Because he's worth it

Would you fly the Atlantic and pay $300 for a 10-minute cut and blow-dry?
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The Independent Culture
IF ANYONE deserves the world's most expensive hair-cut on compassionate grounds, it's me. I have a fine, gingerish topping that defies control. My mother tackled the problem with Alice bands, with regrettable results. Nowadays, television make-up ladies apply punitive back-combing and lacquer a la "Lady Thatcher: the Later Years". The chap who did it on my wedding day drove clips into my skull at 90 degrees to keep it up, saying grimly: "It's the only way."

So when I heard that John Barrett's at the Bergdorf Goodman store on Fifth Avenue in New York could perform miracles in a cut lasting 10 minutes for a paltry $300, Concorde could not get me there fast enough. Barrett is responsible for cutting hair for the cast of Friends. He did Monica Lewinsky for Vanity Fair. He also does Bette Midler and Juliette Binoche, Elle MacPherson, Natasha Richardson, Liam Neeson, Steve Martin and pretty much anybody passing through New York, if they are big enough to jump his waiting-list.

Bergdorf's is a store unlike anything in Europe, a seven-storey temple to elegant wealth with huge chandeliers, deep-pile fawn carpets, concealed escalators and a ladies' room the size of a medium-sized Manhattan apartment. The seventh floor is John Barrett's salon, with vast windows overlooking Central Park. The walls are lilac, and the staff wear lilac, brown and off-white, which sounds disgusting yet looks amazing. If you relish the New York conversations satirised by Lou Reed - "Oh my, and what shall we wear?/Oh my, and who really cares?" - it's the place to hang out. Two ladies are discussing a third: "She has been marketing herself so well recently," says one. "I so admire that, don't you?" says the other.

Finally, I am ushered in to meet Barrett, who turns out to be small and quietly spoken, with a slight Irish lilt and a talent for comic understatement. He was born in Limerick, the fifth of 10 children; his father was a builder and his mother "had children for a living". He set out for London, drifted into hairdressing, discovered that he could do it well and worked at London's Michaeljohn salon before setting off for New York and a job at the Bergdorf Goodman salon for the society hairdresser Frederik Fekkai. After cropping Vanessa Redgrave for her role in the play Vita and Virginia, he leapfrogged into the top job at Bergdorf's.

He owes his huge success, I suspect, to a manner that fits the late Nineties desire for straight talking, and a pared-down definition of what glamour means and how to achieve it: "I am not some arty-farty, drug-addicted hairdresser who won't cut your hair if the phases of the moon aren't right." He eschews the usual American addiction to bombastic blow-dries and gravity-defying lacquers. "If anything, people think I haven't changed them enough. But I can give them the best cut in the world and it will last longer than the one they had."

New customers are spared the ritual condemnation of their existing style. "Let me say that you have a great hair-cut. Who did it?" Michael in Neville's Belgravia, to whom I have been faithful up until now, is officially blessed by Barrett, crimperdom's equivalent to Tom Wolfe endorsing a first novel.

"You have fantastic, clever eyes and we are just going to emphasise your delicate face-shape a little more," he adds, an outbreak of judicious flattery which is worth half of the fee in my book. The core experience may take only 10 minutes, but somehow I end up drifting around the heavenly salon, being gently mauled by beautiful beauticians.

I was prepared for the final cut by Eric, Barrett's Californian aide, and anointed with Barrett's Beeswax and Arnica potion. "We worked on Helena Bonham Carter together for the Academy Awards," confided Eric, as if she were a listed building undergoing restoration. Barrett reappeared, and started snipping so dextrously that his hand seemed to fly. I asked how he could work so quickly. "Hell," he said, "It's not brain surgery, is it? I can just see what has to be done by looking at a person."

The result is very good indeed, a cut that holds its own without blow- drying or lacquer. It is not, as he prophesied, a result that makes people say, "Wow, you've changed", but a style which is surviving my benign neglect. Is it worth $300? Barrett's sister in Ireland told him people must be "eejits" to pay that for any haircut. The rational part of me agrees. The other part is wondering whether I can use air miles to get back for a trim in January.