To celebrate the launch of Beyond the Shag, I sat down with Jen Donovan, founder and owner of Le Shag, to learn more about her story. The Hudson Valley region is certainly no stranger to entrepreneurship, art, and creativity, but as a fourth-generation Kingstonian, Jen has not only witnessed firsthand the evolution of this place; she has also played an instrumental role in its success. By building her accomplished business right in Uptown Kingston, providing career advancement opportunities for local stylists, and investing in a new generation of Hudson Valley talent, Jen is truly a driving force for positive development in the region. Read on to learn more about Jen.
How did you start doing hair ? Did it just feel natural to you?
My grandmother Evelyn was a hair stylist, so I would always see her doing hair, rolling her hair, and trying new techniques and looks. She taught me how to properly roll my dolls’ hair — I actually started doing perms when I was 13 years old! Evelyn had opened a salon on Smith Avenue in Kingston back during the Great Depression, in 1930. She also traveled all over the country with my grandfather, who was in the army. She worked illegally in salons throughout the states because she wasn’t licensed. She’d tell me all of the wild stories of the various cultures in each city. Incidentally, I also grew up around horses and the whole equestrian scene, so I’d spend hours braiding my pony’s hair for shows.
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to pursue hair professionally? Or did you have other dreams?
No, I definitely had other dreams. I don’t think I even considered it as a job, honestly. I don’t know why. I actually loved doing PR and, ironically, I went to school for political campaign management. I wanted to be an attorney.
In college, at New Paltz University, like most students, I changed my major like a thousand times and landed on a couple of safe bets. I studied business, and obviously that paid off. And my minor in law has obviously provided a great understanding of a lot of different factors that go into running a business. But with campaign management, I went in and out of deciding what I wanted to do. PR was also my secondary minor, so I changed my mind quite a lot.
I did start to go to BOCES cosmetology school when I was a Junior in high school, because otherwise I was just hanging out and doing study hall half the day. So I decided I would do that instead — it seemed like a lot more fun and an opportunity to go somewhere else for half the day. But I almost didn’t get my license. I started working at Mark Ferraro’s salon that first year, so I was already doing so much in the industry and actually following through with getting my license seemed more like a hassle than anything else. I was wrong though! Jean-Marie Sangi, who was my beauty school teacher, kept pushing me to complete everything I needed to do. I’m very grateful now to have had that encouragement. I find myself pushing others to complete their licensing now — I don’t know why it’s such a difficult thing to finish up! But you do need it to continue, obviously.
When you became interested in hair, how did your parents feel about you pursuing that as a career?
My mother was a nurse and my father owned a contracting company, and they were not excited about it. I guess the reason why I probably never considered it as a profession is because my father and mother didn’t ever really talk about it that way. To them and to most people, a professional is someone who went to school at great lengths or maybe law school or became a teacher or architect, etc. Hair was more of a hobby, maybe? When I told my father I was going to beauty school, I was still in my mind like, “I’m just going to do this while I’m in college to make some cash.” At that point, I never really thought it would be my career. I wasn’t aware of the opportunities that were out there for hairstylists and how much money you could actually make in this profession — all while having fun, traveling, and working with incredible teams.
It’s really the best job I can think of.
Can you describe your experience growing up in the Hudson Valley?
I have a very unique take on growing up in Kingston.
I grew up just a half-a-mile away from Uptown Kingston, and currently live in what was my Grandmother’s house. My family still lives down the street. I grew up on the Newcombe Estate, so I grew up on a farm on the edge of Kingston riding horses, but also living in a city. Our family was very involved in the community, both in the arts and in educational institutions. My grandfather was part of the group that started Ulster County Community College and was the Superintendent of Building & Grounds, my aunt Nell was a leading librarian at Kingston Library and started many of the programs you can still see there today, my father helped with building and maintaining many of the buildings on Broadway, and his father was a huge part of the development that happened in the 60s & 70s in Kingston.
I guess my experience was unique in the sense that I basically had this country-farm-life, but I was in the city of Kingston so I was very active with sports and school activities, UPAC, music, and theaters around here. But I was also in 4-H, going and competing in all of the animal shows. I was in 4-H until I was 18 years old!
Uptown Kingston was an amazing place to be in the 90s. During the holidays there were so many shoppers that you actually had to step aside and let people pass you on the sidewalks. It was very city. You would go into Schneider’s, or Schneller’s, which was this old-fashioned meat market with a toy store, and you would get a handwritten receipt. It was amazing. There were all of these beautiful little boutique dress shops for little girls to get their holiday outfits. And there were still all of the mechanical horses on the sidewalks for kids to ride — someone would throw a quarter in and you could sit there while your parents went shopping. There were speakers outside each store, so during the holiday season you’d hear holiday music all down the sidewalks… It was a really great experience.
That’s why I am truly excited to see so much coming back to the area and some of that level of sophistication and entertainment.
How did your career really take off?
I actually chose New Paltz for college because I was working at Mark Ferraro’s Salon at the time and I was very loyal to staying with him. Watching Mark, I started to have a better understanding of what you could actually do as a hairstylist and business owner. That’s when, I guess probably during my Junior year of college, I was like, hmm… everybody that I know that went on to law school is super miserable now. And I was like, “Do I really want to put myself through that misery when I could actually be doing hair and love my life and be making just as much, if not more money?”
Because, also, with law school and campaign management, there’s a lot of time in the beginning where you just work grueling hours and make no money!
How did you start working for Mark? Did you meet him through the BOCES program when you were in high school?
I did, through Jean Marie Sangi. Mark, I guess, called Jean Marie. Jean Marie is a big name in Kingston, everybody knows her, so Mark called her to see if there were any assistants she could recommend. And she said, “I have the perfect girl for you!” So Jean Marie told me, “you’ve got to go meet Mark Ferraro, have you ever heard of him?” At that point I hadn’t ever heard of Mark because my mother didn’t spend much time on makeup or hair or anything like that, and Mark was super fancy. So Jean Marie says, “you’ve got to go meet Mark, he’s looking for an assistant and you would be perfect for the job.” At the time, I was like, “really?”
I had just started so it was very flattering to be given such a great opportunity right away. In beauty school I couldn’t stand touching people, it was like a really bad fear that I had. I wondered, “how am I going to do this? I don’t even like to shampoo hair!” But Jean Marie said, “you’ll get over it,” and I got the job, and so there I was. I think the day that I walked into Mark’s and applied, Levon Helm was in there getting a haircut.
I didn’t know that so much of the Hudson Valley existed until I worked for Mark. I was fifteen or sixteen when I started working for him and it was definitely a wild experience. He taught me how to be an artist, I guess. To really embrace my oddities. He taught me about jazz and about the amazing people that are in the Hudson Valley. He taught me about The Band, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Ringo Starr… God, everyone used to come in there; Joey Ramone, Marc Jacobs, Robert Duffy. Amazing people. I also didn’t really understand much of it and was often oblivious to who was in front of me, which made it all that much better. I’ve had incredible conversations with superstars that I now laugh at when I recall them. There was this one time Ringo Starr called the salon. Levon was there, and he knew Ringo was going to call and ask for him, so he told me to mess with Ringo when he called. So Ringo calls and asks “Is Levon there?” And I respond, “who’s calling?” He said “this is Ringo Starr,” to which I said “oh yeah and this is Madonna” and I hung up the phone on him! Levon was like, “that’s perfect honey!” Oh my god, it was so funny.
Can you describe how your career took off from there?
It was a gradual experience. It was kind of like a perfect storm, what happened. I never really wanted to open my own salon. I wanted to work with Mark, build his brand, build him up and just kind of be in the back, building the business. He never really wanted to share what he had built, which is totally understandable. I ended up leaving, but it was perfect timing. I was in my last year of college at that point and we made this massive decision to split ways. When I left Mark’s, I had a lot of job offers but I was very hesitant because nothing was really up to the caliber of what I was used to at Mark’s. Mark’s was not a traditional salon atmosphere. It was very professional and sophisticated and chaotic, and it was great. So I ended up deciding to open my own space. My father was concerned because I was so young. He asked me, “are you sure you can do this?” And I said “yes, I can do it.” And he was like, “alright, then let’s do it!” I guess that’s when my parents also started changing how they looked at the professional hair salon, because my first job was at Mark’s. When they saw me at Mark’s they could see that I was going to do great. He was so popular and they knew the clientele that he had and the money I was making.
How old were you when you opened Le Shag?
I was 21 or 22 when I opened above Le Canard Enchaine.
When did you start pursuing work in New York City?
So that happened when I left Mark’s. When I graduated from college… well, I started working at Bard when I was about 20 years old. I was the head of hair and makeup there. That job came from one of Mark’s girlfriends, Ayla. Mark was actually offered the job at Bard and he didn’t want to do it. So Ayla came to me and said, “you’ve got to do this, this is a great opportunity!” She was a big believer that women shouldn’t be under the thumb of someone else. She recognized the talents that I had and really believed in me even when I didn’t realize that I could do a lot of the things that they wanted me to do. She pushed me into the job at Bard. That was really a key factor for when my life started to change because I was making really great money there. I was connecting with world renowned opera singers, coming up with design, and working with hair and makeup on these large scale productions. I started getting a lot of calls for other design work because of Bard. I started working at the Met, I started working on Broadway, and I started being able to go in and out of various roles as a hair and makeup artist. Those connections got me started. To this day, too, because of that foundational network of connections, I’ve never had to have an agent or anything like that. I’ve always managed my own career and been able to say yes or no to my jobs and negotiate my own terms.
As a product of the Hudson Valley yourself, you’ve done a lot of your work Upstate. But you’ve also done work in the City. How have those experiences been similar and how have they differed?
Well, since working at Mark’s, I have obviously always dealt with New Yorkers. I’m glad that I did what I did, which was essentially make the decision to open a salon even though I had no intention of being there all of the time. But I wanted to retain the clientele that I had at Mark’s. I had built up a following, which was a lot of New Yorkers who had migrated up here, especially after 9/11. The one thing I would say that is so different is that working in a New York salon is a very different experience in terms of the actual work. Like, what you get paid, how you’re treated. There’s a lot of education involved with working in a New York salon because there’s a lot more at stake, so they want to make sure that you’re doing what you should be doing; that your value is always high, and that you’re bringing in a lot of money. But it costs so much to live in New York so, you know, the Salon keeps half of that money. It’s a lot of pressure as a New York stylist. But, you know, the energy and the vibe of being in New York is also amazing. Everytime I’m in New York and I’m working with my clients down there, as soon as I cross the George Washington bridge I’m like, “Yeah, I’m here!” It’s definitely a “feel like you’ve arrived” kind of moment when you’re working in New York, which is unbeatable. You can’t really get that experience anywhere else. But I do take Kingston for granted because I’ve been here my whole life.
How do you think growing up here – in Kingston and the Hudson Valley – has shaped you as an artist, as an entrepreneur, and also just as a person, as Jen?
I think the people of the Hudson Valley have made me a more well-rounded person. All of the issues that people are addressing now in regards to how women are treated; I’ve never personally experienced that in the Hudson Valley. Growing up in Kingston and going to Kingston High School, we had a class of over 800 kids. And Kingston High School has a million programs that you can be a part of. Like, anything you’ve ever dreamed of. They either have a club that you can be a part of or it’s a class that they have. So we had huge groups of friends. Everybody loved one another, and we still all love one another, all of the people from my class. Facebook keeps us all connected, so we get to reach out to each other on a regular basis. I’m so grateful for all of that now. When I see what has actually gone on in the world and how people have been mistreated, and how there’s been a lot of unfairness, I’m so glad that I had the experience that I had here, because I love my community of people.
So it has made me into a well-rounded person, and I don’t traditionally choose the same thing, ever. I have a tendency to spread myself out and not just take into consideration what it is that I would want, but what my friends would want as well. And my friends are all very, very different. It definitely has taught me to be a little more open-minded and not just go with my own taste. To spread myself out a bit and to not just think of myself. I have to say, Kingston High School especially taught me that there’s no one person in the world. We all have to think of one another!
What are your goals for your future and for Le Shag’s future?
My goals for myself are to continue to grow the business and to provide more jobs for the community and for trade skilled individuals, especially. Also, to help other moms have a better understanding of their careers and what they are capable of doing. That’s my passion across the board. Now I’m working with BOCES, Stockade Works, and Kingston High School. I’m returning to help enhance some of the programs at BOCES and bring some more awareness to the opportunities that BOCES does provide for Kingston High School. Especially for those who are interested in the film and entertainment industry, because there are so many opportunities now in the Hudson Valley. I want my kids, too, to be able to have these jobs if they want.
In terms of Le Shag, I really enjoy seeing our stylists doing so well. During the pandemic year we had some of our record breaking salaries for stylists. That has been a great experience, so I really want to continue to provide that for our stylists. I would like to continue to help stylists to meet their own personal goals, which is what we did last year. I also want to continue to be able to provide more jobs for women who are on maternity leave, help them to retain their own business, and maintain the careers they have grown.
Finally; do you have a go-to hair routine?
What I would say to that is: do as I say, not as I do. I don’t even think I own a hairbrush in my house! My kids go to school with crazy hair, and I do not have much of a beauty routine myself. I’m a very wash-and-wear human, so I minimize. My husband has way more hair products than I do, at home. I barely wash my hair, I probably only wash my hair once a month, maybe? If I get to it. Gale from Medical Aesthetics does my crazy laser facials- so each day I throw on my tinted sunblock, I add oils to the ends of my hair and dry shampoo to the top and voila, DONE. It seems to work! My team forces me in for regular blow outs-one of the perks of having such amazing people around you all the time. They want me to relax a little.
It’s so funny, I love when people ask me that. I’m like, well ……. My cousin Katie has always had me on a strict skin routine- so it’s probably saved my butt over the years in that department.
Really enjoyed this piece and learning more about Jen! She is a special human being and I wish her the best always.