One of the most celebrated stars of Northern Ireland hairdressing has made a sensational comeback after losing everything in the recession.
Belfast stylist Paul Stafford, who was forced into bankruptcy during the property crash, this week picked up one of the biggest accolades in the industry when he was named UK Salon Stylist of the Year by leading glossy magazine HAIR.
The coveted award was presented to the Belfast man in recognition of his outstanding creative talent and technical ability.
Paul, who went bankrupt in 2012 after losing a fortune in property investments, has spent the past few years fighting to get back on top in his industry and in business, and last night said the award marked a new era for the Stafford brand.
"It was a tough time and we had to put creative things on hold and concentrate on survival," he added. "This is a great accolade to get, not just because it is judged by other hairdressers, but by the public and it is an indication that we are back in people's vision and trying to promote Northern Ireland hairdressing at a higher level, which is what I have always wanted to do."
Paul paid tribute to the hairdressing industry for the support shown to both him and his equally talented wife, Leisa, when their famous salon on Belfast's Lisburn Road was forced to close when the couple faced bankruptcy in 2012.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at the time, the 48-year-old said he and Leisa had endured "a harrowing" time fighting to hold onto their company.
The loss of their business empire came about as a result of debt from a property portfolio the couple built up as a retirement fund.
The property market crash left them with debt of £2m on property loans which they could not manage. Their famous Paul Stafford salon was bought over and the couple were grateful to be kept on as employees to run it.
At the time, he said: "It's been absolutely horrific, the worst experience ever, and it has taken its toll on both of us.''
Now back on top with a new award to add to his trophy cabinet, Paul said it had been a long road back for both of them.
He added: "We have made a definite attempt since 2012 to reinvent ourselves. The industry has been really good to me, letting me get back out there and do shows and show people how you can stay in the industry 30 years and survive.
"Most people who work hard can have a career, and what has happened to us is testament to that."
Paul has been making waves in the hair and beauty industry since he started out in hairdressing more than 25 years ago.
Over that time he has won almost all the accolades in his field worth winning, including the prestigious Northern Irish Hairdresser of the Year title three times.
But this latest prize, for which he was shortlisted in 2016 and which pitted him against some of the most famous and acclaimed names in British hairdressing, is the icing on the cake.
To win, he had to submit a lengthy and detailed portfolio laying out his approach and professional achievements. This included his work as a salon stylist, catering to his personal and celebrity clients, his worldwide stage and educational work and examples of his renowned photographic collections.
It was judged by an expert panel comprising some of the best hairdressers in the business.
Known for his snappy dressing and Mod-inspired personal style as much as for his skills with the scissors, Paul is a regular in the Press and on TV, where he is sought out for his original views on anything and everything hair and fashion-related.
He also travels the world appearing on stage at major events and sharing his knowledge with other stylists. He has recently returned from the States and is due to fly off later this month to perform in Croatia.
'Working at the top level takes a level of commitment and hard work that few people who see you cutting hair for clients in the salon would guess at, so having those efforts recognised and judged by people who I admire and whose opinions I respect to the utmost means a tremendous amount," he said.
"I've won a few awards in my time, but the Salon Stylist of the Year prize is special as it recognises all the separate elements - working in the salon and out of it - that go into making a great, all-round hairdresser."
Paul is in the BHA Hall of Fame, having won Northern Irish Hairdresser of the Year three times. Leisa is also a multiple award-winner, including Northern Irish Hairdresser of the Year 2004, and a seasoned session stylist in constant demand by magazines and ad agencies.
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