Eugene Souleiman: Working Deep & Sublime Mistakes

“You are frowning. You don’t like my answer. What don’t you like about it?”

It is late in the afternoon and about a dozen of us are huddled together in a small meeting room during the Wella International Trendvision event. The room itself looks as though it had recently been used for some type of model prep. As means of a quick conversion, a semicircle of chairs have been placed in the center of the room, and Eugene Souleiman sits sort of in the center, but really off to one side.

The placement is actually pretty metaphorically perfect to his career and aesthetic: just left of center.

After a long morning of presentations for Wella and GHD, following what must have been a long month of fashion week shows and preparation, it is a slightly subdued Eugene that faces all of us now, likely mentally preparing for the onslaught of questions about to come at him from all corners of the room.

There is a half-drunk cup of hotel coffee on the prep table and it’s impossible not to wonder exactly how many of those have likely been fully consumed to keep the whole show going.

Maggie Mulhern, the Grand Dame of Trade Beauty Editors, from Modern Salon is seated next to me and has just finished asking Eugene a series of questions touching on Fashion Week and creative inspiration. In typical fashion, his response is long and winding and touches upon a multitude of different topics.

You can almost see how each answer that he gives, sparks a new thought or consideration, and he adjusts his stream of consciousness style of response accordingly.

The answer in question, at this particular moment, which prompted an involuntary facial expression change on my part, was concerned more with the “origin of inspiration” line of questioning and curiously ended with “well mostly it’s fear, right?”

“What could YOU possibly be afraid of ???”

When talking with people who have reached the level of success and recognition that Eugene Souleiman has, it can be easy to forget that they are not just artists—they are people. What is shown to the masses are all of the accolades, all of the perfected looks, all of the results of hours upon hours of work. Work that is sometimes messy, frustrating, and in his own words, “terrible, just terrible.”

While the overall result of having achieved such stature is gaining more opportunities to work on more big-name shows and with even more talented designers, there is a caveat to success: you have to live up to what you’ve done before.

Eugene Souleiman during an interview

This is the fear that Souleiman describes, and it’s all-too-familiar for most creatives. It can be an exhilarating feeling to be recognized for your talents, by someone that you admire—which is what Eugene describes* when being invited back by fashion designer Thom Browne to work on this seasons’ shows.

“You suddenly think to yourself, well, what if I can’t do it again? It can’t just be ‘as good’ it needs to be better.”

Creativity is often viewed as a concrete trait. Something that you are born with, inherently, and can, therefore, turn on and off like a faucet. While creative work is something that you can practice, grow and continually improve by simply investing the time and effort, creative ideas and inspiration are altogether different.

American photographer and painter Chuck Close put it famously by saying:

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will—through work—bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time, you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.”

Eugene Souleiman echoes this idea by explaining that it is through that process, and the many inevitable mistakes that are a part of that process, that is where the very best creative work comes from.

“I don’t question my ideas, I just…do. Sometimes they work out and when mistakes happen—and sometimes they do—well, that’s actually more magical, isn’t it? That’s where it’s more subliminal and the work becomes more conceptual.”

He then tells his “flesh-colored balloon story*,” which I’ve now heard more than a few times, but this time the story is told differently. This time the focus is not on how brilliant the final product was (that came about entirely by happenstance—while shopping for balloons online for his daughter’s birthday party) and how it changed the way that he looked at hair.

Instead, for the first time, he talks about the numerous incarnations that idea took. How many mannequins he worked through to get it just right, how many times he was frustrated and how it was only by working through each “mistake” that he was lead in an entirely new—and ultimately better—direction than when he first started.

*You can find the full “flesh-colored balloon story” on Hairbrained, HERE. It’s a good read.

After explaining his process with hair, Soulieman goes on to talk about some of his other creative explorations, which include playing in a band at one point, drawing, being inspired by molecular gastronomy and lately, woodworking. By “cross-pollinating” his creative pursuits, it ultimately gives him multiple streams of inspiration and a way of cross-training his creative muscles.

I had gone into this particular interview with only one question in mind—what now? Having the opportunity to question someone who has achieved the highest level of success in their profession pretty much begs an answer to, “Well, you’ve made it. What do you do next?”

I never did get to ask that question because learning about his process and his willingness to talk so candidly about how messy that process can be was much more interesting. As highly respected and successful as Eugene Souleiman is, he is telling us what we all already know, deep down.

It’s not the destination that counts, it’s all about the journey.

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