Aroundtown Meets Denise Moody

It takes a gutsy woman to ban beehives, bouffants and backcombing from her catalogue of hairstyles in 1960s Britain, even more so when her clients were primarily housewives from a mining town in Barnsley.

But then subordination has never been in the vocabulary of Darfield’s Denise Moody.

For women in the post-war years, life revolved around their weekly or monthly trip to the salon for a roller set and gossip. But Denise grew tired of the monotony of lacquered ‘dos and knew the only way to cut it as successful businesswoman was to go for broke and change the mould of hairdressing.

Now she’s set to celebrate 60 years in business this July, having continued to make waves in the hair industry both here and across the world. And the glamorous red-haired matriarch of the Moody brand is still very much at the head of happenings as she approaches her 86th birthday.

“There’s nothing I haven’t done to try and get further to the dream and I haven’t regretted one second of it,” she says.

Denise over the years

When Denise opened her salon in the early ‘60s, the country was in the midst of social and cultural changes driven by the second wave of feminism. Who really had time to sit for hours under the dryer hood anymore when work and education beckoned?

Around the same time, Vidal Sassoon had flipped the hairdressing world on its head with his revolutionary precision haircuts that put geometry, angles and uneven shapes front and centre. Denise saw an article on his pioneering techniques in the Hairdressers Journal and sent a letter applauding him on his originality. He wrote back to thank Denise for her praise, having received very few compliments for his work, and invited her to join him at his London salon as an apprentice.

But Denise had a fledgling salon and four-year-old son Stephen to think about. She couldn’t just up and leave for two years. Plus, how would she pay for the indentured apprenticeship fees from one of the world’s finest stylists.

Wigs, curls and bouffants in the 1960s

This was starting to mirror her route into hairdressing all those years before. Before the mid-1970s, there was no formal route into a trade like hairdressing and you’d instead pay a fee to a master craftsman to teach you all they knew. That option was financially unavailable to Denise’s parents– they had another two young sons to consider – so she left school at 14 and began unpaid work in a salon to pick up any tips and tricks she could.

But this opportunity with Sassoon was one nobody could afford to turn down. Leaving Stephen with family, she went to London for three months where she worked in the salon, again unpaid, sweeping floors, shampooing clients and making tea and sandwiches in return for night-time tutoring from the man himself. Back in Barnsley, she brought with her Sassoon’s concept of radical bobbed and cropped hair such as the one-eyed girl, asymmetric Isadora, pixie cut and Greek goddess.

“People said it would never work. Ladies wouldn’t walk around looking like boys with their short hair. The UK wasn’t ahead of the game at that time compared to other European countries. But I knew that moving away from styling and teasing hair to precision cutting was literally going to be cutting edge,” she says.

Denise was resolute and defiant, with a no surrender attitude and a single-minded vision. Today’s hairdressing industry is very much customer centric. But back then, ‘Sit down and you’ll have what I say’ was her motto. Her salon became one of the first in Yorkshire – and indeed the country – to pull away from tradition. Nobody else within the vicinity offered what they did at Denise’s; the only places you could get a Sassoon-esque cut were London, Edinburgh and Darfield.

And the skill on show didn’t come cheap. A haircut was £5 which, considering the weekly wage in Barnsley averaged around £9, was incredibly bold.

From London to Darfield: Sassoon-esque hair in the 1970s

It took time for attitudes in Barnsley to shift, and business nosedived for a while as they inevitably do with any trend. But the unyielding approach to hair at Denise’s liberated women from the tyranny of bedtime rollers and towering beehives, shifting the focus to wash and wear styles that had become synonymous with 1960s fashion.

Even the men wanted to benefit from this modern way of hairdressing.

“Because of how it was cut, ladies’ hair behaved so well without lacquer or product and their husbands couldn’t understand why theirs didn’t. But there were no unisex salons until the late ‘60s and heaven forbid a miner be seen going into a woman’s salon for his hair doing. We used to put towels up at the windows and they’d come through the back door for clandestine trips to the salon at night. There was a barber shop next door, but they preferred what we did.”

Two of Denise’s main goals in life were to sustain both her family and education, and both happened in unison. She never stopped learning new techniques or let her style become stale and old hat, knowing that the only way she could preserve the business she single-handedly built – a business she relied on to put food on the table in a single-parent household – was to keep moving forward with her training at whatever cost. It was completely normal for her two sons growing up to have their mother on courses constantly. Alongside her own education, she also began offering diplomas in bleaching, perms and postiche.

“It’s difficult in 2021, as we move closer to gender equality, to imagine what life must have been like for a woman in her early 20s, a single mum who opened her own business when others like her were stay-at-home mothers who rarely left the kitchen. People often disapproved of Denise’s choices, but she’s always been tenacious, stubborn and strong-willed and for that I will always admire her.”

Denise’s youngest son, Chris, the current creative director at Moodyhair

Denise had been captivated by the craft of styling and cutting hair since she was three years old. Born in Darfield in 1935, the family lived on College Terrace in one of 20 terraced houses all in a row, where she says every neighbour was an auntie or uncle.

“Mum could only afford one perm a year as they were that expensive and I remember her asking which auntie I was staying with while she went to Mrs Edna Morton’s. This time, I asked if I could go with her and watch, which she obliged. I decided at that age that I was going to be a hairdresser. Every day, if I didn’t have anyone to play with on the street, I’d tell my mother I was going down the road with my comb and water to do hair. Mum would say ‘well, you’ve no scissors.’ But Edna gave me some. I knew even then that hair was an emotion, a feeling, and that’s been ingrained in me ever since.”

Day 1 in 1961

Some 20-odd years later in 1961, Denise opened her Darfield salon in a house on Garden Street facing the school. She and baby Stephen lived upstairs and, when we met for our interview, she tells us we’re sitting roughly where the cot would have been in her old bedroom. It started with just one chair for Denise’s clients in a small corner of the downstairs lounge. But over the last 60 years, it has since expanded to encompass the full building.

“We could do with more space, but I’m not leaving here,” she laughs.

Soon after her return from London, Denise married Eric Moody and welcomed her second son, Chris, in 1966. But there was never any maternity leave back then; ever since being babes in arms, the boys came downstairs while their mum worked long hours, their childcare being the laps of whichever client was having their hair done that day.

“I was so very protective and fussy over who was holding the baby. If I didn’t like the look of who was asking to nurse them, I’d tell them he was sick. We even had a recess knocked into one of the walls to put the bassinet.”

Eric and Denise

Eric worked on the railways but quickly realised his wife wasn’t like those of his colleagues. When he got home from work at 4.30pm each day, he got washed and changed and sat in the chair waiting for his tea. Seven o’clock came and still no dinner. By 10.30 he’d make himself a sandwich.

“My dad had to learn how to cook as the woman he married was never going to be home at four with his tea on the table waiting for him. This went on for five years or so before he recognised the only way that he’d get to spend any quality time with his wife was if they worked together, so he trained as a hairdresser,” Chris says.

“And guess who trained him?” Denise adds in.

Eric did an apprenticeship with Denise at night before taking a year-long intensive course with Vidal Sassoon (who else) in 1973. At their salon, one worked in the front room, the other in the back.

With every aspect of family life encompassing the four walls at Garden Street – from work, to play, to sleep – it’s perhaps no surprise that both sons have followed suit into the hairdressing industry.

“Both my boys are my doubles in many ways but they’re also brilliantly individual. I’ve never tried and never will take that away from them. The sky is the limit for them both.”

While Stephen and Chris have each crafted an acclaimed career on their own merit, neither originally set out to cut hair.

After leaving school, Stephen started an engineering apprenticeship before he left to join his mum in the salon. Aged 19 he moved to London to learn more from Vidal Sassoon who had no idea he was Denise’s son. He quickly rose through the ranks and moved to California at 27 where he joined the teaching team at Sassoon Academy in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and ultimately went on to lead 16 global academies. For much of the last 40 years, Stephen was Vidal’s right-hand man until the hairdressing legend passed away in 2012 from leukaemia, which only galvanised the ongoing friendship between him and Denise.

Stephen now works for Wella as education director and still lives in the States. He is married with three children, and both his daughters have inherited the Moody creative streak; one works as a costume designer for Netflix and the other is an art college student.

Stephen Moody

Chris joined Denise on a more traditional apprenticeship after leaving school in 1983 to kill some time before he could attend art college. “And I’m still here 38 years later,” he says. He studied with his brother in London for a while before returning to Darfield and later becoming a senior stylist.

But as with his mother and brother before him, Chris has always held education of high importance and was instrumental in developing the training programme at Denise’s in the 1980s. He has since travelled the world to deliver relevant and meaningful seminars and workshops on stage, teaching fellow teachers how to revolutionise the education of future stylists. Chris has been hailed as a forward-thinker for encouraging educators to draw out curiosity and interest from their students rather than fill their brains with data.

Chris Moody

Today, he works in close partnership with one of Redken’s education artistic directors, Chris Baran, to host various virtual and in-person courses. This collaboration stems from an almost 40-year affiliation with the American hair care brand.

In the 1980s, the team at Denise’s did a photoshoot with students from art college which catapulted the business. The photos from which were picked up by Redken who were keen for Chris and Denise to show others how to simulate their style using the brand’s products. Other haircare brands were also enamoured with the work of the Moody team and were eager for their products to be shown on stage, such as scissor brand Jaguar.

“I’ve been very fortunate to represent the Moody name across the world in countries like Russia, Dubai and Bulgaria. I think the only countries I’ve not taught in are India, Australia and New Zealand. But Darfield is where I got all the foundations from. It’s the first place I put a comb through hair and I owe my career to Denise,” Chris says.

Today, Chris splits his time between his education commitments, his wife and two children, and his roots as a stylist in the salon.

A cut above: classic precision cuts from the last 20 years

Over the last 60 years, the salon has continued to grow and evolve into the professional family-run business it is today. Denise, Eric and Chris have been joined along the way by many amazing stylists who are firmly part of the Moodyhair family and have contributed to the company’s success – this 60-year celebration is just as much a celebration of them too.

Many of their early team members went on to open their own salons and have long and rewarding careers in hairdressing. Celebrity and TV hairdresser, Andrew Barton, began his career at Moodyhair. He often talks about how proud he is of his Barnsley roots and the career shaping principles he learned from Denise during his apprenticeship at the salon. Now he has a world class salon of his own, an international TV career, and a thriving product company.

Some team members went on to do amazing things outside the industry, such as one lady who went on to run a successful yoga and wellness retreat in the outback of Australia, while another has built a renowned skin care clinic.

“Always at the heart of Moodyhair has been the principle of developing relationships. The relationships we have with our team members both past and present is something we are very proud of,” Chris says.

The Moodyhair team today

Today the salon is headed up by a brilliant team of people who share the care, passion and commitment started by Denise 60 years ago. Chris is taking the business on to thrive in international education, whilst the two most senior stylists, Scarlet and Gavin, who have been part of the team for over 25 years, maintain the hard work and passion they put into keeping the salon’s heart beating with clients returning time and time again.

Laura joined as a school-leaver and has been bringing great energy and amazing hairdressing to the salon for 15 years. Jill is the salon coordinator and looks after just about everything. She joined the team over ten years ago and is a vital part of what they do. Dane and Aisha are two young and super talented hairdressers destined to move Moodyhair on into the future.

“The salon was a young woman’s dream over 60 years ago. But it has been the time, care and creative hard work of all the hundreds of stylists that have passed through their doors that has kept that dream real and alive and for that they will always be celebrated as part of the Moodyhair family.”

And of course, where would a long-standing salon in a Barnsley village be without its clientele. Some customers have been coming for the last 50 years, many have been a Moody client since they were babies, and most families who come are now in their fourth generation which is testimony to the sheer hard work Denise and the team have put into the business over the last six decades. The team even attracts clients from all over Yorkshire and beyond, with clients who now live overseas booking in for a treatment whenever visiting family in the UK.

“I’ve always ensured we maintain good relations with clients and suppliers and I’d like to think we’ve never upset anyone. I’m often asked why I never moved the salon, but it’s become the epicentre for our clients, especially those who travel to us. This salon is a landmark, it’s a heartbeat of the village and beyond. We’ll never leave Darfield. No matter how far the Moody name travels the world, this little corner will always be our home.”