It takes a lot to be a successful hairstylist — the training, the apprenticeships, the natural talent. It takes years and years to master the craft. But on top of all the skill and knowledge, there are two important and deeply individualistic qualities that all of the most successful hairstylists possess: personality and empathy.
Going to the hair salon is an intimate practice. You set aside a time — usually a decent amount of time as well, from one hour to even three — and you take that time out of your usual hustle and bustle. Maybe you leave work early; maybe you make an appointment for a quiet Saturday morning; maybe you take a whole day off for a little self-care. The time set aside is special because you are choosing to create time and space to go and be wholly refreshed, both in appearance and in spirit.
You’ve been waiting for this appointment for days, weeks, months even. And hey — we’ve been living through a two-year pandemic; maybe you’ve even been waiting a year! You still remember what it felt like the last time you had an appointment; how your new haircut, color, or style lifted your chin and helped you stand up straighter. But time has passed and the cut has grown out, the color has faded, and — let’s be honest — who can really style their hair at home?
So the appointment is made and the day finally arrives. You show up to see the familiar face of your stylist. They know you— not just your hair, but your story. They’ve watched you change over the years; as you transitioned jobs, started new relationships, got promoted; they (even if hesitantly) agreed to cut your bangs after your last breakup.
When you sit in that stylist’s chair you give them your trust and they make magic happen. Even if just for an hour, you let go and leave it all up to the person with the shears. You probably find yourself giving them updates on your life, and they reciprocate in kind. They ask questions about the story you told during your last appointment, and you get to give them juicy updates. It’s like catching up with an old friend who is also able to revitalize your whole appearance.
The ability to bond and empathize with clients may not be a technical requirement for the job, but for master stylists at Le Shag, it is incredibly important. Briana, Kara, Adrienne, and Marissa are all highly experienced stylists who are masters of their craft, but they each also have a dedicated roster of long-term clients who time and time again choose to return and trust them with their hair.
Kara has been doing hair since age twenty-three and started working at Le Shag about three to four years later. She has been seeing some of the same clients for 10-12 years! She has even had the unique experience of watching the life progression of a client as they started dating someone new, met their spouse, got married, and had children. The whole family still sees Kara for their haircuts, even the kids. In her own words, with these kinds of dedicated long-term clients, she comes to know them so well that she basically “knows the topography of their heads.”
“The sense of loyalty is huge,” according to Marissa, who has been doing hair since her junior year of high school and has worked with Le Shag for about three years. “The fact that someone enjoys sitting in my chair, has enjoyed my work for as long as they have, sees the value in me, and will follow me pretty much wherever I go is just the most complimentary thing ever.”
For Briana, who has been doing hair since 2011 and working at Le Shag since around 2013, these client connections are personally significant and a driving force in her career.
“It’s part of the reason why I love this job,” she says, “because I like talking to people. The pandemic was really hard for me when I wasn’t working because I missed being able to see and talk to people. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.”
The same goes for Adrienne, who is happy to be able to say that “I definitely feel like I am a big part of their lives.” In her experience, clients “come in and when they’re feeling down. I get to help bring them up a little bit and know that when they leave they’re feeling better than when they came in.” Adrienne has been doing hair since 2000, but only moved over to Le Shag in 2019.
But at their core, these relationships are professional in nature, and that is a boundary that stylists have to navigate with all of their clients. It can be challenging, because as Kara puts it, “I feel pretty close to these people sometimes because they tell me so much about their personal lives. Especially recently, people aren’t necessarily going out to socialize a lot, but they go to socialize with their hairdresser.”
Some stylists certainly have different philosophies on how to handle these dynamics. For some, like Kara and Briana, a small number of real friendships have developed from clients. Though a lot of them, as Briana recognizes, “are a mix between friendship and business. I don’t actually hang out with them, but they’ll tell me a lot of stuff about their lives, and vice versa. But it’s just in the salon.”
Even though she has a few close friends she has made through her work, Kara still works to keep her work life and personal life separate. “I kind of create a boundary in my mind,” she recognizes, “to know that I’m still providing something for these people and as much as I love them and care about them, they ultimately have choices and expectations of me. So I try to be professional. I’m myself but they want what they want and I will try my best to give it to them.”
As Adrienne points out, “a lot of people really value what happens at the hair salon stays at the hair salon.” There is a line between personal and public life that might get blurred by conversations while clients are in the chair, but there exists a degree of trust understood by both the client and the stylist that allows those details to be shared and kept safe.
These boundaries can also help stylists improve their work/life balance, something that we have all been lacking since the start of the pandemic.
“Of course, if I run into them in the store or something I’ll say hi!” Adrienne says. “But a separation of work and real-life is needed for me to be able to decompress at the end of the day.”
Marissa adheres to a similar philosophy. “I really try to keep it mostly professional, ” she states. “I would say that my clients are friends, but it never gets past a certain point where it turns to be a complete friendship. I do always keep some kind of professional distance with my clients. I try not to cross that boundary.”
Still, at the end of the day, the connection with clients is what keeps all of these stylists engaged and inspired.
“It brings a lot of happiness to my life to be able to go to work and see people who I consider as friends,” says Briana. “I think that it’s probably the best job ever because of that. And making people feel good about themselves makes you feel good, too.”