You've only been in business a year as Bleach, yet you have a hugely loyal and vast clientele, many of whom are notable musicians and style personalities. How did this happen?
Alex: I was already doing the hair for a number of a private clients, editors at cool magazines, stylists, that crowd. So, I had a built-in core customer base when we launched Bleach. I remember I started a tumblr and basically said, 'I've moved from my kitchen into the real world, now taking a appointments!' Within two weeks, we were booked.

Sam: We got loads of press: music, beauty, fashion. Journalists loved it, cool kids were immediately into it. She took what she was doing on shoots and put it onto the streets.

Alex: What's amazing is that though we look like a big company suddenly, it's literally just four chairs and five stylists, including me, total. We're super tiny.

Why are pop stars so obsessed with having candy colored hair right now?
Alex: I think it's something a lot of girls have always been intrigued by and dreamed about doing. You're not supposed to do that, so it's a form of rebellion. But it's become more refined, so it's slowly becoming more acceptable, which is why you see pop stars, not punks, doing it. I think people like Gwen Stefani helped make it okay for that world. The girls who wanted to do it growing up are now test driving it as adults; it's no longer than risqué, but it's still a strong statement to make.

When it comes to changing the public's perception on hair color, what carries more weight: fashion or music?
Alex: Music. It's always been the most crucial influence, I think. When musicians do something, it becomes acceptable to the mainstream in a way that fashion's influence can't quite equate on its own. Nicki Minaj's hair color will carry more weight to the average person than what they see in a fashion magazine. That's what the nine-to-five working girl will notice first, and might make her consider following suit. Of course, musicians are influenced by what fashion introduces, too. It's a giant feedback loop. But musicians are the best spokespeople.

Who were some of your own hair influences?
Alex: "Gwen, all of TLC, Beyoncé with her dip-dye in the "Bootylicious" video – the best hair ever, by the way. L7 with their bleached out, falling out style. Clarissa from Clarissa Explains It All. She didn't really dye her hair, but it looked amazing. Jem and the Holograms, everything about that show."

Have you ever turned down a request for an unusual look?
Alex: When I know it won't look good, I won't do it. If it's going to be willfully kooky or weird,  I refuse. No matter what, I want people to look pretty; I want to enhance their looks. It's important to pay attention to skin tone, too: if you have really yellow or green undertones to your skin, you have to be careful. If you have red undertones, you have to avoid blue.

In both London and New York City, I've seen a ton of Bleach knock-off looks. Do you find it flattering?
Alex: Yeah, there's loads. We like it! We love spotting girls on the street, trying to figure out if they've been in to see us or if they are mimicking the look. People tweet at us all the time, showing off their version of a Bleach job. It's always coolest when a young girl takes matters into her own hands – literally, when it comes to hair dye!

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