Philip Kingsley talks A-list celebrities, chicken droppings and expanding internationally at 85 with Harriet Green

Harriet Green
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Kingsley at his London clinic – which he opened in 1968

When Philip Kingsley – founder of the eponymous hair clinics and product business – is talking about “Larry”, it takes you a moment to realise that he’s telling you about his one-time client, Laurence Olivier.

It’s the same when Larry introduced him to Terence [Stamp], Jean [Shrimpton] and Maggie [Smith]. He describes Audrey Hepburn as “just the sweetest girl you can imagine”, and his bestselling product, the Elasticizer, is the result of something the world’s best-known trichologist concocted on the spot for the Breakfast at Tiffany’s star.

Now 85 years old, Kingsley is known as “the hair guru”. Recent and current clients include Jane Fonda, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Sienna Miller, Renee Zellweger and Ivana Trump.

Trichology – the study of the hair and scalp – wasn’t really a thing back in 1953, Kingsley explains, which is when he earned his qualification. “I was born in Bethnal Green. It’s very nice now, but it wasn’t then. It was an impoverished start.” Kingsley’s parents couldn’t afford university so, having spent time working at his uncle’s hairdressers, he saved up to study at the Institute of Trichologists. “I started out knowing nothing about the industry at all. Now, there’s far more awareness of so many elements – hair loss in particular.”

Well coiffed

Kingsley wouldn’t admit it, but most in the business would agree that’s largely down to him. Having spent five years in a Mayfair salon, he cast out by himself. Along the way, he was sued by his old employer for breach of contract, and caused “terrible upset” among neighbours when he set up in a residential building and used up all its water. “The problem was that I had clients queuing in the hallway – I had no idea how business would take off.”

Kingsley opened his current London clinic on Green Street in 1968. With his bankers (now close friends) taking a bet on him, when he moved in, the building was filled with false teeth. “The previous owner was a dentist. He’d taken all the light bulbs, light switch covers. But he’d left loads of teeth and one of his wooden legs. He was a mean sod.”

Credit where due

As someone who persistently stresses how people have helped him out along the way, Kingsley puts his move across the pond – when once again he had clients queueing around the block on opening – down to persuasion by actress Candice Bergen. “They’d never heard of me in New York, but I received some glowing coverage in Vogue and the New York Times once I’d arrived. I love the city. We lived there for 14 years and my wife Joan is a New Yorker. But they’ll admit themselves that they’re neurotic – it’s a tough city to work in.” Yet Philip Kingsley, unlike the majority of clinics and salons, has been going strong in New York since 1977.

In his first job, watching customers get wire threaded through their hair and then heated to perm it taught Kingsley “a lot about women”. Hair was very damaged early on – as was confidence. Practices in the hair industry are far better now, but even so, 85 per cent of his business is focused on thinning hair – or “reduced volume” – particularly in women. “The amount it affects people is extremely underestimated. Just yesterday, a client stopped me and said, ‘I must thank you, you’ve changed my life.’”

For decades, Kingsley’s products – he went commercial with them in the 1970s – have been bestsellers. And this is despite his frankness around how he’s cooked them up.

“When battery chicken farming first started here in the 60s, I picked a newspaper up one day and there was an article about how the farm workers were growing hair where they didn’t have any. It was reported that it was the droppings doing it – they were running their hands over their heads without washing them. So I sent off to this farm and got a bag of chicken manure delivered. It smelt horrible, but I had it chemically analysed and then set about putting those same chemicals in a product – which I called ‘CS’. It didn’t actually work, so I stopped making it, but people were dancing in Annabel’s saying, ‘you’ve got that chicken s*** in your hair!’”

Kingsley adds, “I’m still looking for new things now, of course”. And, despite being in his ninth decade, he’s not just continuing to innovate, but is embarking on a new stage of growth. Flanked by chairman and friend Graham Fish, he’s doubled turnover from four years ago, launched the product range in Australia last year and has a franchise plan in the pipeline.

“There is more international expansion on the cards... we are not so driven by the geography but by working with great trade partners.” With one in five women saying that hair loss or thinning is something they suffer from (three-quarters of Kingsley’s clients are women), the brand still has a vast addressable market.

Going for growth

While the business grows, Kingsley has also imparted his passion to the next generation – his daughter Anabel is a trichologist. But developing the right relationships hasn’t always been easy. In 1984, Kingsley sold his company to American beauty giant Eli Lilly, but things soured. “At first, it went well. But I ended up disappointed in them and many things they did.”

Having befriended an executive of the firm via his children, Kingsley was offered an attractive deal. He ended up walking out after one of his staff was mistreated and, in 1987, bought his business back. “It cost me quite a lot, but I’ve been independent ever since and never regretted it.”

And now, with his company doing better than ever, Kingsley is quick to tell you what “really makes the difference” in business: “the greatest thing is having a great team behind you. I’ve been lucky enough to have had that for over 50 years.”

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