When he was growing up in California, Etienne Taenaka wanted to be an architect. As he watched his mother, a hairdresser, at work, he made an imaginative leap between architecture and “hair-chitecture.” “Creating styles, form following function, building shapes and achieving balance,” he said. “My mother wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I was on my way to college when I decided I would become a hair stylist.” He has never regretted that decision.
Etienne’s parents were Osakans who moved to Los Angeles in order to join Etienne’s grandfather there. Etienne’s father enlisted in American military service and was transferred to Germany, where Etienne was born. He has spent some short periods of time in Japan, but by nationality and upbringing is American.
He joined Vidal Sassoon in San Francisco in 1985. He said: “The training was fascinating in the sense that I never knew so much could be done with hair. The training is similar to that of formative artists, using the same basic principles of the art world: form, space, contrast, line, color and light. I learned to look at hair as a material, as a textile to work with in creating something. I use scissors as if cutting cloth. There are no limits to what one can do.”
As manager, Etienne transferred to the flagship New York salon. That was when he acquired the name Etienne. “My real name was Stephen,” he said. “but there was already a Stephen in the New York salon. So I switched to the French form.”
From New York he was chosen to go to Los Angeles to oversee the business of the West Coast in Beverly Hills. There he works directly with Sassoon himself, and is personal stylist to both Sassoon and his wife.
He takes care of the hair of many Hollywood celebrities, even as some of them go forward to receive Academy Awards. He is international spokesman for several television shows and magazines, and appears in many Vidal Sassoon commercials. His work takes him around the world to the centers where Sassoon collections are shown. He sees no end to his kind of styling, which for him is “a visual thing, an emotional thing that I go through when I am cutting hair. Design is without limitation.”
He said, “I have an image in my mind as I look at a client. I take into consideration what each one wants, and each one’s individuality. There is so much information about hair in the United States that people nowadays are savvy about their own hair. We have to be open to what is new, what is happening, where people are going. I am always looking for something new and different. To stay with the same haircut is very boring, like wearing the same dress every day. Hair is forever changing, and you can always change it again. Hair always grows. Cutting it is not like cutting off your leg.”
Men as well as women are “much more conscious about product uses, color and different ways of cutting hair,” he said. “It was a turning point for both men and women when Vidal Sassoon developed his ‘wash and wear’ philosophy. The Sassoon cut focuses on the relationship between the geometric shape of the cut and the bone structure of the head of the individual.” Sassoon is said always to have believed that a haircut was an art form, and hair styling similar to painting and sculpture. His influence led to enhanced pride in the profession of beautician, and wider social recognition of its status.
Recently over a period of some weeks, a VS Styling Cafe was opened in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. It functioned as a showroom and cafe for customers to try new products and “get in touch with fashion in a high-style environment.” Etienne, one of the creative team to come to Japan for the event, said: “It was a fantastic project. Nowhere but in Japan could this work — this opportunity to come and try out a new line of products, and use imagination in so many ways. The Japanese are incredible about their hair. Walk down the street, and it seems to turn into one big fashion runway. I very much admire the way the Japanese are so innovative and willing to try different things.”
Etienne is true to his concepts in other areas of his life outside the hair styling salon. “I love to cook — anything new again,” he said. He has interest in Japanese ceramics and wood artifacts, with qualifications: “Nothing traditional,” he said. “Only products that are new and interesting.”