We took five with the hugely inspirational Co-Founder of global hair care brand Umberto Giannini, Claire Shread, to talk feminism, favourite products and why an all-female may just be the secret to her success.
Claire Shread’s career story is an unlikely one, having started out as an art student, going on to work in the warehouses of the 90’s rave scene and somehow ending up heading one of the most recognised hair care brands in the world. But it is perhaps Claire’s indirect route to the top, her ability to think outside the box and an innate passion and eccentricity that comes inherently with being a true creative, that makes her so special.
Claire rips up the rulebook when it comes to being the boss, especially the boss of a beauty brand as big as Umberto. She’s implemented an all-female workforce and champions flexible, relatable working environments for mothers. She’s long been a cheerleader for embracing your natural hair texture, taken the brand to B-Corp status in 2021, and she’s been part of creating an icon of a product – the much-loved Curl Jelly – that sells one every second somewhere in the world.
We sat down with Claire to find out all about her extraordinary career and to steal some inspiring advice for any entrepreneurs out there. Here’s what she had to say…
Your career started out in quite a different way, as an artist. Tell us about the early days of your career and how it all happened…
I went to art school in the 80’s which was the most amazing time to be studying the Arts in the UK. I was also lucky enough to spend some time at Cooper Union in New York, where I met some amazing creatives, and by 22, I launched my first company creating large scale murals from an artist’s studio in an industrial warehouse in Birmingham.
The ‘90s club scene was a big part of your 20s. Tell us about how that inspired your work…
It was crazy, hectic, exhausting, exhilarating and messy! The club scene provided elaborate and interesting work for me and my team of artists and we traveled everywhere – here and internationally – painting huge, large-scale murals. I love portraiture and am fascinated by people and how they portray themselves and I’ve always thought artists have a unique ability to see beauty in everything.
It was around that time you teamed up with Umberto, as romantic partners and also business partners. Was there any secret to making it work?
A shared love of art, design, music, fashion… We were both complete creative junkies and sparked off each other’s ideas and work in a way that is really rare. Umberto was a hugely creative hairdresser, not just with the incredible way he had handling natural, textured hair, but with his imaginative theatrical work that he adored creating for fashion shows and editorial.
I am a massive advocate of women pursuing their careers, whatever that might be, and at UG we offer a flexibility and respect for family life that I believe should exist in all workplaces.
You took over the business and brand in 2001, after Umberto passed away – driving the brand to its global status of today – what has driven you throughout the years?
Initially I was driven by the determination to keep Umberto’s legacy alive and to realise the dreams he had for his precious signature brand. I had co-founded the brand with him back in 1998, taking the lead on the design and brand vision but knew very little about the business side of things and quickly had to learn. I have had some amazing help through the years and work with the most incredible all-female team – a talented group of people with a shared goal can achieve amazing things.
You were a working mum too. Any advice on how to juggle it all?
I wish I could say that I had that all figured out, but my now grown-up children would say differently! I hope that the late pick-ups, forgotten school bags and last to arrive at the sports field at least served to teach them that success takes a lot of hard work! I am a massive advocate of women pursuing their careers, whatever that might be, and at UG we offer a flexibility and respect for family life that I believe should exist in all workplaces.
You’ve always had a dedication to ethical, vegan products and sustainability. How has the brand stood apart from many others who have only been adopting a similar ethos in more recent years?
This is something that I have championed since the launch of the brand, we launched as one of the first Vegan and Cruelty Free haircare brands on the high street and the sustainable mission has always been close to my heart.
Getting the certified B Corp status in 2021 was a proud moment for the entire UG team, which was a result of over a year of work to show that the way we operate our business, from corporate responsibility right through to sourcing ethically, we uphold the highest standards for environmental and social impact. It is really important to me that when you buy a bottle of Umberto Giannini, you know what’s in it and how it’s been made and this certification demonstrates our commitment to building a better future for the planet and for people.
You’re a naturally curly haired woman and have championed products for those with similar hair texture – tell us the story behind the creation of the legendary Curl Jelly and why you pioneered curl products so early on?
At the time Umberto and I met, I struggled with my curls, not being able to find anything or anyone that could enhance my natural texture. In Umberto, I finally found a hairstylist who loved to enhance rather than flatten, which was the trend of the time.
Umberto’s true genius with curls came when he created a new product for my ‘less is more’ approach to styling. I wanted something that would define, de-frizz and enhance in-one with zero fuss, and so, Curl Jelly was born. The rest, as they say, is history and not only is Curl Jelly now the number one curl product in the UK but it inspires a loyalty from its fans most brands only dream of – selling one every minute globally.
One Curl Jelly is sold every minute somewhere in the world.
What are your top tips for styling natural curly hair with little time?
Great products and clever hairstyles you can do in an instant make curly hair the most versatile of hair types. Wash day is the time to get your products right and these will change depending on the weather. For example, in the summer I love using Banana Butter with Curl Jelly for a natural, larger curl, whereas in winter I need the humidity busting support of a product like More Than Moisture, which contains modern silicones to seal in hydration and keep out damp and humidity.
There are so many great hairstyles that curly girls can do and I really love to discover new ways to clip, plait and arrange curls through TikTok and YouTube.
What’s your own personal hair care regime?
It changes regularly between all the curl products we make. No two curls are created equal and this is true for how curls behave differently on a daily basis too!
At the moment I am using Curl Repair Shampoo and Curl Magic Mask (which is incredible!) because I have been scorching my hair in the sun this summer and also have recently had highlights. Then I follow up with a new wonder product, Curl Jelly Shine which is like a primer for your curls and honestly gives the smoothest feel, finished always with Curl Jelly – nothing else de-frizzes and defines like this cult favourite.
What have been some of your favourite Umberto products over the years?
Curl Jelly obvs, but I am in love with the new Urgent Repair Mask and recommending it to everyone right now. I think No More Frizz is the best serum I have ever used and at a fraction of the price of similar performing products in salons. We have a high-end to high street philosophy at UG where we test our products against the highest priced salon versions and only when they equal performance do we launch. It makes me really proud to deliver efficacy at purse-friendly prices because it means we can reach more women and give them the products that will help them love their hair.
What standout times in your career have you felt particularly proud of?
Becoming the first high street hair care brand to be certified B Corp in the UK was a proud moment. Seeing the brand expand into international markets and quickly go to number one in Curl for the retailer makes me hugely proud. I am constantly proud of the achievements of my team, we are such a small group with such big ambitions and nothing will get in our way.
You mentioned you work with an all-female workforce, tell us about that…
It’s a no-brainer for me to work with other strong women. I believe in the strength and resilience of female power in business as in life and wish we could fast track to a world where true equality existed. I was born a feminist, I honestly can’t think in any other way and hope that I have always, and will continue to champion women in every aspect of my life.
If you had to choose one hair look over the years that feels iconic or is your absolute favourite what would it be?
Umberto had huge career success in the year before he passed away and one image particularly went viral, winning him various titles and awards. It is a very simple shot of a super natural short tousled hairstyle on a minimally made-up model and expresses perfectly the UG philosophy of the beauty in the individual. It was shot by the amazing Robin Derrick who was then at Vogue and collaborated with us on packaging designs and photoshoots and it will always be my favourite for these very personal reasons. Plus it’s just a killer shot too.
What trends do you see coming up in the world of hair, be it product-wise or styles?
I think haircuts will make a come-back. We’ve been long and loose for some time now and hair cutting has taken a back seat. I have seen some talented young hairdressers start to explore more radical cuts again and I would love to see this trend continue. Also the trend of accepting your grey hair is so exciting. When you stop and think about the pressure on women to ‘hide’ their natural ageing it seems truly absurd. Product-wise, I think affordability with efficacy will become even more important as some of the myths behind the ‘expensive’ brands get busted.
Can you let us in on any secret as to what is next from the brand?
We are never short of new product ideas so you will see us launch plenty more transformative, affordable products soon, plus we are expanding rapidly internationally which is super exciting. Our mission is for Curl Jelly to be number one in every market and for no woman to go without a good hair day.