the interview: Kim Robinson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 November, 1997, 12:00am

SO MUCH has been happening recently in the flyaway, semi-permanent world of Kim Robinson that a chat seemed called for, so we met for tea in the Mandarin Oriental's Clipper Lounge which was, of course, appropriate because Robinson is the man behind Le Salon Orient, clippers to the stars and to tai-tais. He turned up promptly, wearing a new flicked hairdo of which he said, 'This style is called 'Identity Crisis': I don't know where I'm going with it. I get called 'Madame' from behind, or 'Cherub', or 'Oh God, man, you look sexy', but my girlfriend likes it long, and it's new love so I'm listening to what she's saying.' Well, yes. The existence of this new woman may come as something of a surprise to Kim's fans and he's being pretty coy about it. 'It's a major attitude adjustment for me,' was all he would say. 'Because she's French.' Much later (we'd planned on a fairly brisk interview but two and a half enjoyable hours later, he was still drinking tea and ringing a photographer's studio, where he was supposed to be doing a model's hair, to say he was delayed), he expanded on his lifestyle theory. 'If I meet the right person, I'll settle down. Some people you grow with, some you don't. You need to have common values and principles.' And those are? 'Honesty ... [long pause] honesty is where I stop, probably.' Actually, and frankly much to my amazement, he did a charming presentation of honesty all afternoon. I was expecting blethery nonsense and air-headed arrogance but when an interviewee declares, 'A couple of years ago, I said to myself, 'Kim, you've got too big for your boots',' it's impossible not to be disarmed. And there was also an impressive bout of self-flagellation about how he'd mishandled his business affairs. 'We had the edge on the market for years and we slipped. Very badly. Right on our face, in fact. We had five salons and we closed them all. I had 400-plus employees and now it's 100-plus. I was very ashamed.' So now he's back to the goal he had originally when he launched Le Salon Orient in 1981, which was to set up 'a couture house for hair'. The newly-renovated Duddell Street salon springs forth from the dust next month, he's opening 'the most glamorous salon in the world' [in the Juradong Park hotel] in Brunei next spring and his wig collection hits Asia in a few weeks. He became uncharacteristically shy when I wondered if he'd ever worn a wig himself ('Never. Oh, once, when I did a play. Shakespeare.

Don't want to talk about it. Pass.'), but he laughed when asked if he'd ever thought of becoming an actor. 'Darling, I am an actor. Every year when I watch the Oscars, I think I should get the one for lifetime achievement. I've already got my speech written out thanking Asia's women for teaching me control. People think I'm heaven on a stick but I've been taught by tough cookies.' His background, as he never tires of marvelling, was not a predictable one for a coiffeur. He grew up in a farming family in Western Australia. 'My parents are incredible, so down-to-earth, and I'm so immature, so emotional. I told them about this great challenge in Brunei - oh my God, I could get up and shout and sing about it [] - and they're not fussed at all. They've been great. Everyone else boo-hooed when I went into ladies' hairdressing, it wasn't the thing for a 14-year-old male to do.' Now he makes sure that his mother receives all his press cuttings so that she can wave them at those scornful neighbours. His eyes gleamed: 'It's payback time.' He learned his skill in Europe, primarily with Alexandre in Paris and he's still sought-after for the couture shows but Asia has always exerted a peculiar fascination. He also speaks Cantonese so he can hear the whispered secrets of the salon. 'It sounds so patronising, doesn't it? I'm blond, blue-eyed - and I'm the one saying I can do Asian hair. But I think that women all over the world are the same and I don't know if women feel loved. When it's a new relationship, a man's hot to trot, but then it goes a bit quiet and I feel that. This manager I had once said to me, 'You're about making women feel loved'. It's a special privilege we have.' Which doesn't come cheap. A Robinson haircut will set you back $2,700. I yelped when he said this, but he calmly remarked, 'I have to reinvent a woman and she has to feel she's spent $10,000.' Moreover, there are plenty of women who are prepared to pay for his brilliance: he whizzes through 20 clients a day, three days a week and says he knows what he's going to do in about two minutes. In fact, all through tea he kept narrowing his eyes at passing females, assessing their heads ('Hmmm, she needs something softer ... That's too strong'), which was unnerving. Eventually, of course, I couldn't ignore his scrutiny any longer so I babbled something about getting a haircut soon and he said, soothingly, 'Oh, it's not so hideous' and made some kind suggestions.

He's quite open about his own personal enhancement which I'd asked him about with a sort of apologetic cough. 'Yes, I've had plastic surgery - I'm 40-something years old, it's a young person's business, I felt tired and the models at the shows suggested this guy in the United States. It's like going to the dentist, nothing. I had my nose done and fat transfer - I don't want people to puke, you know. This guy just fills out your face and makes it softer. It's not about looking like Brad Pitt, it's about looking less haggard. I look great for my age.' All this honesty was making me edgy, as if Robinson hadn't quite grasped why I was sitting next to him, scribbling away. Don't you worry about how this will look in print, I said. 'No, I've nothing to hide,' he replied. 'I love what I do. I'm obsessed by it. If I have a woman in front of me who needs help, I feel egotistically fulfilled because I see the joy on her face. She's gone from mediocre to looking beautiful.' Then he rang the studio once more and said he was finally on his way. What was he planning to do with the model? 'I don't know yet. I'll turn up and hope I can create magic.' He laughed contentedly. 'I look at my hands and say please.'