The High Priest of Hairdressing
Vasantha de Silva
Scissor happy coiffeur reveals his story on a career that speaks volumes

Synonymous in the world of hairdressing in Sri Lanka, exuberant Vasantha de Silva is a cut above the rest. Fuelled by his passion from the moment he started working in a salon in Milan almost forty years ago, he has managed to forge ahead with his creative genius and sharp cuts. Equally at home backstage at the Milan Fashion Week or at his salon Kess, he is a force to be reckoned with. His quirky sense of style and ebullient nature add to his star quality.

Text Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photos by Siyath Ranathunge

What prompted you to get into hairdressing?

As a child I was dyslexic. After studying at Ananda College and St. Sylvesters, Kandy I was sent to England where I went to a special school where they helped me deal with my dyslexia. I then embarked on a BSc in Mechanical Engineering at the Polytechnic of Central London. During the final stages of my BSc I had to do work experience and then it dawned on me that I did not want to be a mechanical engineer. I then took a gap year and went travelling around Italy with £100 in my pocket. I had to find a job and through a stroke of luck I was at a club when I met a family who owned the best salon in Milan and they offered me a job. I think I fell into hairdressing rather than it being a conscious career choice.

When did you realize that you wanted to make hairdressing a career?

I really enjoyed the creative aspect and the camaraderie of the salon. I felt so comfortable in that environment and soon realised that it was becoming my passion. It was then that I decided that this is where my future lies.

Where did you start?

Like all juniors I started at the bottom of the ladder by washing hair and making coffee! The Italian family I befriended encouraged me to go to a hairdressing school in Milan which I did while working at the salon.

What was the Italian experience like?

It was fabulous! I always pushed myself to achieve more. Once I had reached the top at a particular salon I would then join another and work my way to the top. This helped me gain so much exposure, experience and contacts. I continued this cycle for eight years before deciding to return to Sri Lanka.

What made you goto Australia?

I returned to Sri Lanka in 1983 during the height of the civil unrest and it was hell at that time. I stayed in Sri Lanka for six months before I realized that I wanted to leave and then headed off to Melbourne where I started working as a hairdresser. The hairdressing scene in Australia was different to Italy. In Italy it was all about sexy hair but in Australia it was all about the sporty cut. I met some excellent cutters in Australia and worked my way around several leading salons but I always had a yearning to return to Sri Lanka.

How did you start your salon Kess in Sri Lanka?

After ten years in Australia I wanted to go back to Milan and on the way stopped off in Sri Lanka in 1993. My friend the late Lucky Fonseka persuaded me to stay back in Sri Lanka so much so that he hid my passport. He is the person who opened Kess for me. Sadly three months later he died and I felt that I owed it to him to stay back and make Kess a success. Lucky was a visionary and he pushed me to do all the latest styles. I was in shock when he died but I immersed myself in work and got through that bleak period in my life.

What were the early days at Kess like?

When I started working at Kess there was no fashion and hair scene at the time. Everything was bridal oriented. A general haircut was in the region of Rs.100 but I would charge people Rs.500. They would be in shock but they would pay and return. I knew then that I was doing it right! I also did not join any hairdressing associations but continued to build my team and the business.

What are the international shows you have worked at?

I had befriended world- renowned French hair stylist Laurent Philippon at London Fashion Week a few years back. On his invitation I went to Paris and worked at the Alberta Ferretti show doing hair for the models. It was an amazing experience. It was very serious and business like. Contrary to popular belief the models do not run around screaming like maniacs. The supermodels are in a league of their own. They just come, get their hair and make up done, walk the ramp and go on to the next show. Backstage we have to concentrate and get the exact look that the designer wants. You have to be precise, able to interpret instructions, take artistic direction and be on top of your game to work in an environment like that. The adrenalin just pumps backstage. I just love it and I feed off it.

Who are the most exciting people you have worked with?

I have worked with Indian supermodels such as Nayanika Chatterjee, Bhavana, Sarah Sampiono and our own Perine Fernando.

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career?

I take risks each day when I cut hair, as with each person I have to take a calculated risk. The biggest risk I take is to avert disasters! The only disaster I can think of is when I did a treatment on a friend who had wonderfully curly hair and it went radically wrong. I had to nurse her hair for a year after that! The most important thing to remember is everything is repairable!

What are the most memorable moments in your career?

For me getting up and going to work is like going to a party. Every day is memorable as I meet new people and a new challenge. I must be the only person who has orgasms at work, every time I have a satisfied client!
Working at the international fashion shows and of course, doing the hair and make up for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Sri Lanka which is of an international standard ranks highly for me.

What is your number one hair tip?

Don’t brush your hair when you wake up as your hair is knotted and dry due to the humidity. This makes it lose elasticity and break easily. Your fingers are the best comb, so run your fingers through your hair. If you are using an iron or a blow dryer then always use a heat protector.

Can you explain your role as Brand Ambassador for Kevin Murphy?

I have long admired Kevin Murphy and his products. I had written to so many people but they did not show interest in sending their products to Sri Lanka. However with Kevin Murphy it was a different story. Within weeks of receiving my letter he sent his Director to meet me and I was appointed the Brand mbassador for Kevin Murphy in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

This appointment means a lot to me as Kevin Murphy is a respected and recognized figure in the industry and to be a brand ambassador for him speaks volumes.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I have a great lifestyle. I travel and meet so many interesting people. I am also fortunate to have a wonderful team who speak my language and they have become my second family.

How do you inspire your team?

I feed them with ideas, nurture them and train them. It’s a constant evolution of learning new techniques and tricks. They are so passionate and keen to succeed that they are not afraid to put in the long hours to learn and achieve a high standard of work.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I definitely want to open a hairdressing school as I feel that is a need that has to be addressed. It has to be a place where excellent training is delivered and the students are awarded a Sri Lankan qualification that would hold them in good stead anywhere in the world. I don’t aim to stop working once I reach a certain age. I will keep going until it becomes physically impossible for me to work.