Bex Brent has a super-cool ease, exuding a warmth and confidence in her gait. Savvy, personable and stylish, she strides over to meet me, as I wave to her from the corner of a bustling, inner-city cafe, to chat about creative pursuits.
The Director and owner of Willis York in Wellington, has an energy that immediately distinguishes her from the swathe of suited-up, office workers taking their morning coffee break. As she sits down to catch her breath, I get the feeling that she is excited about life.
Of course, a recent trip to Paris has something to do with it.
Last year, Bex was presented with the prestigious ‘Supreme Award’ for L’Oréal Colourist of the Year. Part of the prize included a trip to Paris; a city with art and history aplenty, she was taken on a personal tour of L’Oréal Paris Academy on Rue Royal (with Chanel just across the road), which completed the L’Oréal picture for Bex, in terms of the history and weight that it holds in the industry.
Life has been busy and exciting since her win, a moment she says, that is hard to describe: “It took about 10 seconds for it to register [and] the video shows me before the announcement, looking awkwardly at my feet. Timing is everything in life…and it was the right time.”
With a voracious appetite for anything creative, she had been mulling over the award-winning look, for awhile.
“I knew the color was going to be the sky at dusk…beautiful soft pinks and greys… all I had to do was find the right face.”
Bex is resolute in her passion for her craft, but prior to entering the industry she entertained dreams of studying architecture or photography, and shamefully admits, that she didn’t hold hairdressing in very high regard.
“In the past I worked in a lot of salons where the number of clients and dollars was all that mattered and I ended up hating what I was doing.”
Embarking on the industry transformed any misconceptions, and she immediately fell in love with a multi-dimensional business and art form, for which, her ebullience overflows for its myriad facets; from talking to people all day and making them look and feel amazing, to collaborations with brands, fashion designers and artists.
She also looks to encourage her talented team of stylists to actively pursue their own creative vision for their work: “It’s exciting when one of my young stylists wins awards and goes off to bigger and better things. You have to be prepared to work hard. It’s a fun, creative and social industry that can take you in so many different directions.”
On the path to completing and accomplishing some of her own personal goals— and naturally— setting some new ones, Bex recalls the unexpected path that led her to hairdressing in the first place. Accidentally pregnant at the age of 22, she made the conscious decision to move back home to Wanaka, to make the best life she could for her little boy.
“I needed a job, so I ended up working part time in a local salon to help out. The manager is the most positive and inspiring woman I know…we ‘got’ each other…she offered me an apprenticeship, and the rest is history!”
She attributes her own success to sheer perseverance and raw talent, along with a clear, imperturbable vision. Running her own salon is part of that early vision, and buying Willis York (2008), has provided her with the opportunity to ‘indulge in the bigger picture.’
Plenty has changed in the industry since Bex began her career, thirteen years ago.
“When I first started, we used streaking caps [and] now we hardly use foils in hair and everything is hand painted. The best change so far, is the introduction of ammonia-free colors, with L’Oreal being the first major brand to introduce this. Slowly, hair products (including the packaging) will all be sustainable.”
Much like fashion—the hair and beauty industry changes constantly, but according to Bex, the element that has remained consistent is that hairdressing is still largely dominated by women, with male hair stylists excelling on the fashion catwalk circuit.
“I do think, however, that behind every great man is an even greater woman!” she laughs.
Establishing an environment for creative work to flourish, has been imperative in what is a demanding and competitive industry, where making a name for yourself can open new pathways.
With around 300 entries for the Supreme Award, Bex admits that in earlier years, she tried to second-guess what the judges were looking for. For the first time, she was insistent on trying something out of left field: “I was like, I really want to shave a girl’s head and colour it the most exquisite shade of pink…and it won!”
Trusting her instincts and having a strong vision for the shoot were part of her creative process, and finding the right face was the first crucial step towards a winning shot— that face—belonging to a striking young woman who was working as a waitress, when Bex spotted her one night.
Ahead of the competition they got straight to work, along with photographer, Louise Hatton. “By the time we did the official shoot, she nailed it in ten!” says Bex of her model.
Bex herself, is currently sporting a short hairstyle with longer layers on top, and what she refers to as, ‘a self-styled under-cut.’
“I’m trying to get back to my natural hair colour,” she muses.
Being highly visual and having an interest in fashion, is important in an industry that is constantly in flux, and the two go hand-in hand for Bex, who cites Celine and Yves Saint Laurent amongst her favourite designers, adding that her own style journey has been something of an ‘eclectic experiment.’
“I recently bumped into someone who knew me as a young twenty-something and said: ‘Do you remember those cool denim overalls you made, stuck together with safety pins?’
Today Bex’s wardrobe is highly curated with black—much loved amongst industry professionals— featuring heavily in her collection. “One of my favourite garments is a Lela Jacobs over-sized, silk tee…when I walk, it floats and billows and is just so darn stylish! I have also been making a huge effort with my lingerie, and a lick of lipstick always makes me feel good.”
Bex purchases three to four, well-made pieces per season and is drawn to high-quality, beautiful fabrics— ideally from a sustainable source.
“Innate personal style comes from knowing yourself and what suits your body, rather than acquiring the latest shoes or it bag,” she says.
Her trip to Paris provided plenty of fashion inspiration and illuminated where New Zealand sits on the style stakes.
“Parisian women are infinitely more polished and I loved that, [but] New Zealand is right up there with fashion, in fact, I think we are braver. The men in Paris were probably the most ‘trend’ driven, [with] a beard, fade or a topknot.”
A guest at the ‘UK’ L’Oreal Color Trophy also provided a visually stimulating experience, and she came away inspired by the level of production and forward-thinking design. “There were hair art films shown with matching live models [and] the best was Charles Worthington, who traditionally does ‘big lovely hair’ [and] he sent models out with Perspex hair…I died of happy!”
Taking on board plenty of ideas and reminiscing about her time in Paris, has seen her firstly, purchasing of a bicycle in order to recapture her once-in-a-lifetime experience in France, and on the creative front, she now has her sights set on making more art films, with a stronger idea of how to push boundaries.
Also at a stage where she has accomplished her previous goals of ‘slowing down her craft,’ and creating a beautiful space that provides clients with a unique experience, this year, she is handing over the role of Manager to one of her top stylists, which frees her from the day-to-day running of Willis York; giving her more time to focus on other projects and creative ventures, whilst also fostering creative growth for others.
“In the past I worked in a lot of salons where the number of clients and dollars was all that mattered and I ended up hating what I was doing, [so] I am slowing down [and] I want to work smarter. I also want to establish a hub…a place where anyone can come and create.”
*All images courtesy of Bex Brent, Willis York.
The award winning shot (top featured image), photographed by Louise Hatton.
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