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A cut above: Stylist to the stars dies

Hairdresser to the royal, the rich and the celebrated, Alexandre de Paris did everyone from Liz Taylor to Claudia Schiffer. As his death is announced, John Lichfield celebrates the first – and sharpest – of the 'haut coiffeurs'

In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor fell seriously ill while making the blockbuster movie Cleopatra in London. Ms Taylor was then regarded as the world's most beautiful woman. She was about to start a celebrated affair with her co-star, Richard Burton.

What thing, or person, she was asked on her sick-bed, could make her feel better? She replied, instantly: "Bring me Alexandre."

"Alexandre" was not a lover or a doctor or a friend or a pet or a child. He was a hairdresser, the first of the "hauts coiffeurs", the man who turned women's, and occasionally men's, hair into an ephemeral art-form. For half a century, "Alexandre de Paris", whose death at the age of 85 was announced at the weekend, was hairdresser to the royal, the rich and the celebrated: from the Duchess of Windsor (one of his first clients), to Claudia Schiffer, via Princess Grace, Princess Margaret and Greta Garbo.

"They called me straight away," Alexandre once said of his ministration to the sick Elizabeth Taylor in 1962. "I jumped in a plane and went to London. There, in her hospital bed, she was held up by three nurses while I created her famous artichoke cut."

The vaguely ancient Egyptian spikes and ringlets brought off a miraculous cure. They also became one of the famous screen "looks" of all time. The film Cleopatra was generally regarded at the time as a turkey. The hairdo was a triumph.

Alexandre de Paris was born as Louis Alexandre Raimon, in Saint Tropez in September 1922. He was still dressing the hair of his final clients – Sophia Loren and the Countess of Paris, wife to the pretender to the French throne – into his 80s. He retired to his birth-place three years ago and died there late last week.

Alexandre de Paris was, a wiry man with a 1930s-style pencil moustache. He was once memorably described as looking "like a cross between a P G Wodehouse character and Salvador Dali". Although high camp in style and conversation, and a close friend of the bisexual French writer and artist Jean Cocteau, Alexandre Raimon was married with two children.

Over more than half-a-century, he created the most glittering client lists. He was the Duchess of Windsor's hairdresser for 30 years. Sophia Loren is said to have had more than 500 appointments with him. Greta Garbo was a client, but also "a friend". He also dressed the hair of Jackie Kennedy, Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, and Romy Schneider.

The fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier called him "Alexandre the Great". Paco Duffo, Alexandre's assistant for 30 years, before setting up his own salon in Barcelona, once said of his mentor: "There are a lot of barbers and few hairdressers ...Monsieur Alexandre makes love with hair ...He is so quick with his fingers: I pass him pins and it is as though they grow from his fingertips – it's magic.

Alexandre described the secret of his success more succinctly: "Never disappoint a woman."

As a young man, his parents, restaurateurs in Saint-Tropez, wanted him to be a doctor. The young Louis Alexandre was interested in only one part of the human anatomy: hair. As a small child, he would practice hair-styles on his grandmother's waist-length blonde locks.

At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to Antoine de Paris, one of the most celebrated society hairdressers of his day. Antoine was celebrated for always wearing white and sleeping in a coffin. He had made his name by styling the hair of the actress Sarah Bernhardt and creating the so-called "garçon" or boyish look for Chanel in the 1920s.

Alexandre once said of his early hairdressing career with Antoine: "My mother took me to a fortune-teller. The first card she turned over was the Queen of Hearts. 'You will meet a king's wife and she will determine your future path.' Naturally, I didn't believe a word. Two years' later, in 1946, I actually met a king's wife who made me famous."

Alexandre had styled the hair of the wife of the Aga Khan, the Begum Aga Khan, for a ball to celebrate her marriage. The guests included the Duchess of Windsor, the former Wallis Simpson, wife of the former King Edward VIII, who was living in gilded exile in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

"The very next day, (the Duchess) called me and asked me to go and see her," Alexandre said in an interview with The Independent in 1998. "She gave me a thousand explanations as to what she wanted, and then I did her hair. The next day I got another call." 'What did you do to my hair?' she asked. 'I disobeyed you and did exactly the opposite of what you requested,' I admitted. 'It's wonderful!' she said. 'For the first time in my life, I woke up with my hair exactly as it was when I went to sleep. From now on, you will stay by my side'."

The severe, elegant hairstyle which Alexandre said that he had "knitted" for the Duchess became her trademark. His association with the Duchess changed his life. "They were like parents to me," he says with a hint of nostalgia. They persuaded magazines to write profiles of him. The Duchess introduced him to 400 wealthy or celebrated clients.

Alexandre went on to become not only the favourite hairdresser of the world's richest and most beautiful women but the most sought after high fashion hair stylist. For 34 years, he created the hair "look" at the shows of Yves Saint Laurent.

He was celebrated especially for creating the "chignon", or elaborate bun, which dominated women's hair-fashions in the late 1950s. He also worked with Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler.

Alexandre created his own collection of locks of hair from his celebrated customers, which he had preserved in Perspex. He became a close friend of many of his clients, including one celebrity famous for having few friends: the actress Greta Garbo.

"When she came to the salon, she would say: 'Hide me! Don't let anyone see me'," he once said. "She also told me: 'I hate hairdressers. Don't style my hair. Cut it!'" He gave her a fringed bob.

He was, however, equally dutiful in his service to the less famous. In a letter to The Independent in 1990, Lady Iris Hayter, widow of a celebrated former British ambassador to Cold War Moscow, described how Alexandre de Paris had opened his salon especially for her in 1955 when her hair left "a great deal to be desired after almost a year of Soviet hairdressing".

"I found myself climbing Alexandre's stairs in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and ringing the bell of his closed salon. As I walked in, a shadowy figure in a blue hair-net stood up and kissed my hand. It was Jean Cocteau. Not much later I emerged, transformed, I suppose, and Alexandre left for his daily appointment with the Duchess of Windsor."

Alexandre said the secret of his success was "to recognise a woman's personality and match her hair to it". He also once said: "I express myself through hair. I can translate my dreams." Asked for "tips" on how women should look after their hair, he would give two pieces of advice. First, they should change their brand of shampoo every two months. Like bodies and minds, hair thrives on variety, he said. Secondly, women should brush their hair at least 100 times before going to bed.

Alexandre de Paris was twice a winner of France's fashion "Oscars" in 1963 and 1969. He was made a knight of the Légion d'honneur, France's highest civilian award, and also a knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

He was president of the World Federation of Hairdressing between 1978 and 1993.

Asked once why he got on so well with his women clients, he said: "I never revealed any secret I heard. They had confidence in me and knew that I would not repeat anything."