Fish out of water

People in fashion: His salon may be credited with the invention of the Soho crop, but Fish founder Paul Burfoot didn't get where he is today just by pandering to the whims of fashion, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
CUTTING HAIR, as Paul Burfoot quite rightly observes, is more artistic than knocking up cement. And a hairdressing salon is a warmer and generally more pleasant place than a building site. Which is why, at the age of 20, he jacked in working in the building trade with his dad, and switched to hairdressing. His dad, he recalls, was a bit worried at the change, and his mates let him in for a lot of mickey-taking - until they started getting free haircuts.

He started off as a Saturday boy in the hairdresser's below the flat he lived in, and was soon promoted from teas and coffees and sweeping up to doing the shampooing and starting a college course. "I had a lot of catching up to do!" he says, with a laugh that reveals a gold tooth, the legacy of a pool ball thrown at him by a "bad loser". "It's very different with guys. Hairdressing is something girls grow up with, they've done their dolls' hair, their friends' hair, their own hair. With guys you've got these big flapping hands like a goalkeeper."

A quick learner, however, he opened his own salon, Fish, at the age of 24, as soon as he had finished his apprenticeship; it's still at his original address, in D'Arblay Street in Soho, ten years later. "As soon as I started I knew what I wanted. Everything seemed to click, the music and the clothes I was into and the hair all connected. When I set up, I wanted the whole thing to have attitude - to blow the pretentious Eighties-style salons out of the water. All that faffing around is simply an excuse to charge pounds 40 for a haircut. Fish is very relaxed."

His cuts, he says, which include the original Soho crop, are inspired by British street fashion, watching a football match, seeing his friends in the pub. "But they don't date, just as the shop doesn't date. I'm not wacky or avant-garde, I never have been, never will be. Although we put the whole Britpop hair thing on the map, my work has a lot of longevity. We're stylish. It's a very simple philosophy: to be classic. People are saying London's hip now, but London's always been hip, it's classic and has been around for years, and I'm flying the flag for that."

When he started, he says, he was told he wouldn't attract stylish clients without the "faffing around" he despises. In fact, he has managed to attract the likes of Paul Weller, Eddie Izzard, Ocean Colour Scene and Johnny Vaughan. "The door is always open, the kettle's always on," he says. "We have a really varied clientele, and about 95 per cent are regulars now. On a typical day in here you might find Johnny Vaughan, one of the boys from down the market, a director from Saatchi and Saatchi and a prostitute. Everyone's treated the same, and the informality works. If you start treating people as VIPs and putting them on a pedestal, you don't get your best work that way. You cut ten times better if you're more relaxed." In fact, things are so relaxed, some people don't even bother with the haircut. "It's getting to be a bit like a community centre, people just come in to chat."

Close to half his customers are women, although "they do shy away because it looks a bit masculine in here. But they're fine when they come in. A lot of stuff we're doing for guys we're also doing for girls - razor cuts have crossed over quite a bit. It goes hand-in-hand with the styles girls are wearing."

Paul's shop had been through several incarnations before its transformation into a hairdresser. Ten years ago, D'Arblay Street was in the middle of Soho's red light area. "It was a sex shop when I first rented it," says Paul. "We gutted it ourselves. That's where working in the building trade came in handy. Then, as we were stripping the paper off the walls, we found all these beautiful old art deco tiles. Then this little old lady rapped on the window and said 'I used to buy my fish here!' and I said 'That's it, I'll call it Fish'. Everyone laughed, but I said, 'Well, what do you think I'm going to call it? Upper Cuts, or Mane Line? No way.' So Fish it was."

These days, a goldfish in a tank set into the wall downstairs, along with the original tiles, recall the former fishmonger. But now Fish is kitted out with minimalist wooden floors, an ancient brass till, and dentists' chairs ("a dental school in Kentish Town was shutting down, so we went in and pinched them," says the candid Mr Burfoot).

He has bought his shop now and made his name, and even launched his own range of haircare products, available from Superdrug from June ("I'm most happy to be in Superdrug. Some people are snobby about their products being in there, but it's the people's chemist and it's accessible.") But he still remembers the days when he was renting from men he refers to affectionately as the "local heavies", and couldn't afford the rent. "We'd have a little club down here to pay the rent, it was pounds 3 a time to get in, we'd play jazz and soul," he says, looking around his basement, now immaculately kitted out as part of the salon. "It's all worked out swimmingly. I'm the happiest man around. I feel like I've won the Lottery. I love going to work every day."

Fish, 30 D'Arblay Street, London W1, 0171 494 2398

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