We built an empire and then lost it all, but we have never been so happy
Paul and Leisa Stafford tell Stephanie Bell about their rise to fame, how they ended up bankrupt and how it has rekindled their love of hairdressing.
They have enjoyed a love affair with fashion, style and each other for nearly 30 years and despite some twists and turns along the way, Paul and Leisa Stafford stand as strong as ever at the very forefront of global hairdressing.
The multi award-winning Belfast husband and wife team — who together are credited with helping raise the bar in creative hairdressing in Northern Ireland — are still very much in demand to showcase their talent at top industry events around the world.
Paul is a member of the Hairdressing Hall of Fame and three times winner of the British Hairdresser of the Year Award, which Leisa also won in 2004.
Next month, Paul is set to be one of the headliners at Unites Global Session in San Diego where he will appear on stage alongside some of the world’s greatest hairdressers demonstrating the techniques and dramatic flair behind some of his signature looks.
Meanwhile, it’s Leisa who Paul says is the real creative talent behind their collective genius and she, too, continues to set trends in fashion, styling for magazine shoots and fashion shows as well as accompanying Paul on international trade trips.
The couple’s focus, however, is on the salon they manage which takes their name on the Lisburn Road in Belfast.
They no longer own Paul Stafford Hair which attracts an Ireland-wide and top celebrity clientele after they lost their business when forced into bankruptcy during what Paul describes as “the darkest time in our lives” two years ago.
The couple had invested heavily in the property market and when the bubble burst they were in over their heads with £2m of debt. Even though their hair dressing business was still thriving, they lost everything they had worked for.
The new owners of the salon kept them on as managers and Paul says their entire focus shifted and they both realised that real happiness lay
in going back to basics and doing what they love — creating wonderful hair styles for their clients.
Once one of the most glamorous couples among Belfast’s movers and shakers, they now lead a very private life, choosing to focus on their careers and their two girls Joni (13) and Ava (11).
Paul and Leisa, both 46, have been together since they were 18 years old.
Theirs is a romantic love story that began when they met in their mid-teens. At the time, both were sharing flats with friends in Belfast’s University area.
Paul, who had a flamboyant fashion sense even then and who still champions the mod look favoured by the likes of Paul Weller and Bradley Wiggins, says he had a bit of a battle on his hands persuading Leisa to give him a chance at romance.
He recalls: “I pursued her relentlessly. She thought I was gay and it was only when I realised that the way to her heart was through her mouth and invited her out for a pizza that we finally became a couple.
“Did I mind that she thought I was gay? No. I had a lot of friends who were gay and I was outrageous and did dress in a rather flamboyant way. It was never an issue for me if people thought I was gay, as I never had any hang ups about it.
“Oh, and Leisa still loves her food. She could eat chocolate all day long if she wants and she is still the same size as the day I met her.”
Despite that initial date, Paul says he had to work hard to win Leisa’s heart: “I knew from the start that we got on very well and there was real chemistry between us, but Leisa wasn’t easy to win over. She was a real free spirit and very independent, and she still is.”
Leisa’s recollection is slightly different. She remembers writing to Paul as a friend when he returned home to his mum’s house in Dundalk. With no mobile phones back then she’d had to resort to pen and paper. She says: “I don't think I thought Paul was effeminate in any way, it was more to do with the fact that virtually all the men I knew in hairdressing were gay, so I just presumed he was, too.
“I was only 17 or 18 and it seems mad to think that now, but in 1984/85 I didn't know many, if any, straight male hairdressers.
“I've always loved my food but the pizza story is only partly true. It's true he did treat me to a dingy pizza but I was too proud to accept, even though he insisted, so I declined the offer of a drink or any toppings on the pizza,” she says.
As their romance was blossoming so were their careers, which have run along parallel lines from the start.
Paul started work in trendy Belfast salon Zakks while Leisa began her career working with Alan Boyce and Co — one of the biggest and most progressive hairdressing companies in Northern Ireland in the Eighties and Nineties.
Paul says: “Alan Boyce was doing some really exciting things with his company, including a lot of shows alongside the likes of Trevor Sorbie and Sassoon and he took Leisa under his wing.
“He was an incredible mentor and he and Leisa persuaded me to come on board, too.
“Leisa and I had the skills to visualise what he wanted and we couldn’t get our hands dirty enough as we worked behind the scenes of those big shows in London.
“We both became really dedicated to the creative side of hairdressing early on, thanks to that experience.
“Alan then went on to bring Toni and Guy to Northern Ireland, which wasn’t what we wanted to do, so we went out on our own. We wanted to find a creative platform for Northern Ireland hairdressing and make a name for ourselves.
“I was more of a session stylist while Leisa was more creative and we loved working on fashion shoots. We weren’t making any money; we just did it for the sheer love of it.”
Zakks recognised the pair’s passion and talent and employed them to develop a training school for the salon.
They opened a small subsidiary salon called Morrisons (after Van Morrison) which became the creative wing of Zakks.
Evidently, those were heady days when the world really was their oyster. The couple felt invincible as they launched their own collections driven by a desire to not just put themselves on the map but bring Northern Ireland recognition for its hairdressing talent.
This genuine desire to elevate the industry as a whole here has seen them gain the respect of colleagues who, Paul says, stood by them in the dark days following their bankruptcy proceedings.
He says: “The industry was very supportive of us and welcomed us back with open arms. There was no begrudgery and no resentment and they made us feel it was very much where we belong.”
Back in the Nineties, their reputation as educators had got them the recognition they were after and the Northern Ireland-based hairbrush brand Denman was the first of many to approach them to represent them at trade shows in the US and Far East.
It was the start of the globetrotting side of their career which continues today.
“We seemed to be constantly jumping on planes, going to places like Washington, New York, Indiana, Chicago and it was really exciting,” says Paul.
“It was an exciting time all round in Northern Ireland. There were chefs like Michael Deane, Paul Rankin and Robbie Millar doing incredible things with food and great clothes shops opening in Belfast and great bands like Ash and Therapy? making their mark.
“We just seemed to be part of this explosion of creativity in Belfast during that decade.”
The couple were cleaning up at national and international award competitions, reinforcing their image as leaders in their field.
Paul won British Hairdresser of the Year three times and Leisa picked up the award in 2004 — a moment that remains the most memorable for her in a career filled with highlights.
She says: “I've always supported Paul in his shoots and seminars but it was lovely to win Hairdresser of the Year myself in 2004.
“My main interest is being behind the scenes creating looks for fashion shows and editorial magazine work. I'd prefer to see an image I've created than see my name in lights — though it was a huge honour to win the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year in Hair, Beauty and Fashion Award this year.”
New York became a regular haunt and soon won a place in the couple’s hearts — so much so that in 1999 they chose their beloved Big Apple for a romantic wedding with just the two of them.
Leisa recalls: “New York City is a very special place to us and actually, though getting married was important, what I really wanted to do was to start a family. I’d never been that maternal but it just seemed like the right time.
“So off to New York we went and got married — no fuss, no guests, just a crazy week of fun, food and being together. It was perfect and it's exactly what I'd do if I were doing it again.”
It was in the hope of emulating the edgy New York vibe they both loved that they took their first huge business gamble in 2003 and opened a showcase 6,000 square foot salon in Belfast’s Golden Mile on Great Victoria Street.
On par with any upmarket salon in any top city in the world, it offered hair, beauty, a coffee shop and art gallery under one roof.
Belfast had never seen anything like it and with 55 stylists, the Staffords’ salon became the place where the most stylish men and women across Ireland knew they would get the latest look.
But after five years the first signs that a recession was on its way were already being felt. The couple saw the writing on the wall and decided to close the shop and open a smaller salon on the Lisburn Road.
Looking back, Paul says: “There was a change in atmosphere and the good times were coming to an end and people were being more careful about how they were spending their money.
“We got out at the right time because when the recession hit we would never have survived.”
Even though the salon on the Lisburn Road has continued to thrive, the couple were devastated to lose it when the property market crash led to their bankruptcy proceedings in 2012.
It was a traumatic time and a huge learning curve for both of them.
Paul confesses that they paid the price for getting caught up in empire building and had lost sight of their real love and talent for creating great hair.
Paul says: “In retrospect it was the biggest challenge we ever faced in our lives and a real test not just of our ability as hairdressers but also of ourselves as a couple from a marital point of view.
“It felt like it was us against the world and we had to dig in and be strong.
“I had dark periods and went into a very dark place but it gave me back my love of hairdressing.
“Now all I think about is hair. We’ve had the best and worst of times and now we are inspired to work a lot harder and it’s all very exciting again.
“It’s great to be real and to be focused on the creative side once more. “
Leisa feels similarly humbled by the experience and says that while it was an incredibly tough time, it also helped her to put life into perspective.
She explains: “The thing about our financial problems was that it made me realise what is important in life — and it's not material possessions.
“Paul and I became incredibly strong during that period; it was life-changing but not life-threatening. It was a dark time but in a strange way I feel better for it. I learned about myself and what I'm about.”
They are both as passionate as ever about hairdressing, but listening to them talk, there is no doubt that their priority is their two girls Joni and Ava, who both love ballet and gymnastics. They also have three adored dogs, Archie, Albert and Angus.
Life now is very much focused around family and work and Paul confesses that for the sake of his girls he pledged four years ago to stop drinking so that he could “grow up with them”.
He says: “I made a sacrifice to the girls to stop drinking, which is vitally important to our relationship. I wanted to grow up with them so that they could have the full benefit of having me as a dad, which is something I lost a little bit of with my own dad.
“It the best thing I have ever done and we do everything together. We don’t socialise much anymore but the girls aren’t our friends we are mum and dad to them and we have a very definite relationship and we have great fun together.
“The kids make my life complete and everything I do is for them.”
Working so hard and being parents is a juggling act for the couple and Paul confesses that it mainly falls on Leisa to ensure the girls get to their classes.
Leisa doesn’t argue the point.
She adds: “With ballet, gymnastics and birthday parties, it's a rushing game every day and it's always me they come to when they lose a blazer or need a lift somewhere, but I always seem to manage, somehow! They come first.”
Expert Paul shares his style secrets at Belfast fashion showcase
Paul Stafford will be sharing his ‘Salon Secrets’ at this year’s Directory 15 fashion and style showcase next week.
Directory 15, Northern Ireland’s premier style event, sponsored by ALFAPARF Milano and Decoderm Make-up Care, runs from next Wednesday, September 24, to Friday.
Paul will be part of a team of some of Northern Ireland’s best-known names in fashion, hair and make-up who will be coming together to celebrate and showcase timeless, accessible, affordable, bespoke style solutions for women across Northern Ireland at every age.
The top team will be ready with tips, advice and style solutions for every fashion dilemma. The bespoke events include salon secrets, personal tips and tricks, special guests and trends straight off the catwalk.
Paul says: “Like hairdressing, Directory 15 is another labour of love for me. It’s a great event and I really appreciate the chance to be part of it as the focus is on real women.
“I’m looking forward to talking to people about their hair problems and answering questions that they wouldn’t normally ask their own hairdresser.
“It is a real reflection of the amount of style out there outside of the 18-35 age group.
“It’s a great way to champion these women and I’m very excited about it.”
Paul Stafford Salon Secrets will be held in The Ivory restaurant, Belfast, on September 24, starting at 7pm.
Paul will be sharing his personal tips along with insider information on how the professionals create and maintain a beautiful haircut at home.
Hot from the catwalk, chic boutique Harrison, based on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, will highlight the best of this seasons AW14 trends — with hairstyles provided by Paul. Tickets cost £12.
Other events in the Directory 15 style and beauty extravaganza include AW14 Cosmopolitan Chic in the Merchant & Maker at 7pm on September 25.
This is a fun interactive evening showcasing the hottest make-up and new season collection trends, in addition to personal tips and tricks on how to make each key look work for you.
The final event, Directory 15 Presents Local Style Heroes, takes place at Riddell Hall, Belfast, on September 26, at 7pm.
This evening will feature some of the best-known names in fashion and style, including top designer Una Rodden, super stylists Jamie Russell and Cindy McKendry and presenting Directory 15 style heroes.
To find out more visit facebook.com/directory15, tickets on sale through the Belfast Welcome Centre or visit-belfast.com.