Hair trends in 2021 ranged from the “shallet” – a shaggy mullet preferred by Miley Cyrus and Rihanna – to the buzzcut, as seen on Iris Law and Adwoa Aboah. But this year it’s a technique, rather than a style, that is increasingly likely to be requested at salons. The phrase you’ll need to know is: “instinctive cutting”.
This technique is not for the faint-hearted. It involves a hairdresser cutting freehand, based on their thoughts on a client’s face shape, hair type and product routine. This differs from the typical “picture” first approach, where a client shows an image of a celebrity with a haircut they want. With instinctive cutting, the goal – and the aspiration – is a haircut as unique as its wearer.
George Northwood, whose celebrity clients include Alicia Vikader, Rachel Weisz and the Duchess of Sussex, practises instinctive cutting. The result, he says, is that “the client will emerge from the chair with hair that works specifically for them; rather than with a reproduction of something which doesn’t look or feel right”.
Jacqueline Kilikita, the senior beauty editor at Refinery29 feminist website, recently wrote about the trend, saying she had first encountered the phrase on the websites of fashionable hairdressers such as Northwood, Adam Reed and Hare & Bone. She experienced the technique herself at The Hair Bros. “They chopped inches off of my lengths, layering and razoring as they went,” she says. “The result was a cut that complemented me perfectly and I love it. I haven’t straightened my hair since – huge for me, as I used to do that every day – because the cut allows me to embrace my natural waves.”
Kilikita says the growing popularity of such a technique can be seen as part of the wider impact of the pandemic on self-image. “We want low-maintenance hair that’s going to look effortless in real life and on Zoom,” she says. “For many, being isolated has allowed us to be our most authentic selves, and instinctive cutting is all about embracing individuality.”
Northwood says more clients are becoming aware of the technique, which tallies with other trends: “Now that personalisation is more commonplace, everyone seems to have higher expectations. Bespoke styling responds to the needs of the individual and rarely disappoints.”
A good relationship between client and hairdresser is essential. “More successful hairdressers will have an immediate instinct for what will work best for their client,” says Northwood. “Without this, the outcome can be safe or at worst, unsuitable.”
Showing pictures can still be useful. “Bring pictures of haircuts you love so that the stylist can get a feel for your aesthetic,” says Kilikita. “While they probably won’t refer to those images during the cut, they’re likely to take elements of the style – a fringe or layers – and make them unique to you.”
Northwood cautions: “Not all hairdressers are aware of what instinctive cutting is, so I recommend that you just ask your stylist to follow their instinct. Be sure to offer a yardstick in the form of images you like, to ensure that both of you are in a similar territory beforehand.”
Tom Warr, the academy director at London salon chain Blue Tit, doesn’t use the term “instinctive cutting”, but he encourages trainees to think on their feet when presented with a picture: “If someone shows you a picture of like a really sharp fringe, and you notice they have a massive cow’s lick, that’s something that you may want to talk about with the client in terms of their expectations.”
Warr uses images to give him an idea of his client’s ideas and dislikes. “I like to see if I get their personality [so] there’ll be a lot of icebreaker questions, trying to get to know them,” he says. “You’re weighing up their vibe. That can help loads with the end result.”