This past February, at Rodarte’s fall 2023 show, the model Madelyn Whitley swirled down the runway in a shaggy goth-glam gown and a fresh dye job. Her hair, worn loose and centre parted, had a purple-tinged burgundy glow that brought to mind a backlit glass of pinot noir. Whitley, however, described the hue in less romantic terms: “dried blood.”
Whatever you choose to call it, red hair — in both audaciously nonhuman shades like shiny penny and fire engine, and born-with-it ones like carrot orange and strawberry blond — was a defining beauty look of the season. On Burberry’s London catwalk, the Dutch ballet dancer Toon Lobach emerged with a neon candy apple coif. For the Gucci show in Milan, the hair stylist Ben Gregory turned the model Julia Belyakova’s naturally blonde pixie cut a decidedly unnatural carmine. At Chanel in Paris, audiences were greeted with Seoyeon Lee’s garnet waves and Adwoa Aboah’s ginger spirals. And at Victoria Beckham’s show, the trend transcended the scalp: coppery hair extensions were transformed into fringe for both knits and high heels. (Beckham pointed to the Brazilian artist Solange Pessoa as her source of inspiration.)
“Red hair gets you noticed,” says the London-based Rachael Gibson, whose @thehairhistorian Instagram account charts popular dos through the ages. “It was desirable in the Elizabethan era and in Italy after Titian,” she explains, referencing the Renaissance painter who was known for depicting women with fiery auburn locks, “but otherwise it’s largely been seen as outsider because of its scarcity” — it’s estimated that less than 2 percent of the world’s population are natural redheads — “and negative historical connotations.” (See: Judas, Mary Magdalene and a long list of vampires and other literary villains.)
In Gibson’s opinion, fashion’s “ultimate redhead” was the model Karen Elson. “Her ’90s look was very much about creating an otherworldly, slightly alien appearance,” she says. And Elson wasn’t the only supermodel known for going vermilion. “Linda Evangelista experienced every style under the sun, but her bright copper crop remains the most memorable of her repertoire,” Gibson contends.
According to Alex Brownsell, the co-founder of Bleach London, a salon chain and home hair colour brand, nostalgia for the days when Elson and Evangelista ruled the catwalk — the current so-called Y2K craze — is what has the fashion world seeing red again. Back then, crimson tresses weren’t relegated to the runways. Indie films like “The Fifth Element” (1997) and “Run Lola Run” (1998) featured powerful red-haired protagonists and, in the pilot of the era’s archetypal teen drama “My So-Called Life,” Angela Chase (played by a 13-year-old Claire Danes) transforms her entire persona with a box of Crimson Glow dye. “You could get that red colour from the drugstore, so there was a character on every teen show who had that shade back in the 2000s,” Brownsell says. “That’s influencing fashion now.”
Whitley — who is often cast with her identical twin, Margo — says she made the shift from raven to red in January seeking a “drastic but not too extreme” change. She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that she booked more shows than ever that season. “The red’s just cooler,” says the natural blonde, who had been dying her hair dark for years. “It really is like, ‘I don’t care.’” Belyakova feels similarly about her Crayola-bright Gucci look. “I am really punk inside, and this red brought that out of me,” she says, “as if I were reborn.”
For others, red hair is not about transforming but rather returning to their roots. Aboah identifies as a what she calls “a proper ginger” — courtesy of her red-haired, blue-eyed mother. “She’s got a strong personality, and that’s something I really associate with red,” Aboah says. “It’s funny that it’s now become so trendy.” In the model’s mind, red hair is as much an attitude as it is a look. “There are particular people who should’ve been born a redhead,” she says. “It feels so natural to who they are.” And according to the hairstylist Holli Smith, that’s why the usual rules about matching hair to skin undertones don’t necessarily apply here. Going red, she says, is “more about the spirit. There’s classic orange red or if someone’s more goth they want deep cool red.”
As with many Y2K-era-inspired trends, the only taboo, says Brownsell, is looking like you’re trying too hard. “When I’m colouring a fashion show or shoot, the brief is always, ‘Make it look like they did it themselves,’” she says. Her line offers a kit that bleaches, tones and dyes for under $40. “Our salon in L.A. will charge you $700 for that,” she points out. There’s also the hybrid option: Book a professional bleach appointment and then D.I.Y. some semi-permanent colour, like Brownsell’s I Saw Red, which, she says, “we now can’t keep in stock.” Keep in mind, however, that even temporary colour is a lifestyle commitment. Whitley uses Ruby color-depositing shampoo to keep her hair bright and, as a result, has had to invest in red towels and black bedsheets. She’s also had to get used to the pink tint in her bathtub and on her white shirt collars. “Be prepared for the red to go everywhere: your life, your fashion, your identity,” she says. “It bleeds into everything.”