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When Björn leaves for Paris to assist Monsieur Alexandre at the haute couture shows, the salon at Sibyllegatan is closed

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(left, a “Closed for Paris sign”). The clients have to wait.

THE SHAMPOO BOY FROM LIDKÖPING WHO CONQUERS THE WORLD

Björn Axén puts his heart and soul into his first job as a shampoo boy in the small Swedish town of Lidköping. The year is 1953. He lathers shampoo, folds towels, sweeps hair and hands over hairpins like nobody’s business – and sets his mind on becoming the best. He works with great enthusiasm and determination. Always engaged, attentive and charming. As time goes by, Björn broadens his horizons. First, he moves to Stockholm, then Paris – strategic moves by a man orchestrating the start to a brilliant hairdressing career. In Stockholm the master hairdresser Oscar Gustafsson beckons and Paris is home to superstar hairdresser Monsieur Alexandre, two incomparable legends who each take Björn under their wings. They support young Mr. Axén in his aspirations, make him privy to the art of hairdressing craftsmanship at the highest international level and entrust him with the fanciest clientele in the world.

Mr. Gustafsson and Monsieur Alexandre, in turn, had both been taught the tricks of the trade in their youth by the great Monsieur Antoine – the most talked-about hairdresser star of the early 20 th century, the quintessential coiffeur who takes credit for starting the radical trend of cutting women’s hair in short bobs for the first time in history. By virtue of resourcefulness, acumen and his passion for the profession, Björn Axén’s DNA would become intertwined with the history of these three prominent predecessors. He would go on to become the hairdresser who brought glamour to Sweden in the 1960 s and created a world-class hair empire – that will outlive him and become the leading business of its kind in the Nordic countries.

Björn Åke Axén was born on 28 March 1938 in Lidköping, a small town situated on the coast of Sweden’s largest lake, Vänern. His father, John, ran the sporting-goods shop in town and his mother, Anna-Brita, was a homemaker. In the sporty Axén family it was considered a given that Björn, as the eldest son, would eventually take over his father’s store. But Björn had other plans. He had, from very early on, accompanied his mother to the ladies’ hairdressers. Like many other women during the 1940 s and 1950 s she went to the ladies’ hair salon regularly to get her hair done. Björn was captivated by the scents and the atmosphere. In between the salon visits he got the chance to help his mother with her hair at home. She suffered

The great number of photographs that Björn Axén left behind tell the story of a man who took care of his appearance and was aware, right from the beginning, of the importance of documenting one’s journey through life.

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became the preferred choice of the stars while working for Monsieur Antoine in Cannes in the 1940 s. The breakthrough came in 1944 when Yvette Labrousse (Miss France) married the Aga Khan III and Monsieur Alexandre created her artistic bridal hairdo. He becomes known for his elegant chignons and is soon commissioned by many of the post-war period’s influential haute couture houses, such as Dior, Balmain, Balenciaga, Chanel and Givenchy. Later also Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent.

Monsieur Alexandre opened his first renowned salon in 1952, on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, together with the famed hairdresser sisters Maria and Rosy Carita. In 1957 he leaves the sisters and opens his own salon, on the same street, under the name Alexandre de Paris. The logo, a sphinx, is created by the artist Jean Cocteau. It was also his friend Cocteau who encouraged Monsieur Alexandre to start sketching his hairstyle ideas. He presents his sketches to the fashion designers ahead of shows and to distinguished private clients. The sketches become a part of his world-famous signature style and a method that his disciple Björn would come to find highly useful when he is commissioned many years later to be the Queen of Sweden’s hairdresser. Monsieur Alexandre was “an incredibly dynamic man. Generous with his expertise, but also very demanding professionally”, according to Björn. It was without a doubt he who came to mean the most to Björn’s personal development.

Monsieur Alexandre teaches Björn the art of sketching hairdo suggestions. These sketches from the late 1960 s were created by Alexandre for the haute couture shows in Paris where Björn assisted.

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BJÖRN AXÉN

“Out of all the women I have dressed the hair of I can’t imagine there is anyone more perfect than the first lady of this country, no one in the whole world.”
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The portrait of Queen Silvia adorns the salon at Sibyllegatan. Björn always strives to treat all his clients like royalty, but he makes no secret of the fact that the Queen of Sweden holds a special place in his heart.
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THE CROWN PRINCES –AN INCOMPARABLE DYNAMIC DUO

The funeral of Björn Axén takes place on 15 July 1993 in a crowded Kungsholms kyrka, a beautiful old church only a few blocks away from Björn’s apartment. A white coffin, adorned with red roses and white lilies, is surrounded by an ocean of flowers and wreaths. The ceremony is elegant and refined, completely to Björn’s taste. Among the guests who slowly pass by the coffin for a final goodbye are relatives, friends, co-workers, hairdresser colleagues, regular clients and many of the famous faces that have appeared with Björn in the women’s magazines’ society pages over the years. The next of kin is Björn’s younger brother Tore, who is there with his wife and children. Princess Christina with her husband represent the Royal Family. Hundreds of curious spectators have gathered outside the church to honour the superstar of hairdressers. The media coverage is intense. One photographer even goes up in a crane to be able to peep into Björn’s penthouse, where his good friend Vanja Befrits has organised a moving memorial after the funeral. Dry sherry and canapés are served. Björn Axén’s Artistic Director Peter Hägelstam gives a eulogy, consoling the guests and himself with the words: “The grief is ours, there is no need to feel sorry for Björn, he is already busy crimping angel-hair.”

Three weeks prior, the two friends Peter Hägelstam and Johan Hellström had spent the Midsummer weekend together with fashion designer Lars Wallin at Johan’s parents’ house in Jakobsberg, a northern suburb of Stockholm. The newsstands on the journey there bore front-page headlines of Björn Axén’s passing. The Midsummer celebrations were sombre. For Peter and Johan, it is inconceivable that their highly esteemed mentor and the king of hairdressers is gone.

Five days later a lost and distressed Johan receives a phone call that will forever change his life. Björn’s lawyer asks that Johan sits down

Johan and Peter pick up where Björn left off. Together they decide to cultivate and elevate the legendary founder’s vision.

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that become the craze when long, curly tresses make a comeback at the beginning of the 21st century. The second is Peter’s successful innovation: the Volumaster. Drawing inspiration from textured hair, he has created an innovative styling tool that ingeniously creates more volume in any type of hair. For the first time, the duo chooses to take in external capital to be able to launch the internationally patented Volumaster, which goes on to sell in the hundreds of thousands. Things are really looking up – when suddenly, Johan collapses. He has set the bar too high and is burned out. It takes a whole year for him to fully recover. When he has recuperated, he makes sure to work in a more well-balanced way. Johan eventually hires, for the first time, an externally appointed CEO, Peter Elmquist, so that he can dedicate more of his time to the creative side of the business and the clients. Also, he realises the importance of patting himself on the back and allowing himself to be proud of what he has accomplished.

A true testament to Björn Axén being on the right track – that Johan and Peter have successfully got the whole team working towards the goal of becoming “one of the world’s leading salons” –comes in 2004. They have been invited to participate in a newly established international competition, the Global Salon Business Awards in London, organised by the B.E.S.T. Foundation. The gala has been likened to the Academy Awards of the hairdressing industry and was created by Paula Kent Meehan, the founder of American beauty products giant Redken. She has co-founded the award, together with UCLA Anderson School of Management, to raise the status and professionalism of the industry and to reward exemplary salons. Björn Axén from Sweden takes home first place in the category “Best Team Philosophy”. It is an incentive for Johan and Peter to keep championing their business. That same year they start a high-class hairdressing training programme, Björn Axén Academy, to secure a future supply of highly competent hairdressers. They also launch a new salon concept – Urban by Björn Axén – that has a young and trendy vibe, similar to Björn’s Studio concept at NK. The next Global Salon Business Awards are held in 2006 in Barcelona. This time Johan and Peter are the winners in the “Entrepreneur of the Year” category. They have reached their goal – Björn Axén is officially one of the world’s leading salons. A couple of years later, in 2008, Johan and Peter with team fly to Los Angeles to

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Promotional photo with the theme Tsarina in 2008 . Model Carolina Danielsson.

THE MASTER AND HIS APPRENTICES

Björn was, as he himself put it, “terribly fond of his occupation”. He lived and breathed hairdressing 24 hours a day. He had decided early on to become the best – and never compromised his ambition to always stay in the forefront. One writer describes the high-performing hairdresser as “a workhorse with energy all the way out in the ends of his hair”.

In his book Hår (Hair) from 1975 Björn notes: “… a hairdresser who does not reinvent himself but rather maintains the same style over the years, often causes the downfall of his salon.”

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He reads everything, watches everything, travels a lot and he happily shares everything new. He himself was trained by the best: Oscar Gustafsson in Stockholm and Monsieur

Alexandre in Paris. Mr. Gustafsson taught him the importance of always making the client

the focal point. From Alexandre de Paris he picked up a unique sense for glamour and the foundations to the artistic updos that came to be his signature. Once he becomes established, he passionately passes on his expertise to the next generation.

An apprenticeship with Björn is highly sought-after. In the salon located in exclusive department store NK he is surrounded by a myriad of young talents who want to learn the craft from the experienced and skilled master. By the mid-1980 s there are 400 hopefuls per year that apply for a couple of spots. Those that

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IN HER MAJESTY’S SILENT SERVICE

Björn Axén was known for being an open and talkative person. Always tongue in cheek and with a natural flair for PR. He was more than happy to do interviews on almost anything, like the latest from Paris or a tour of his home. But when the subject of the Queen came up – he clammed up. The press never grew tired of asking questions about her artistic updos and sparkling tiaras. However, Björn never uttered a word about the Queen – or anything

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