Get Bobbed, but Don’t Get Clipped
MANOUSH ZOMORODI’S most recent haircut was much like a typical visit to an exclusive Manhattan salon. She sipped pinot grigio, chatted with other clients and left with a bouncy, slightly layered cut that had her feeling like a new woman.
That’s where the similarity ends.
Ms. Zomorodi wasn’t at a salon. She was one of about half a dozen people who had gathered at a friend’s Upper East Side apartment for discounted haircuts by a top-tier stylist who, for this story, Ms. Zomorodi called “he who shall remain nameless.”
Like other hairdressers in New York and elsewhere, the stylist was working after hours on this Thursday evening, without his employer’s knowledge, for $60 a head — a fraction of the salon price. “I could never afford to go to the salon that shall also remain unnamed,” said Ms. Zomorodi, a freelance television reporter from Brooklyn Heights.
Welcome to the stealth world of the underground hair party, an exclusive girls’ night that combines the pursuit of beauty with the irresistible appeal of an insider bargain. Often, private haircutting parties are born when a salon client approaches her stylist with the whispered promise of a festive atmosphere, a guaranteed number of guests and cash under the table in return for reduced rates.
Not surprisingly, salons frown on the practice, which is why stylists who work this way usually insist on anonymity to protect their day jobs. “People will call it black market haircutting sometimes,” said the stylist who coiffed Ms. Zomorodi and her friends.
Certainly, hair parties have been going on for years; but now salons have a faltering economy to contend with. Although salon owners can’t measure precisely how much their businesses are hurt by off-the-books cutting, traffic is slowing at high-end hair palaces in Midtown and on the Upper East Side, insiders say, as women wait longer between cuts and stoop to coloring their own hair. Over all, the estimated $46 billion hair and nail salon industry in the United States is down 2 percent from 2007 — a decline expected to continue next year, according to IBISWorld, an industry research firm in Los Angeles.
Some stylists report an uptick in people asking for under-the-table deals. “I had someone call me last week,” Ted Gibson, who charges $950 a cut, said recently. The potential customer was a guest at the Ritz-Carlton and wanted Mr. Gibson, who boasts a celebrity clientele and owns Ted Gibson Salon in Manhattan, to cut his girlfriend’s hair. “He was trying to negotiate for me to come and do it for $650. I was like, ‘No, I charge double if I go out,’ ” Mr. Gibson said. “Needless to say, they did not book me.”
Traditionally, when a client comes to a salon or books an off-site service through the salon’s front desk, owners like Mr. Gibson take the fee, then pass on a commission to the hairdresser who performed the service. An employee’s take can be as low as 30 to 40 percent, depending on seniority. Employers say the balance pays for everything from marketing and training (most salons prefer to hire inexperienced stylists and inculcate them into the salon way), to support staff, to customer-friendly amenities like cappuccino and hand massages.
Salon owners tolerate some staff moonlighting. Ouidad, a curly-hair specialist with outposts in New York and Santa Monica, Calif., who goes by one name, said she lets her stylists work on their own time at special events like weddings. Mr. Gibson, too, takes a somewhat benign attitude toward stylists working one-off jobs, as does Julien Farel, who owns an eponymous salon on Madison Avenue.
But owners agree there is a line employees may not cross. “As long as they don’t try to get the client who is here and say, ‘I can come to your house and do it for half’ — that would bother me,” Mr. Farel said. He has fired two stylists who broke the rules and deducted the money due him from their final paychecks, he said.
Yet, Mr. Farel admits to moonlighting himself as an apprentice at Jacques Dessange in the 1990s. There, an employee moving to Europe bequeathed him a list of under-the-table customers. “I was young and hungry,” he said. He began working parties at $30 a haircut, $50 off the salon price. Soon he was busy after hours every night until midnight, working on groups of up to 15 people. He eventually stopped; he was exhausted and realized he was undermining his career.
“You damage yourself, because clients know you will bargain,” said Mr. Farel, whose clients now include Ivanka Trump and Kate Moss.
Hair cutters who trim clients' hair in private apartments may be in violation of state statutes, according to the New York State Department of State, which licenses hair stylists. Stylists who work out of reputable salons are likely properly licensed. But if they're working without their salon's blessing, they may not carry the insurance the law requires.
The stylist at the Upper East Side party spoke loyally of his employer. He said he had never poached a client and kept his two sets of customers “very, very separate.” The after-hours work isn’t about making extra money, he said, but “really a way to kind of give back to the people who couldn’t afford taking that next step financially” of going to his high-priced salon.
Women are most likely to find a moonlighting hairdresser by being invited to join an existing party. Sometimes one party regular will spin off another group and seek new clients for the under-the-table stylist. The alternative — propositioning a stylist at a salon — takes finesse. A hopeful should already have a relationship with her haircutter and should broach the topic casually and discreetly, say those who have had done it successfully. Hounding and nickel-and-diming are deal-breakers.
Pasquale Caselle of Miami, who does housecalls exclusively, said, “I get the feeling right away” when he doesn’t want to work with someone. “If she approaches me too aggressively and says, ‘I go through hairstylists every month, and when you do my hair you have to make sure you get this right, and you should overcharge my friend because she’s so rich,’ I tell my agent who books me I’m too busy.”
Mr. Caselle can afford to say no. Last week, he returned from 10 days in the Cayman Islands, where he’d booked six gatherings, including a makeover party for a group of wealthy wives who hired a photographer to capture the results for their husbands.
Most clients view hair parties as celebratory occasions. In Westchester County, N.Y., last month, at the home of Maria Rosselli, she and four guests drank wine and tucked into mini-samosas with mango chutney, a fresh vegetable platter with caramelized curry dip and an array of cheeses. Candles flickered and music played.
“You make a night out of it,” said Reem Ibrahim, a stay-at-home mother from Putnam Valley, N.Y., who was there with her daughter and sisters.
Meanwhile, in the Rossellis’ garage, Tara Colavecchio, a cheerful alumna of Frédéric Fekkai in New York City who is no longer affiliated with a salon, was using a spray bottle to wet down a guest’s curls. Her scissors and tools lay on a makeshift table; mountain bikes and a ladder hung from the ceiling above. Though the surroundings were unglamorous, and the $125-a-head price wasn’t cheap, “there’s no tip, there’s no assistant and no parking prices,” Ms. Colavecchio pointed out.
At many such gatherings, there is also no drying or styling, and guests pitch in sweeping hair from the floor. Pets, children and husbands are also often underfoot.
But at the Upper East Side party Ms. Zomorodi attended, the stylist “who shall remain nameless” worked intently, deftly shaping another guest’s blond bob, with little small-talk. His goal: To finish in time for the night’s next appointment.
“I have seven more groups tonight,” he said.