Hold On To Your Hair Dye: Bleach London Is Coming to America!

When I was asked by this magazine if I wanted to dye my hair for a story, my husband and I had just finished eating our 331st consecutive dinner together since the pandemic began. During our meal of roast chicken (again), we’d earnestly discussed watching the grass grow in our yard. Would I like to dye my hair? Of course I would. The nature of my life over the past year—which included giving birth to my first child and living under Los Angeles’s recurring stay-at-home orders—had made me eager to exist in a world inching back to normalcy. And what better way to feel seen than with a packet of hair bleach and semipermanent dye?

I certainly wouldn’t be the first woman in history to use hair color as a means of participating in a seismic cultural shift. Rebellious flappers mimicking Clara Bow and Theda Bara went jet black to mark the carefree excess of the postwar era, while the atomic blondes of the 1950s defied the dowdy-housewife persona, offering a prescient glimpse of the women’s-​empowerment movement on the horizon; in the ’80s, neon hues gave punks the visual apparatus to reject Reaganism’s push toward conservative family values. The COVID era will similarly be colored by stained fingertips and splattered linens, relics of the year when boxed dye and Zoom consultations were the closest we could get to a salon appointment.

Hold On To Your Hair Dye: Bleach London Is Coming to America!

But what about the post-COVID era? If the fall collections are any indication, our latter-day summer of love (and meals with friends, and hugs with septuagenarians, and sweaty nights in bars) will be tinted with the acid yellows and flame oranges that cropped up on models at Marni and Gabriela Hearst; the bleach-white strands at Khaite; and the ravey wigs and saturated, single-processed dye jobs on the runway at Dolce & Gabbana—to say nothing of the TikTokers in my neighborhood, whose deep-aqua, shimmery-pink, and slime-green strands bounced along to choreography in front of the Hollywood sign even as the pandemic raged on. Anything for good content.

“Everybody’s going for different shades of coppers, reds, and oranges—it’s suddenly having a huge moment,” explains colorist Alex Brownsell, the cofounder and creative director of Bleach London. Brownsell has just joined me on a Zoom call from the U.K., where she is waiting on final visa certifications before she can fly to Los Angeles to oversee the finishing touches on her U.S. flagship salon, opening in June. “By the time summer hits, it’s going to be the color of the season,” she says, noting the undeniable influence of Bella Hadid’s Ginger Spice–inspired streaks, which went viral earlier this year.

As hair-color prognosticators go, Brownsell is the beauty industry’s Susan Miller. A master of transformative dye jobs, the 33-year-old has been steering the hair-color conversation since 2010, when she moved out of her kitchen and started Bleach London with two chairs in the back of the original Dalston location of Sharmadean Reid’s Wah Nails. The British-born hairstylist—who trained as a colorist in her mother’s salon in the Midlands before graduating to editorial work and the glossy halls of Hershesons—is known for her potent colors and experimental, head-turning hair moments. Florence Welch’s auburn layers, Rita Ora’s pastel mermaid waves, and Georgia Jagger’s magenta blowouts have all come courtesy of Brownsell’s deft hand. A clubhouse for fashion mavens and subculture kids, Bleach became known as the place to go for experimentation—and inspiration. “It was quite wild, actually, a bit like a party,” Brownsell recalls of those early days. “You’re classically sold trying to look beautiful and pretty and sexy and elegant and young. And what I tried to create with Bleach was the opposite.”

Three stand-alone London salons followed, as well as a cult-favorite product line—16 curated color blends, plus toner and bleach kits, as well as color-care and styling aids, readily available in Europe only—that enabled novices and “hair chameleons” to experiment at home. At the center of it all was Brownsell’s unparalleled skill with pigments. “She’s an alchemist,” says Jagger, who has gone from loyal client to investor and co-owner of the brand. “I’d go to her apartment, and she’d have Ziploc bags with a highlighter or a bit of fabric, and she’d be color matching them.” It wasn’t long before fashion houses took note. Six years ago, Brownsell began working with Gucci on its campaigns, overseeing all of the hairstyling, color, and wigs to achieve the soft and raw looks dreamed up by creative director Alessandro Michele. After Hedi Slimane took over at Celine in 2018, he tapped Brownsell to create the kind of lived-in color that abets the effortless, romantic, e-boy vibe of his men’s collections. Distinguishing between a Gucci blonde (“cinematic and creamy”), a Celine blonde (“punk and not toned”), and a Vetements blonde (“hard silhouettes and solid shapes”) offers a glimpse at the nuance of Brownsell’s artistry, which is best described as precisely imprecise. “What I prefer is that everything looks a bit home done,” she says, “and that’s the thing about Bleach. We’re doing it perfectly, but it doesn’t look like you just went to the salon.”

When COVID hit the U.K. last winter, Brownsell’s “home done” approach felt almost prophetic. During lockdown, Bleach accelerated a digital-consultation platform that had already been in the works, and saw massive interest in its free, one-on-one consultations with stylists who advise on color, products for hair type, and step-by-step application. “Every generation discovers dyeing their hair, and we’re just seeing teenagers discover that on their platforms,” Brownsell notes, explaining that for the TikTok generation, which has been in lockdown for a year, DIY dye jobs have become “one of those activities—like baking banana bread.” What’s different in this moment, she observes, is that first-timers—and old-timers—are much more willing to jump into the deep end: choosing more vivid tones or using two or more colors to create a look with bleach bits, root clashes, and ombré styles.