To many, Charlie Miller is just the name of an upmarket hairdressing chain in Edinburgh. There is much more, however, to the man behind the brand. Numerous awards and five high-end salons aside, his team have worked with L’Oreal, MTV and even the Dalai Lama, who cuts his hair with clippers given to him by Miller. The beginning of 2012 brought further glory and acclaim for the hairdresser as he was honoured with an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list.
I met up with Miller in his flagship salon which occupies four floors of a classic West End townhouse. The building exudes a slightly unnerving sense of controlled perfection, the mirrors even having been inscribed with the words 'excellence', 'wealth', 'beauty', 'wellbeing' and 'sparkle'. In person, Miller is effortlessly stylish, warm and engaging, yet also controlled and acutely sharp. Escorting me to a seat, he sits directly opposite, telling me there's a slope in the floor and he doesn't like sitting above people; one of many of his curious and somehow flattering ambiguities.
It is here that I begin seeing something which will accompany us throughout our conversation; namely a sincere and genuine kindness co-existing in perfect harmony with his fierce drive and ambition. Miller's approach to his profession is far more than simply cutting hair; it is rooted in his background and his beliefs.
“I come from Niddrie, there are a lot of great people down there, and I never had anything but support and never had any bad experiences that you hear about places like that. I did have this inclination to find out what goodness was about and how to be decent.
"That’s the beginning of the OBE, the whole journey has been about me clarifying my values and building and understanding them more strongly. Values and an aesthetic awareness – I was very switched onto fashion. I’m still very switched on in that way."
Miller seems to naturally link his beliefs and past experiences to aesthetics and fashion, often discussing them as though they are the same thing. Unsure as to whether the fashion and aesthetics of hairdressing could be related to core values, Miller points out to me with philosophical zeal how the two are intrinsically linked in his industry.
“The link is looking after clients. I always had it worked out how to do that, but in the seventies a friend of mine gave me a book by Carl Rogers (the renowned American psychologist) who had a way of describing when you’re dealing with a person one on one which he did, and as I do as a hairdresser, it consists of three things. One is to be genuine – my interpretation of genuineness is that if I ask somebody how they would like their hair, I’ve genuinely got to know how to do it...I’ve got to know all the styles. The second thing is empathy - you have to be able to read what the client needs. The third thing is non-possessive warmth, I have never heard anything better. The quality of warmth that he described just blew me away. If you get these three things right you are setting up a field between two people and it works.”
He goes on to talk about an interview he gave for a religious television programme, when a reporter asked him what his religious persuasion was. “I’m a spiritual nomad", he said. "I look for values, I’m honing it up until today. If you’re really aware of values you're more open on how you interpret it. It's not fixed, for me they’re continually growing.” He is puzzling, articulating his thoughts with such passion that however abstract they may seem they are completely believable. I found myself becoming engrossed in the Charlie Miller Utopia.
It is easy to forget when talking to Miller that as well as being a 'spiritual nomad', he is part of an extremely successful business and is the name behind an internationally acclaimed team of hairdressers. However, he proudly tells me that it is collaborative act.
“I’m blessed, I have a really talented family. As people say, there is always a great woman behind a successful man. I won’t say great man, I’ll just say successful. My wife has been at my side and she is so talented in all sorts of ways. Things that I have done and got the credit for, I have had her saying: ‘do this, do that’. I also have two boys who are very talented and a daughter-in-law who is really quite talented as well." Son Jason and his wife India direct two of Miller's Edinburgh salon, while Joshua, Miller's second-eldest, runs the company. "They’ve followed in my footsteps but made footsteps of their own.”
Miller's modesty is at times surprising, given his enormous success and countless accolades. He is clearly proud of the work he and his team have done, but seems proudest of the way he makes the client feel, working to meet their needs and make them happy. This latter trait is also displayed in his work with the Teenage Cancer Trust and local fundraiser Lynne McNicoll, as Miller styles wigs for cancer patients and young adults. In many ways, these wigs become a physical manifestation of their recovery and willingness to fight the disease.
“I didn’t know that young people had cancer – 2,000 a year are diagnosed in the UK. I started to realise that there were a lot of young people with cancer in my area and I could do their wigs. I started to style all the kids in this area, and then once I had gotten all that in place I realised that I know all the best hairdressers in Scotland. Every single one of them which I phoned up said ‘yeah’ just like that. I have got them in all different areas of Scotland looking after the kids. The girls feel worse about losing their hair than having the cancer, which is a funny thing to say but they do.”
This type of work seems to characterise Miller. His values are linked to the well-being of the individuals he works with, while the very foundation of that work lies in his values. There is an organic order and cyclical nature to his work, one which finds expression in his salons and personal endeavours.