Brushing up their skills at an Academy of Hair: Jeremy Ettinghausen visits a school where the first lesson is: 'Think twice, cut once'

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One by one, the students of the Hair by Alan d School of Hairdressing bustle in from the rain, pausing before the mirrors at the salon's entrance to check their hair. At reception, Mr Tony, resplendent in a leather waistcoat, exchanges quips with Mr Gary as the women troop in. They discuss keeping fit as 'Oh Carolina' pulses weakly from a loudspeaker. Along the corridor, an old lady sits stoically under a hairdryer.

The school is one of Britain's largest Academies of Hair, with 50 students paying about pounds 5,000 for the seven-month foundation course, carrying them to level two of the City & Guilds National Vocational Qualification. The most important piece of guidance they get is printed on one of the first instruction sheets they are given: 'Think twice, cut once.'

In the recesses of the vast training salon, the senior stylists' demonstration team is discussing its entry in the forthcoming L'Oreal Colour Trophy. A tall Brazilian called Fabio has been allocated to do the make-up (not being a teacher, he doesn't get the title 'Mr'), and is off to scour the West End for models.

The other team members are either teachers at the school or stylists in the nearby Alan d salon who have gathered to discuss demonstration techniques for the forthcoming Hair Olympics.

While they are waiting for Mr Tony, the men discuss Tottenham Hotspur's recent form while the women complain about the rudeness of London customers.

In the next cubicle, Miss Debbie is teaching the finger-waving class how to craft that Thirties look from a mound of gel. The beginners' class meanwhile is getting to grips with the rubber dolls that will be their playthings for the next six months. The dolls, with human hair, are grotesque.

Mehmet, a student, used to be an electrician but gave that up because he didn't like getting his clothes dirty. He is carefully blow-drying the blond hair of the dummy in small sections, to make sure that final look lots of body.

Meanwhile, Mr Tony has found a flaw in Mr Edward's demonstration. While Mr Edward claimed to be taking 'weight away', Mr Tony spotted that he had actually been taking the 'length down'. At the Alan d stand at the Hair Olympics a slip like this could cost the school enrolments.

It's 11.30 and Mr Gary is starting his second cutting class of the day. His model, Diane, is Chinese and has a head shape that must be considered before the first cut is made.

Not only does Diane have no occipital bone (the budding hairdressers are told this is because Chinese children are encouraged to sleep on their backs), but she also has a double crown, a widow's peak and her ears are quite far forward. This is going to be a tough one. Again, the think-twice cut- once lesson is drilled home as Mr Gary advises his pupils that 'no one knows how a hairline is going to react'.

Mr Gary is the quintessential hairdresser: suave, reassuring, and with a good line in banter. But even he has had his ups and downs and, a few years ago, nearly gave

up on hairdressing: 'I went through a stage of being robotic and mechanical and I hated my work. But now I try and make each haircut interesting and different.'

Miss Karen is telling off one of her beginners for rushing his blow-drying. 'Look' she says, 'I brush it and there's nothing there]'

When the beginners leave, most will go to salons as junior or senior stylists. Some will go freelance, while many of the wealthy foreign students will home to set up salons there, banking on the respectability that a certificate from a West End salon brings.

The cutting class, the Afro class, the salon class and the finger-wave class break for lunch and the students head off into a windswept Dean Street, patting their hair for good luck as they exit.

Hair Olympics '94 continues till tomorrow at Wembley Conference and Exhibition Centre (081-902 8833).

(Photograph omitted)

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