From "Swiss barber" to top stylist

Reto Camichel is now a top hair and make-up artist

Reto Camichel left Switzerland for South Africa at the age of 20, armed only with his best clothes, some cash and a cherished dream.

This content was published on May 16, 2010 minutes

After starting out as a humble hairdresser, he is today an artist who performs at Europe’s most prestigious hair-styling events.

My meeting with Camichel takes place at the seaside: strange, given that he was from one of the coldest regions of Switzerland, the Engadine. On the beach at Noordhoek, one of Cape Town’s most beautiful and spectacular settings, he explains what brought him here.

“I was 20 years old. I needed to escape the constraints of a small mountain community. I wanted to learn English, and then… the Cape of Good Hope.”

One night in his bedroom in S-chanf in eastern Switzerland as it snowed heavily outside, he started leafing through an atlas in search of a name, a place or a symbol that would grab his attention. Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip Africa sounded like an invitation. A name with a message.

Among his acquaintances, someone knew of a Swiss hairdresser who was resident there. “I picked up the phone and called him. And yes, Arthur Schellinger had a job for me. In Cape Town, South Africa.”

The Swiss barber

In Cape Town in the late 1980s, the words “Swiss barber” were a guarantee of quality: the very best.

In his suitcase, Camichel packed his best clothes, the tools of his trade and SFr500 ($451). “I also took with me the memory and impressions of a quiet and happy childhood, my naivety and innocence, a bundle of dreams and a mixture of courage and fear.” Masked by a trendy pair of wraparound sunglasses, he tells his tale in fluent, confident English.

“When I arrived in Cape Town, I felt very much out of place: I couldn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t know anyone. I had grown up in a village of 600 people; here I was on my own. My greatest fear? I was afraid of getting knocked down by a car, lying in the street with no one able to pronounce my name.”

The fear he felt then is a thing of the past. While describing his arrival in South Africa, Reto is recognised by a woman, who comes up and greets him: “Hi Reto”. He gets up, gives her a kiss and with casual aplomb makes a flattering remark about her dress. She glows with pleasure, smiles and walks on. Today, Reto, the boy from the sticks, is a familiar name, even in Cape Town.

“Despite my initial apprehensions, I was very confident of my abilities”, he continues. “I had learned my trade from a first-class teacher, at an excellent vocational school in Switzerland.

Two years later, Camichel said goodbye to Arthur Schellinger and set up on his own. His shop sign consisted of a white cross on a glossy red background: “I knew that the first-class reputation enjoyed by Swiss hairdressers would stand me in good stead.”

Love and nostalgia

Camichel also found love in Cape Town. He is now the father of two daughters. The girls speak neither Romansh nor German. He regrets that he did not teach them his mother tongue, but he has certainly handed on the wholesome values he learned from his father and mother.

“I grew up knowing the difference between right and wrong, with moral rules and values. When I look around me, I realise that children nowadays grow up too fast. This wisdom, too, is something I owe to Switzerland.”

Homesickness has always affected the minds, and sometimes the physical health, of mercenaries, emigrants and adventurers. And Camichel is no stranger to this kind of suffering. “You can never get rid of it completely”, he says with a half-smile. “I have learned to live with it. I would say that I don’t feel fully South African or completely Swiss. I miss my loved ones, especially my parents.”

For Camichel, Switzerland represents his past, his roots and a vocational and moral education which enables him to be truly himself. “I am proud to be Swiss.”

In South Africa, he has become a successful businessman. He owns a salon in Westlake, not far from one of Cape Town’s upmarket districts, employs nine staff, has developed his own line of hair products and makes regular trips to Europe for Sebastian and Wella, which gives him the opportunity to express his wide range of professional talents.

Behind the scenes at fashion shows, he is an artist, showman and ultra-creative hair-stylist, known in the trade as a hair and make-up artist. One of the top seven in Europe.

Past, present and future

Some years ago, Camichel was overcome with homesickness and went back to Switzerland, to the village of Samedan. “I needed to know whether the decision I had taken so many years ago was still the right one.”

He and South African wife and daughters could only stand it for two months. “My future is in this wonderful country, which has enabled me to work out my own form of expression, far from the conditioning of my past.” Cape Town is a cosmopolitan and vibrant city: the ideal place for an “image artist”.

If success continues to favour him, he should be able to put aside sufficient money to devote himself to his “real passion: art in all its forms, free of all constraint”.

Before we say goodbye, he ponders his identity as a Swiss person in South Africa and tells an anecdote.

“Years ago, I took part with my daughters in the traditional first of August [national day] festival organised by the Cape Town Swiss Club. There was a competition for the best lantern.” Reto and his girls made the most elaborate, original and brightly coloured lantern.

He laughs. “They did not even consider it because we had not registered in advance. That very Swiss kind of rigidity is certainly something I do not miss.”

Igor Sertori in Cape Town, (Adapted from Italian)

Reto Camichel

Born in Samedan in canton Graubünden on June 6, 1969.

Graduated from the School of Professional Hairdressing in Samedan.

In 1989 Camichel emigrated to South Africa.

In 1991 he opened his first shop. Today he runs one of the trendiest salons in Cape Town and has developed his own line of hair products.

After some experience as a hair and make-up artist in South Africa, he began working for hairstyling supremos Wella and Sebastian on catwalks in Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich, Moscow and London.

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The first European to land in South Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope, is believed to be Bartholomew Diaz, who was in the service of the King of Portugal.

The earliest written reference to Swiss citizens arriving in the country dates back to 1652, as employees of the Dutch East India Company.

In the early 19th century, around five Swiss arrived in the country every year. At the beginning of the 20th century numbers increased, as did the range of professions practised by Swiss nationals: engineers, carpenters, missionaries, pastry chefs, hairdressers and watchmakers.

Nowadays there are 9,035 Swiss expatriates in South Africa (2009). Almost 6,200 have dual citizenship. Retirees – of which there are 1,714 – account for just under a fifth. Around 2,500 Swiss citizens live In and around Cape Town.

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