Nicky Clarke says lockdowns were the reason behind his salon's demise

Why we couldn’t save our salon to the stars from the chop: Once hair stylists to A-listers including Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor, NICKY and LESLEY CLARKE reveal Covid was the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for their glamorous Mayfair empire

  • Nicky and Lesley Clarke reveal how Covid left Mayfair salon unable to stay open 
  • The celebrity hairdresser gives his first interview since closing the salon doors
  • He had trimmed, crimped, style and primped the hair of everyone from Princess Diana to Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles, David Bowie, and even Margaret Thatcher 

They wanted a gloriously seductive voice to greet clients on their answerphone, so who better to ask than Joanna Lumley?

So starry was the orbit in which Britain’s most-celebrated hairdresser Nicky Clarke moved, he could call on the great and the good to do such favours. The actress obliged and hers was the voice callers heard when they phoned London’s glitziest salon in the 2000s.

Nicky, as famous for his leonine hair as his talent with the scissors, had trimmed and crimped, styled and primped the hair of everyone from Princess Diana to Elizabeth Taylor.

The Beatles, David Bowie, Margaret Thatcher: he numbers them all among his clients. Indeed he was so favoured by A-listers that Liz Hurley would greet him with a kiss on the lips.

So this week, when the doors of his famous Mayfair salon closed for good, it was as if a golden era of hairdressing history had been erased and the only splash of colour in a sober West End street had leached away.

A combination of sky-high rents and diminishing footfall because of Covid heralded the demise of the West End store over which leather-clad Nicky, the rock star of crimpers, presided for more than three decades.

Presentable: TV presenter Selina Scott getting her hair done by celebrity hairdresser Nicky 

‘I love cutting hair. I like the buzz of being in a salon. I love the banter and I’ve never not worked since I was a teenager,’ Nicky tells me, giving his first newspaper interview since he shut the salon doors. ‘Of course, I’m sad that we’ve had to close. It’s heart-breaking.’

Nicky Clarke’s emporium in one of London’s ritziest streets opened its doors in 1991 and closed on Monday. And as we talk on Zoom, his sorrow is as if he is mourning a family member.

He sits in a snug full of showbiz and rock star memorabilia at his house in St John’s Wood, recalling the day Elizabeth Taylor summoned him to her hotel — she hadn’t been to a salon since 1963 — and he had to wash her hair over the bath.

On the wall is a newspaper cartoon of Princess Diana, her hair drenched.

‘I styled it for her and that evening she went to an open-air opera and the heavens opened. Photos of her ‘wet-look’ hair went round the world and I was — wrongly — credited with creating her new style.’ Such was the scope of Nicky’s fame at the time.

Meanwhile, his ex-partner Lesley — she remains CEO of the Nicky Clarke empire — also talks to me from her new home, a converted church in a Hertfordshire hamlet so sleepy it consists of just one street.

Still glamorous at 69, she moved there three years ago, having sold her £10.8 million, five-storey mansion just four doors down from the house where Nicky, his much younger wife Kelly, 40, and their two children, Nico, four, and two-year-old CeCe live.

Nicky, 63, and Lesley have an extraordinary relationship: although their personal union ended 25 years ago — they have two grown-up children, Harrison, 35, and Tellisa, 33, and three grandchildren — they have remained business partners for the past three decades.

Not only do they co-own the company — their two salons, their thriving electrical hair products brand and their environmentally friendly hair care range are all joint enterprises. Until eight years ago they even had a joint bank account.

Lesley is the financial dynamo; the brain behind Nicky’s flair. And today they have the quiet, contemplative aura of the newly bereft.

Why did the salon in which they had invested so many years of their lives close so abruptly?

‘We’d been trying for months to save it,’ says Lesley. ‘And actually the saddest thing is, we were holding out for an insurance claim for loss of trade during the pandemic. We lost £1 million a year over two years and our rent and rates were £175,000 a year.

‘The claim was going on in the background: we had forensic accountants working on it. And I’ve just heard that in four or five months we probably would have been due for a pay out of £1.5 million. Sod’s law. It would have saved us.’

Lesley looks stricken. ‘What’s that?’ Nicky asks. ‘I’m not up to speed with the details.’

‘Oh, I haven’t even had time to tell you properly,’ says Lesley.

Did she cry when the salon closed and the staff were laid off?

‘Absolutely,’ she says. ‘It’s been grief and anxiety. It’s getting worse. The business was like another child. It was heart-breaking, a bit like leaving my house in St John’s Wood. You have to steel yourself to go.’

But then Lesley knows all about steeling herself for seismic events.

Their relationship ended with Nicky’s infidelity. ‘Nicky had an affair and when I found out, he stopped seeing her [Susie Bick, then a Vivienne Westwood model] immediately. There was no confrontation. But the damage was done,’ she told me the last time we met.

Even in the rancorous aftermath of the split, when Lesley felt ‘pain was raining down on her’, they did not contemplate severing their business links. But the real surprise is they did not even separate their personal finances.

Nicky Clarke pictured with Sophie Dahl in 2002, an English author and former fashion model

Lesley tells me now: ‘The business was always going to carry on. It was our baby and now it’s like a child who’s grown up. We built it from scratch with a £20,000 loan. I don’t think either of us ever thought for a second of relinquishing it.

‘Neither of us could have done it without the other. So, of course, we carried on running it together when we were no longer a couple. We continued to have a shared bank account and the houses were owned by both of us. We shared all the bills. And until only a few Christmases ago we continued to buy each other presents.’

‘Even when we separated there was complete trust,’ Nicky adds. ‘We didn’t use a lawyer. We were held up as paragons of how to divorce amicably. Not that we did divorce because we weren’t actually married — but everyone thought we were.’

‘Because I’d changed my name by deed poll,’ interrupts Lesley, ‘but I was a free spirit. I’ve never felt the need to be a Mrs.’

Today they have disentangled themselves financially to the extent that they own their separate homes and the thought crosses my mind that they may be extricating themselves further, because, just four months ago, Nicky and Kelly — who have now been together for 14 years — were married.

Is the salon’s closure part of this severing of links? They look aghast. ‘I find that rather insulting,’ says Lesley. ‘We were both completely devastated to lose the salon. And the idea that we closed it to separate our finances is as ridiculous as the suggestion that I moved out of London to avoid living in the same street as Nicky and Kelly.

‘I lived in a big house behind big gates. I didn’t even see my next-door-neighbours, let alone them. I barely know Kelly. We are from different generations.’

I can’t help thinking that it must irk her that Kelly is now Mrs Nicky Clarke and benefiting from all Lesley’s hard graft and business acumen.

‘In the nicest possible way, I really don’t give her a moment’s thought,’ she says. ‘I’m far too busy to spend time worrying about her. And look, I decided I didn’t want to get married. I was a hippy chick. I’ve always been independent and earned my own money.

‘When you build a successful business yourself, you own it. It’s yours. You take pride in it. I’m proud I’ve earned this.’

Did she go to their wedding? ‘Good God, no!’ she says, quick as a flash.

Iconic: Nicky Clarke was credited with this Diana look, pictured at an outdoor Pavarotti Concert in Hyde Park

‘She wasn’t invited,’ adds Nicky with finality.

Despite the sparring, a genuine affection persists between them. Do they still love each other?

‘I don’t think you can be with someone for so long, for that not to be the case,’ Nicky says, somewhat convolutedly. ‘There is always an element that will never change.’

I wonder if Lesley regrets the haste with which she kicked him out. ‘If I had my time again I might have done things differently,’ she concedes. ‘I acted out of shock and grief. I was impulsive because I was hurt. But you can’t live in the past. You have to go forward.’

Certainly, Nicky has lost no time in getting back to what he loves. This week, he was at his brother’s London salon cutting hair again. Michael Van Clarke is more sober-suited and less fabulously coiffed than his high-profile sibling, so Nicky was obliged to adhere to a less flamboyant dress code.

‘I had to abide by Michael’s rules,’ he says. ‘He runs a much more structured salon. It is ludicrously beautiful, very successful and he has been extremely gracious.

Nicky cut two clients’ hair on Thursday, both of them his loyal customers for the past 40 years. He’ll be back at Michael’s once a week for the foreseeable; and he will also be working in their Birmingham salon on a regular basis. Does he still command his £350 fee for a cut and blow dry? ‘My fees have always been my fees,’ he says.

Cut above: Nicky and the Duchess of York pictured at the Royal opening of his new hairdressing salon in Mayfair in 1991

Of course, Covid played a huge part in the salon’s closure. ‘We were shut for two Christmases, our busiest time of the year,’ Nicky recalls.

‘First, the real lockdown, then the unofficial one last year when Boris said, “Stay at home. Protect your granny,” so everyone kept away.’

‘That was the last nail in the coffin,’ he adds. ‘Two-thirds of our business was wiped out. Clients were cancelling every day.’

Opposite, the Connaught hotel, which had supplied a steady stream of clientele, stood moribund.

‘And of course the bankers are only coming in two days a week now, and that has a knock-on effect on other businesses. This part of the city is deserted,’ says Nicky.

‘We’d tried everything to keep open, but the takings were down so much and we weren’t delivering a five-star service which we strive for. We tried to make savings but you can’t let standards slip. It wasn’t financially viable to continue.’

I wonder, too, if the pandemic has triggered a trend in DIY hair dyeing and cuts that has become ingrained. ‘That’s rubbish,’ says Lesley.

Both she and Nicky feel affronted that commentators have suggested they haven’t kept up with the times.

‘Of course we have! We left helmet hair behind in the 1980s. I get annoyed by the idea we still do “lacquered to within an inch of its life”. It’s lazy and insulting,’ Nicky says.

Nicky Clarke and wife Lesley opening their hairdressing salon in Mayfair, London, which saw A-Listers through the doors constantly

Even now, they sound like a long-married couple, bickering amicably, reminiscing about the glory days of their shared past.

‘There’s a sort of magic about Mayfair,’ says Nicky. ‘I’ve spent 40 years there.’

He’s back then, in his mind, to the day in 1991 when their iconic salon was launched, to the razzmatazz and glamour, to the crush of celebrities on the opening night — precisely 785 of them — to the sheer optimistic audacity of it all.

‘Lesley worked out the spreadsheets and we had a small loan. We had no money so we rang the most upmarket antique shop we knew and the owner said we could have all the furniture that wouldn’t fit into his storage barn in our salon.

‘There was hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth and we said, “That’s great, but we don’t want the price tags on.” The place looked like Versace on acid. There were carpets, rugs — in a hairdressers! — Louis Vuitton trunks. And the Duchess of York performed the opening ceremony.

‘She said, “Nicholas — she’s the only person apart from my 99-year-old mum who calls me that — where’s the ribbon?” And I pulled a bit off a Christmas tree. Then she said, “Scissors?” and the irony was I couldn’t get to the scissors, there was such a crush of people.

‘So someone found a Swiss Army knife and she used that.

‘We created something fantastic. I once said I’d cut the hair of many people considered divas, but the fact is, no one acts like a diva in the hairdresser’s chair.

‘All the great icons of our time trusted me with their secrets — and that was a great privilege.’

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