Antoine of Paris, the world’s first celebrity hairdresser who revolutionised the look of women in the early 20th century with a boyish bob, was in fact Polish.
Antoni Cierplikowski was better known as Monsieur Antoine in his adopted city, where he created the cut later to be made famous by Coco Chanel and other fashion icons of the times.
Ironically, this pioneer in an industry that today is worth $50 billion (€40 billion) a year worldwide has been largely forgotten.
But his legacy is slowly being revived in his beloved 1884 birthplace, the sleepy central Polish town of Sieradz, thanks to a hairdressers’ competition that is held each summer.
He was nothing short of a “revolutionary”, said his apprentice Janusz Szymanski, now in his 60s, at the Openhair event dedicated to Monsieur Antoine.
“He’s bar none the greatest fiuure in hairdressing to have appeared in the 20th century.”
The Polish stylist not only championed the daring short bob, but his innovations included what have become salon basics.
Among these are shampooing a customer’s hair, using hair spray, which he concocted with spirits and gum arabic, and colouring hair with non-organic dyes – including the blue rinse for grey hair favoured by grannies.
Antoni was17 when he arrived in the French capital, but within a decade he was the talk of the town. Around 1910, 40-year-old French star Eve Levallière was cast in the role of an 18-year-old and turned to Antoine for a make-over. His inspiration came when a girl with short hair and a fringe skipped into the salon to deliver some letters.
“That’s how the unprecedented à la garçon (boyish) or ‘shingle bob’ cut was born – it became an instant hit and a sign of the times,” said Mr Szymanski.
The style still resonates, worn at one point or another by modern-day celebrities from Victoria Beckham or Renée Zellweger to supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Antoni ’s client list read like a who’s-who of the 1920s to the 1960s: French stage legend Sarah Bernhardt, American jazz star Josephine Baker, French singer Edith Piaf, German silver-screen diva Marlene Dietrich, Swedish actress Greta Garbo, US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and even French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot.
Mr Szymanski called Antoni an excellent judge of character who could size up a woman’s age, personality, needs and woes.
“The psychological aspect is absolutely crucial in the hair business, and he knew it,” he said.
Among those Antoni charmed was Coco Chanel, whose Rue Cambon atelier in the heart of Paris was a stone’s throw from the Pole’s salon. “She created modern couture, and he modern coiffure,” said Mr Szymanski.
In the roaring 1920s, his short, chic cut was all the rage with the libertine Flappers who traded Victorian corsets and conventions for Chanel’s short skirts and free-spirited smoking, drinking, driving, dancing and dating whomever they pleased.
In 1925 Antoine opened a US salon in New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue department store, the first of a chain that would grow to 110 shops across the country.
At its peak, his hair empire stretched from Paris to Melbourne, Tokyo and Vancouver and as his fortune grew, so did his eccentricity too.
Obsessed with his own mortality, he slept in a crystal coffin, wore glass slippers, dressed as royalty, played cathedral organs at home, designed extravagant period costumes and strolled through Paris with his dog dyed mauve.
But by the mid-1960s Antoni started sinking into obscurity. He had left his business-savvy wife, and his apprentices such as the legendary Alexandre de Paris had set up shops of their own.
“Emperor Antoine” returned to then-communist Poland a simple life in Sieradz, where he grew vegetables and chopped wood.
He died in 1976 of pancreatic cancer aged 92, but in 1992 Alexandre de Paris had his body exhumed and the right hand cut off and brought back to France, where it was interred in Paris ’ Passy cemetery.
“I symbolically chose his right hand as it had styled Coco Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt and even Queen Marie of Romania,” said Alexandre, who died in 2008.
“Antoine, he pioneered hair styling – it’s his vision, art and innovation that’s the basis of today’s salons,” said Przemyslaw Debczynski, 18, who won this year’s Openhair competition.
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