Whether you’ve prepared yourself for a complete length shift or are just popping into a salon for a quick bang trim, hair change is an emotional one. We’ve all experienced the inevitable urge to scrunch, soothe or adjust our locks when walking past a mirror or an opaque window. Hair is a personal expression, which is why finding a salon that understands your vision is paramount.
The beauty industry is predominantly assumed to be female dominated. And while most hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists identify as female, the average salary for a male hairdresser is over $10,000 more than that for women.
The New York beauty scene is also often draped with intimidating luxury that excludes certain populations. With this in mind, we rounded up four stellar female-founded salons located in New York City that have cut into the cutting edge in their own ways. Each have established their brand, mastered their craft and created a welcoming environment for employees and clients alike.
9 Salons in 7 Years
Lorean Cairns says that owning a salon was never her intention until one of her own bosses suggested it. After moving to New York to be in the epicenter of hair and fashion, she couldn’t find a salon that fit her down-to-earth, cheerful style. “What I experienced was really competitive, really hierarchical. It was really toxic for me,” says Cairns. “Intimidation and exclusivity was the name of the game, at least in New York eight or nine years ago. I felt so disconnected to that idea.”
That separation helped launch the first location of Fox & Jane. In 2011, Cairns found a space in the Lower East Side and hired two stylists who worked beside herself. “Within six months you couldn’t get in with us. For me, it was all about client experience and creating a family community,” describes Cairns. “All of a sudden, we’re in Time Out New York and New York Magazine, and everyone is asking me how I came up with this concept. The concept where we’re really nice to people.”
According to Cairns, Fox & Jane started profiting right off the bat, which was important since she and her business partner, Billy Canu, were completely self-funded. “We had no investors, no funding, we scraped together $26,000 dollars between the two of us and that was everything, all we had,” explains Cairns. “We ran really lean and made sure the original business model broken even. We parlayed the profit from our first location into our second at about the nine-month mark, and we’ve done that about every nine months since.”
As a first-time business owner, she knew that putting all her profit into a second location was extremely risky, but it needed to happen. “I was so committed to what we had, and I was also so young,” says Cairns. “In the beginning, the first year, it was about how to control and respond to the volume. We were not prepared for the response that we had. We put basically everything into our next store. We had to grow, we built too small of a business and we don’t have a choice. I’d love to say some of it was planned, but it was actually meeting a need.”
The ever-expanding Fox & Jane empire now has nine locations, with a tenth on the way. Cairns has been dreaming of the West Coast, and is currently in beta for a Los Angeles location. “I’m a really organic business grower, so as long as there’s more leaders and people want to grow with me, I’ll keep going.”
A Clear Vision
Brooke Jordan Hunt and Nicci Jordan Hubert
Beginning in a closet-sized studio in Carroll Gardens, Bird House co-owners and sisters Brooke Jordan Hunt and Nicci Jordan Hubert also had to move quickly to maximize their potential. “We started with two chairs, thinking we would be a tiny operation with Brooke and one or two other stylists,” says Hubert. “But when all our stylists became consistently fully booked and our wait list grew and grew, we knew we needed to add more chairs. This happened within six months.”
In early 2015, the Bird House moved to their current Gowanus location. At first, they were self-funded, but when it came to expansion, the Jordan sisters knew they needed help. “We got a small business loan from an organization that provides funding for women and minority-owned businesses,” writes the duo over email. “Right now, we're a four-chair studio with eight stylists, and in a few months, we'll have expanded within our building and will become a 12-chair studio.”
Still a growing salon, Hunt and Hubert are thrilled about expansion, but are also grounded in what they need to accomplish in the coming years. “We are still learning how to incorporate education in our business model,” says the duo. “As of right now, we offer our stylists a yearly stipend to set up their own education based on what they feel they need and we also provide in-studio education as often as possible. It's something we're working on because it's the area we know we need the most improvement.”
And like any young, passionate business owners, at first they tried to reinvent the salon wheel by ditching stylist levels and adopting an equal pricing structure. They quickly figured out that experience is the most important factor in a salon, and abandoned the model.
What they haven’t left behind is the clear vision and concept they began out with. “We knew we wanted to be loving, kind and connected to the emotional relationship with have with our hair,” writes Hubert. “We knew that we wanted to do excellent, skillful and beautiful hair that was aware of the trends but not beholden to them. We knew we wanted to have a team of stylists who care deeply about how their clients feel about their hair. All of those values drove us to be resilient throughout our mistake making, because we were open to learning, knowing those lessons would bring us closer to our vision.”
The Importance of Clients
Noël New York Salon & Boutique isn’t Noël Reid-Killings’ first business venture, nor is it her first salon. But the eponymous salon is the one carrying her legacy into Brooklyn and throughout the country.
When Reid-Killings attempted to open her first salon years prior in Manhattan, she says that numerous things halted the venture. “I just couldn’t do Manhattan prices. We were paying about $10,000 for 1500 square feet. It was crazy. Then we had to move, and I wasn’t expecting real estate tax, that threw me for a loop,” she says.
Reid-Killings made a name for herself in the beginning of her career by serving celebrity clients. Although she’s worked with an abundance of celebrities, she attributes working with Alicia Keys to her initial success. “Alicia was my first celebrity client who I got primarily through my agent and networking. I met with her makeup artist at the time, they were looking for someone. It launched my career.”
And although having an agent helped her book Keys, Reid-Killings clarifies that having an agent isn’t the end-all-be-all for a young stylist’s success.
The most important thing? Your skill set. “You have to take the time to hone your craft. I had to quickly learn how to adapt and to be more creative. Alicia had braids at the time, and I didn’t do braids. I would have like to have known more, and have had more skills.”
A year before opening her storefront in Brooklyn, she launched a line of clip-in hair extensions, which she uses in her salon. She strategically used her name, which had already garnered industry respect because of her celebrity clientele. She then put the profit directly into her salon. “I didn’t want to open without something behind me,” says Reid-Killings.
However, the money didn’t stretch as far as she would have liked. “I got loans, I had an investor, a young lady who is a successful producer now,” says Reid-Killings. “I had one investor and one business partner, who was pretty much a silent partner who has since left. In the beginning I was also funneling my own money into the salon, and my parents helped me take out a loan.”
While she still works in the salon, she also spends time traveling around the country to serve her VIP clients. For Reid-Killings, clients are everything. Although she has her eyes on expansion and would like to open more salons, her focus right now is on educating her staff. “Staffing is the number one challenge, definitely. We’ve turned our staff over twice. I’ve had to learn to hire for my salon. It is a small group of people, and they have to have a certain skill set,” says Reid-Killings. “I have to translate my care to the staff and it takes time to do so.”
Martha Ellen Mabry
It’s no surprise that getting you hair cut in New York tends to be pricey. Salons have to take the time to ensure that their prices are competitive within their area as well as their level of expertise. Owners also have to ensure that their employees walk away with a fair pay. Headchop, a salon located in the heart of Williamsburg, manages to stay competitive in the unforgiving market despite having recently raised their prices.
When Martha Ellen Mabry opened Headchop in 2011, she didn’t even consider her business a true salon. “It was just me, I was a one-chair wonder. It was my private studio to take my clients,” she explains.
Mabry is completely self-funded. She saved money in rent by sharing the commercial space with her partner at the time, who had a clothing line. They both worked out of the studio, filled the space with cheap furniture from Craigslist and DIY’d the rest. “I didn’t open with much money to put into it. I just knew I had enough clients to run, and then the new clients who came in would be paying for me to eat, basically.”
At first, Headchop priced services based on what Mabry had charged when she worked at a salon in SOHO. “It was a different price for men and women, and the men’s price was way lower. The seven years I’ve been open, I was struggling to close that gender gap,” says Mabry. “In the beginning, it was $30 for men and $50 for women. I didn’t want to hurt my clients or upset them be raising the price. This year, I made major changes for my business. I closed the gender gap. We informed our clients that there would be no more pricing based on gender, and everyone would be priced the same. I figured if they don’t like that, this is not the salon for them anymore.”
Mabry says that her clients were very welcoming of her new pricing policies; $70-80 for a full cut and wash, depending on length and density. “I think our pricing is still extremely amazing for the area. Williamsburg is a hot place to be. But more than that, I think the work really keeps people coming back. We care about people’s hair,” she says.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."