Should you want evidence that hairdresser Gwenn LeMoine’s life is all hair, all the time, note how she describes her morning coffee: “8OR.” That’s the label for a hair color known as Level 8—basically, a reddish-orange hue. That is, coffee with a tiny bit of milk, just enough to take the edge off.
LeMoine lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a mostly residential neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, near the Williamsburg Bridge. “My friends call it the Jewish Old Lady Projects,” she jokes. After she and her husband, a photographer from Iran, divorced in 2006, she stayed on with their two children. But since her daughter left for college in Massachusetts last year, it’s just been her and her son, who attends college in Brooklyn. (Both children inherited LeMoine’s interest in business: One is studying finance analytics, the other is pursuing a degree in marketing.)
Now that the children are grown, LeMoine’s mornings tend to be cozy and slow. Her alarm goes off at 7:30 am. She hits snooze five times. The upside of being a small-business owner is that she has total control over her schedule. The downside: She works seven days a week, even if that just means checking email while on vacation (which she is good at making time for).
At 8 am she gets up, makes coffee, feeds the animals (Jerry, a cat, and two French bulldogs, Tuesday and Russell), then returns to her bedroom, where her desk is, and starts the workday by looking at text messages. “Emergencies come in over text,” she explains. “This way, if someone calls in sick, I can immediately figure out if we need a replacement.”
Since 2009, when LeMoine opened Parlor’s second location, across the river in downtown Brooklyn, she’s essentially been running two businesses. For the next several hours she putters and works, works and putters. She looks at Parlor’s social media accounts, and makes updates when necessary. These days she’s creating Instagram posts about each Parlor employee that highlight various aspects of their personalities. After blending up a breakfast shake, she puts ingredients into the crockpot to eat for dinner when she gets home that night—beef korma is a favorite. Then she checks email, showers, and gets dressed.
The only direct advice she gives her employees on this front is to, simply, “Dress better than the client you’re trying to attract.”
As with any profession, working with hair begets a certain attention to dress. There’s no uniform, obviously, or even a need to look a particular way. (That’s the case these days, at least. During the “Vidal Sassoon era,” as LeMoine calls it, all the male hairdressers wore dark suits with white shirts and skinny ties, as if channeling the Beatles.) In fact, one of the great pleasures of the job is that it allows for total aesthetic freedom; indeed, most people expect their hairstylists to project their own individual style. “The most important thing is to dress creatively,” LeMoine says. “Have a look. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just figure out what you’re trying to convey with your style.” The only direct advice she gives her employees on this front is to, simply, “Dress better than the client you’re trying to attract.”
But there are practical concerns. For one thing, it can get hot working indoors all day, in a room that’s usually pretty crowded, and as LeMoine puts it, “It sucks to be sweaty and close to people.” Worse, hair cuttings have a way of sticking to and smothering clothes, not to mention pricking through them like so many tiny needles. Smooth, flowy fabrics like rayon, silk, and cotton, and stiffer ones like denim, offer good protection from this occupational hazard, as does an apron, which also helps protect clothes from stains. When hair dye splashes onto fabric, it lifts out the color, leaving behind a rust-colored blotch. (LeMoine’s quick fix is to color in the blotch with a black Sharpie marker. This is also one reason that she and many hairstylists tend to wear all black.)
Meanwhile, standing cutting hair all day really takes a toll on a person’s back and feet. One fix is to cycle through different heel heights—making sure they’re close-toed (open-toed shoes let all the hair in).
A little after 11 am, LeMoine packs her laptop and at least two pairs of shoes into a bag, and heads to work. The commute from home to the Parlor in the East Village is seven minutes if she drives, seventeen minutes if she walks; getting to the Brooklyn location is a twenty-minute drive.
Both salons open for business at noon, but LeMoine likes to arrive a little before 11:30 am, to conduct a “morning huddle” with the staff. Tempting as it is to envision the beauty squad shouting inspirational cheers to get psyched for the day ahead, holding scissors aloft, clipping air, in fact it’s just a quiet moment for everyone to check in, ask questions, note if supplies are low.
As usual, today there are four stylists on deck, one receptionist, and one assistant (who helps everyone). At 11:30 am, they all stop whatever it was they’d been doing and gather as a group. LeMoine announces that she’s planning to launch a new initiative to reward clients who bring in new clients. She also notes that business is usually slow in August, but that there’s been an uptick in online sales of the Aveda hair and makeup products they carry. It’s a brief huddle. Afterward, everyone picks up where they’d left off.
Parlor’s beauty squad hails from all over the country, representing a diversity of backgrounds and upbringings. They are individuals to a one, whether liberally covered in tattoos and body piercings, or sporting a casual look that wouldn’t be out of place at a suburban Starbucks. Aesthetics aside, they are united by temperament: friendly and down-to-earth, yet unfailingly professional, they have zero interest in creating a cult of personality, preferring instead to keep the focus on their clients. Also, they all came to their careers circuitously, pursuing other occupations first, before finally succumbing to what was, in most cases, their first true love, hair.
On one side of the room is Shirley Hagel, advanced creative stylist, who worked in child psychology in her native Florida before becoming a hairdresser. At the station beside her is Bryzow (she goes by one name only), senior stylist, who left her hometown of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to earn a BA in theater design and production at the University of Evansville before moving to New York.
On the other side of the room is Alex Torres, a native New Yorker who left his Puerto Rican family to study communications in Florida, then worked in café management, before coming back to go to beauty school. Now forty, he’s one of the newest members of the team, with the title of new talent stylist.
For those last few minutes before the salon opens for business, the staff is busy with final preparations. Hagel folds towels. Bryzow leans in very closely toward the mirror and trims her baby bangs. Torres sweeps the floor around his station.
Gwenn walks into the anteroom, where hair is washed and rinsed, and sits down with her laptop, taking a quiet moment before the day begins. Since taking a nasty fall last year, her knees hurt if she remains standing too long, so she sees far fewer clients than in the past.
The anteroom is a crisp, cheerful space. Three white leather and chrome pedestal chairs, each with a black-and-white strip of fabric with a Greek key pattern running down the middle, are positioned before three white sinks. The shelf along the white subway-tiled wall is piled high with neatly rolled black towels, and the floor is covered in bright turquoise penny tile. Farther on is a small room that could double as a chemistry lab. A metal table is lined with rows and rows of plastic bottles—this is where the stylists go to mix up the hair color before bringing it back out “on the floor,” as the cutting and styling area is known. Helpful charts and information sheets are taped to white lacquer cabinets that rise to the ceiling. There is a list for opening and closing duties. A poster from the manufacturer about how to use Olaplex, a “bond multiplier” that helps to restore hair that’s been damaged during lightening or coloring services. An Aveda flyer about upcoming educational course offerings in the Northeast. There’s even a printout of a positive Yelp review that compliments one of the assistants, with “WAY TO GO ALISSA!!!” scrawled at the top.
At noon on the nose, the first client of the day walks in. By now the salon is perfectly clean and tidy, the music playing. It’s as if a production crew has arranged all the sets on a stage and adjusted the lights.
Soon enough, another client arrives. Then another. Before long, as the squad combs and snips and blow-dries and consults, there’s just enough buzz of convivial, energetic noise to create a pocket of privacy around each station. Every so often a word or phrase rises above the din, only to vanish back into its own private conversation: “Asbury Park,” “My son’s the third guy,” “Art school,” “Amazing, congratulations!” “When you suddenly find yourself a single parent.”
Every appointment is like a short story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But the story never ends, really. Because every six weeks, or two months, or twice a year—whatever is necessary to keep a client’s hair the way they want it—the story picks up where it was left off, like a never-ending series of sequels.
Nearing 3 pm, LeMoine ducks out to grab a quick lunch—a bagel sandwich, perhaps, with cream cheese, avocado, jalapeño, and an egg. Eating food inside Parlor is verboten, even for her. Everyone eats their lunch elsewhere, whether just down the street in Tompkins Square Park, or in one of the many eateries that dot the neighborhood.
When she returns, she checks in with the front desk to see if there are any urgent trifles that need fixing (there aren’t). Then she takes a minute to check in with Parlor’s Brooklyn location. It’s not easy running two operations in two separate boroughs. Fortunately, the news today is mostly good: The manager reports that one of the stylists took it upon himself to clean the basement, and she should be sure to thank him. They also discuss the work performance of a new assistant, who has great hair-cutting skills but a questionable attitude. “I can see what she’s going to bloom into, and it’s not great,” LeMoine tells me later. Like most effective bosses, she takes great care in making hires, most of whom she finds through word of mouth and the vast network of Aveda Institute graduates (LeMoine is an Aveda alum, and stocks only Aveda products at the salon).
In this industry, it’s a rolling process—people are constantly cycling through. Naturally, she prizes great hair-cutting skills and a positive attitude, but it’s also clear that she feels a genuine connection with her employees. That is yet another plus of owning your own salon—the freedom to surround yourself with people you like. A minus, of course, is having to fire someone, which inevitably happens, and which LeMoine loathes having to do. Over time, she’s found that people who are naturally self critical tend to make the best hires. They are the ones who know when they’re falling behind, and what they need to do to step up. “It works better if they’re critical of themselves, and it’s not just up to me to point things out,” she says.
After getting off the phone, she walks over to the brick wall beside the front desk and leans against it, silently surveying her domain.
Several minutes later she gestures toward me to join her. She nods her head conspiratorially, back toward the reception desk. “That’s who you should be paying attention to right now,” she says.
I turn to look where she’s looking, and see Giovanna Berardi warmly greeting a client. From a big Italian American family on Staten Island, Berardi earned a BA in anthropology from Hunter College before pursuing hair. Now 39, she’s worked at Parlor a little over a decade so far, and is one of only two employees to hold the title of advanced master stylist. She’s dressed in a loose black T-shirt, cropped black pants, and white Converse low-top sneakers. A black apron simultaneously protects her clothes, and gives her otherwise casual ensemble a professional air. Her long, straight, shiny brown mane, aglow with just a few reddish highlights, could be an advertisement for the specialty she’s developed over the years, what she calls “feminine, natural hair.”
Berardi leads the client to her station, and the two women chat like old friends, catching up on the major headlines of the last several months—notably that the client didn’t get the job she’d applied for, so is still stuck in the one she’s had for what feels like way too long. When they reach Berardi’s chair, the client sinks into it with obvious relief, as if it’s a therapist’s couch. Dressed professionally in a navy sheath dress and low heels, she appears to be in her late twenties, on her lunch hour.
“I’m just wanting a change, you know?” she says, shaking her head emphatically.
Berardi stands behind her and they both regard her reflection in the mirror.
Like Berardi’s, the client’s hair is long and thick and hangs midway down her back, with a natural wavy texture that’s enhanced by the humidity. The color is natural, too, the same dark brown as her eyes, which are a few shades darker than her complexion.
She nods her head conspiratorially, back toward the reception desk. “That’s who you should be paying attention to right now,” she says.
Berardi nods, but remains silent, careful to not interrupt her client’s train of thought. On the surface, there’s not much happening here, nothing more remarkable than the type of encounter that takes place thousands if not millions of times a day, all over the world: a hairstylist and a client discussing a hairstyle. This is when I understand why LeMoine suggested that I pay attention.
The two women are engaged in the “consultation” phase of a hair appointment, when the client tells the stylist what she wants. What most of us don’t realize when we’re sitting in that chair is that while the conversation unfolds, the stylist is inwardly making a flurry of calculations. She is assessing the client’s face shape and profile, and refamiliarizing herself with their facial features. Does the client have a strong jawline that could be enhanced, or an extra-large chin that could appear more proportional with the right style? Arresting eyes? A lovely neck? She is considering the shape of the head, the way the hair grows from it—are there cowlicks? If so, where?—as well as its texture, which is to say its density and elasticity. Even the client’s height and weight are taken into consideration; for instance, big, full hair can make a heavy woman appear heavier, and overwhelm a small woman. All of these elements determine what kind of hairstyle will look best.
No two hairstylists are alike, but all good hairstylists must possess two fundamental qualities: a talent for working with their hands and emotional intelligence. The need for both is part of what sets this vocation apart from those that are purely technical. Plumbers and electricians can get away with being bona fide misanthropes, if they want. They don’t require people skills to do their jobs well.
That doesn’t mean all good hairstylists must excel in both realms simultaneously, however. In fact, most stylists are stronger in one capacity than they are in the other. If solving problems with your hands is one of those things that comes so naturally that you hardly need to think about it, you can coast on that innate talent for as long as you’d like, for your whole career, even. Likewise, if you’re exceptionally personable and good at working with other people, at sensing their moods and hearing what they’re saying even when they don’t have the words to say it, that strength can compensate for a relative lack of creativity. Generally speaking, really leaning into one of those two assets is enough to attract clients and build a loyal clientele.
But those who are very good hairstylists, even excellent hairstylists, the ones who go on to open their own salons or become celebrities in their own right, are exceptional in both realms. They can do wonders with their hands, and they can work magic with people, creating bonds with their clients that stand the test of time. And a crucial element of this people skill, if not the most crucial element, is the ability to listen. So when Berardi’s client states that she wants a change, and Berardi remains silent, it’s an active, not passive silence. She is paying close attention not only to the words being said, but also to how they are said. Hair isn’t merely a biological feature—it’s closely connected with our emotional selves and sense of identity. Berardi wants to take special care that she’s on the same page as her client, especially if they’re about to do something drastically different.
“I’ve decided that if I can’t have a new job, at least I can have new hair,” the client continues. Then she pauses, suddenly unsure of herself. “Right?”
This fleeting expression of doubt is truly the tiniest of moments, one that would go totally unnoticed if Berardi happened to turn away at that exact instant. It is easy to see how a different hairstylist might even notice but pretend that she hadn’t, as if it never happened. After all, the chance to give someone “new hair” is a welcome one, part of the great fun of this job—an opportunity to be creative, challenge yourself, show what you’ve got, enact a transformation.
But Berardi is nothing if not attentive. “How much of a change are you thinking?” she asks cautiously. As she speaks, she gently lifts the woman’s hair with her hands and lets it fall back down again. It is really quite beautiful hair.
I look back at LeMoine, who is watching the scene unfold with a satisfied smile. She has taught Berardi well. I even have the sense that her own deep knowledge of trends, personality types, and professions gives her the ability to peer into the future and predict what the outcome will be.
The client searches for the right words. “Something way brighter. Even blonde-ish maybe?—but edgy. What’s that word I keep hearing? Bayasomething?”
Berardi laughs. Already in her mind’s eye she’s been scrolling through a slideshow of possible images, all of them various incarnations of balayage, the word that the client is searching for.
Balayage is a French word that means “to sweep” or “to paint.” It’s a highlighting technique that was created by French colorists in the 1970s and over the last decade has exploded in popularity. Today it’s one of the most-requested styles on the planet.
From Becoming a Hairstylist by Kate Bolick. Copyright (c) 2019 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.