Riad Azar has finally started to do exactly what he set out to do more than two decades ago in his home country of Syria, and he is doing it in a big way. With Vogue covers now a part of his repertoire and a model-friend who co-created a goofy, fun show that would bring them both Instagram fame, he has had a remarkable few years and is excited to see what’s next. “There is always something going on now,” said Azar with a smile. “I feel like everything is going in the right direction.” We spoke to Azar, whose larger-than-life personality makes him an instant ally, about his first—and second—big break into the industry, his hair philosophy and risking his life for the perfect shot.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I was born and raised in Syria where my mom used to be a designer, so I have always been interested in the fashion world. Growing up, I had a friend who used to come to the house to cut and style my mom’s hair, and I always wanted to give it a try. When I finally got my chance, I realized that I loved the instant gratification of being a hairstylist—in one hour you can transform someone and make them happy. After that, I started coloring and cutting for my cousins and aunts.
I didn’t go to school for hair; I kind of just learned it on my own. In the beginning I made a lot of mistakes, especially with my mom’s perm, but eventually I learned the basic techniques and started working in a salon in Syria in 1993. Four years later, I opened my own salon, and a year after that I went to the Frank de Roche Academy in Paris where I took advanced classes and attended their beauty and hair show. I felt like that was a big step forward because I was exposed to French techniques. After attending the show in both 1998 and 1999, I decided to move to New York City to pursue the fashion industry—I fell in love the second I arrived. I worked for a salon in Manhattan, but in the back of my mind, I never forgot that the reason I went to New York City was to break into the fashion industry. One day a model walked into the salon and needed her hair done for a photo shoot, which I felt was a sign. I jumped on the opportunity and she hooked me up with her agency where I started testing. Eventually, I got a job at L’Oreal Professionnel as a portfolio artist. I traveled around the country for a year and a half doing shows and training others, but in early 2004, I wanted to do more. That’s when I started doing New York Fashion Week and working with my first client, WWD, who booked me all the time.
What was your big break?
In 2006, Ford Models took me on, and I consider that my first big break. I was working for them nonstop, and they opened a lot of doors for me. When I decided I wanted more celebrity interaction, I signed on with Opus Beauty, and stayed with them until 2013. But my real breakout moment was when I joined Atelier Management. That’s when my work and the shoots I was involved in really started to become what I envisioned for myself in New York City. I started working with big publications like Marie Claire, Glamour and Vogue Latin America.
While working for a Bebe campaign, I met the Sports Illustrated model Nina Agdal. We clicked immediately, and since then I have been working with her on a very consistent basis. We even have an Instagram show together called #TheRudyandNinaShow. It got to the point where 17-year-old girls were stopping me on flights and asking for selfies because they recognized me from the clips.
Can you summarize your hair philosophy in a few words?
Imperfect perfection, life, movement and texture. My ideal woman to work with is a confident, modern woman who knows that she’s sexy. She doesn’t need to be overly styled because she knows that she looks good.
Tell us about a particularly memorable shoot.
When I first started styling hair for photo shoots, I had a desire to art direct. So, for fun, a photographer friend of mine, Rony Shram, and I did a shoot inspired by Lolita. I’m very inspired by Lolita’s character because she knows she has the power to get what she wants. To prepare, I did research, created mood boards and put together shot illustrations. I decided we needed that classic, neon motel sign to get the perfect shot, and I found one in Delaware. We casted a 15-year-old female model to play Lolita and a 40-year-old male model to play Humbert, which is the premise of the story. Because we didn’t have a budget, we produced the shoot ourselves, so we loaded up the car—Rony and I in the front and the male model, female model, the female model’s mother and the stylist in the back.
It took us seven hours to drive from New York to Delaware, and it was only supposed to take two. We arrived around 3 p.m. and because we were so late we had hardly any time to prep and start the shoot. It was a crazy and stressful chain of events. Rony and I went to scout out a few other locations. We needed a backyard for the shot where he is sitting and reading a newspaper and she is hula-hooping outside. We knocked on someone’s door to use their backyard and when they didn’t answer, we just decided to shoot there anyway. After a few minutes, someone opened up a window in the house and threatened to call the police. We got the shot, and we got out of there right away.
After that shot, we went back to the motel, which was shady and reminiscent of a drug den, in order to get a few room shots. All of a sudden, a squad team arrived, dressed head to toe in gear, and began arresting people. And here we are in a motel room with a 15-year-old girl and adult male model shooting photos with no permit. We just closed the door and hoped that no one came knocking, and thankfully, they left us alone. Finally, we needed the shot with the motel sign in the background—it was the reason for the trip after all. When we tried to shoot it, we were surrounded by a group of sketchy people concealing guns, but in order to get what we needed I had to ask a few of them to move. I used my charm to ask them to step aside, and, surprisingly, they were fine with it. We got the shot and headed back to the car immediately. I really felt like I risked my life for the shot.
We finally got back to New York City at midnight. Rony sent the shots to a magazine that ran three or four of the photos, but not the motel sign shot. As all of that was happening I knew it was something I would never forget. The movie has a level of danger to it, and the shoot was no different.
Did you have a hair mentor?
When I first started to do New York Fashion Week, I assisted Luigi Murenu on a few shows, including Gucci’s Cruise 2005 collection. He helped me hone my technique and showed me how to pay attention to all of the details in order to get a more polished style. It was a perfect match because at the time I was obsessed with the super-polished ’70s woman and that is Luigi’s aesthetic.
How does hairstyling differ in Syria, Paris and New York?
They are completely different. In Syria, the women are very glamorous, polished and done up. They want to keep changing their look, which is a great thing when you are training as a hairstylist because you have to keep developing new styles, new cuts and new color. In Paris, there are two schools of style. There is the classic school where the women are very elegant, but in a simpler way than the women from the Middle East. And there is the new school, which is a minimal look. If you walk around Paris the women look amazing, but they are very casual and fresh-faced. If you have the right haircut and the right color, you don’t need anything else in Paris. New York City has a totally different kind of woman. She is the independent woman on-the-go who doesn’t have time for a lot of fuss. Her routine is fast and easy. All of these women helped build my talent and instinct for when I’m on set.
What is the greatest accomplishment of your styling career so far?
Being in this business, you always feel like you want to do more and that what you have done is never enough. But, getting the cover of Vogue Latin America in April 2014 with Karolina Kurkova was really huge. It is something I have dreamt about since I got into the industry. We got to do three different covers, all shot by my friend David Roemer, and it was unbelievable. The ultimate goal is Vogue Paris. It’s always been a source of inspiration, and I love the sensibility and artistry of the photos that they publish.
Do you have any advice for a stylist who is trying to break into the editorial world?
The competition is high, but you just have to keep going at it. Technical skill is necessary, but your creativity is equally as important. Also, there is a formula to photo shoots—for example, if the makeup is subtle, you need to do more with the hair. Once you know that formula and where your place is at a shoot, you are good to go.