Simon Forbes obituary

Veronica Horwell
·5-min read

Absolute artifice arrived in hairdressing in the mid-1960s, when the spun acrylic Dynel began to be widely used for wigs and hairpieces so cheap that nobody, especially the wearers, bothered to pretend they were real hair. It was just fun, the spirit of the age, to be curly blond one day, straight brunette the next, or even have a frizz of lilac or plum to match an outfit.

That wig fashion barely made it into the 70s, when Dynel was instead used for “fun” fake fur coats. But Simon Forbes, who has died aged 70 of bowel cancer, appreciated the properties of the synthetic. Before he went into hairdressing, he had made hippy jewellery for a Kensington Market stall and so, besides learning how to handle metals, he got to understand the new cheap jewellery materials of plastic resin and Perspex, both also acrylics. Over time he came up with the practical idea that gently heat-bonding acrylic fibre, strand by strand, to human hair in situ, using his own-invented electric clamp, would produce a wig with real roots, to be worn more like a sculpture, or jewellery for the head, than living locks.

Forbes’s off-duty passion being music, he was on the club scene through the 70s, where he saw dreadlocked reggae artists on stage, and on the dancefloor early punks, who created their own extraordinary, ethnographic looks, such as spikes or a mohican haircut. Natural hair movement such as tossing or sweeping did not matter to these experimenters, nor did maintenance by comb; their preferred colour was brutal bottle-bleach white, with straw as the texture. For them, hair was just a raw material for extreme identity, and even cheaper than binbags and safety pins. They improvised their looks because no salon offered such wild stuff despite an evident market.

To satisfy that, in 1980 Forbes invested his savings from years of conventional hairdressing into his own salon, Antenna, converted from an old stable block off Kensington Church Street in west London. Its decor was in revolt against the cool order of the Vidal Sassoon school of salon, which had in turn overthrown the old French boudoir manner; Forbes installed barbers’ chairs suggesting imminent mafia massacre, and mounted on the walls metal artists’ work, including his own. He also painted the facade black: only those who wanted to join the club dared enter. Even more revolutionary, he kept prices unusually low for the area to attract genuine punks, even broke ones, since every photographed and tutted-over do was better than any ad campaign.

Antenna, where his business partner was Eleanor Heald, became a lab for a different approach to hairdressing. When Forbes subtracted, he did it with razors and clippers rather than scissors, treating the hair as a pelt to be sheared and shaped. And when he extended, using his C2 heat clamp, the artifice was explicit: the result didn’t feel like or resemble hair, not even the then current 80s permed-wave styles, especially when he dyed a whole head of real and fake hair in colours more fantastic than those 60s wigs.

But on the gig platform, the catwalk and in the new MTV music videos, the results were unprecedented: Culture Club’s Boy George singing Karma Chameleon in 1983 in tasselled, ribboned and coloured braids, looking like a maypole or a wishing tree, was completely novel, and a free commercial for Antenna. After that, Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, Diana Ross, Cher, Kate Bush and Madonna all came for stage and album-cover looks, as did those who wanted to imitate their brio.

Forbes mixed up gender, cutting female clients’ hair short and gelling what remained as vertical as a shaving brush, while long-braiding or dreadlocking men; his dual styles, shaved to the scalp in some zones and past the shoulder blades elsewhere had never been seen before outside National Geographic magazine features on vanishing tribes. His own do was rococo vampire: shaved hairline, ponytail, puffed pompadour atop, yet he knew his mode was not for all, and his staff were instructed never to press an extreme style if a client wavered, but to send them on to a more conventional salon. Forbes also would not use real human hair for his work as, if affordable, it would have been harvested from the world’s poor and was therefore far more unnatural in his opinion than his brand of acrylic hair, sold under the name Monofibre.

Forbes was adopted as a baby by Hermann Plaut, a German-Jewish engineer who had fled to the UK in 1936, and his wife, Peggy (nee Clark). He grew up in New Malden, south-west London, before being sent to boarding school in Somerset, which he left at 16. He worked briefly for an ad agency, then made the market-stall jewellery (he kept his hand at metalwork through his life, returning to metal sculpture after retirement; it had strongly influenced his styling).

His parents, to steady his life, suggested he do a three-year apprenticeship in a suburban hairdressing salon, all lacquer and hood dryers. He then joined and rose in the UK-wide Alan International chain, by the mid-70s instructing stylists in mass-producing rollered ringlets and heavy fringes, until his rebel side won out, he dropped the surname Plaut, and set up Antenna.

In 1982 Forbes began marketing the products he had developed for his hair creations under the name Dome and toured, especially in the US, to demonstrate his techniques. On a 1986 trip to Atlanta, he met the journalist Jana Staub, whom he married; she died in 2002. Their children, Lucy and Robin, and a brother, Nick, survive him.

• Andrew Simon Forbes Plaut, hairstylist, born 16 September 1949; died 9 May 2020