[Paleopsych] NYT: You Paid How Much for That Haircut?

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You Paid How Much for That Haircut?
NYT November 21, 2004

ON a recent weekday afternoon, Orlando Pita, hairdresser to
celebrities like Jennifer Connelly, Naomi Campbell and
Kirsten Dunst, received a client in his new salon, Orlo, on
the third floor of a nondescript walkup on Gansevoort

Mr. Pita, 42, stood mesmerized behind the woman's brunet
head, puzzling in a way that suggested he was examining a
compelling piece of abstract art. He worked in monastic
silence, his scissors venturing only the most tentative
stabs. With each move, he stepped back, occasionally
blowing the hair with a drier, watching the way it waved
under the heat, his brow pressed in concentration.

The entire process lasted about 80 minutes. And each minute
cost about $10: Mr. Pita charges $800 for a haircut.

If that seems like an extraordinary sum to charge, consider
that New York has always been the hub of the outrageously
expensive coiffure. But what's different now is that there
seems to be a race for the stratosphere, as if a haircut
were the new It luxury item, as fetishized as a Kelly bag
or a pair of Jimmy Choos.

As big-ticket hairdressers sprout all over Manhattan - with
an especially dense concentration in the district formerly
known for meatpacking - stylists, salon owners and
customers are loudly debating exactly how much is too much.

Mr. Pita defended his $800 price tag, a new high for the
city, and a fee that is the equivalent of twice the annual
income of the average citizen of Bangladesh.

"Your hair is one of the first things people notice about
you," he said. "You can spend a lot on clothes, but you
wear your hair every day. The luxury market is not about
needs, or `Is it worth it?' It's about `What can I spend?'

Michael Gordon, the founder and president of Bumble and
Bumble, which opened a salon on West 13th Street in May
that is a curling iron's throw from Orlo, said he didn't
buy that. At 40,000 square feet, with the most expensive
haircut going for $250 but most much less, the Bumble and
Bumble salon is pure populism next to Orlo's exclusivity.

"On the one hand, there is probably nothing you're going to
buy that you're going to wear every day for six weeks," Mr.
Gordon said. "On the other, it concerns me that some of the
stuff is ego driven, bravado, a competition to see who can
be more expensive. It's the hair version of who can get an
appointment with Pat Wexler." (He was referring to Dr.
Patricia Wexler, a New York dermatologist.)

For years New York stylists have been commanding prices
many times higher than those in, say, Nebraska. Frédéric
Fekkai raised eyebrows when he first started charging $300
a cut in the late 1990's. (Mr. Fekkai has been cutting hair
less frequently in recent years. He entered into a joint
venture with Chanel in 1996 and is now chief executive of
Frédéric Fekkai & Company, which generated approximately
$36 million in 2003, according to a report earlier this
year in Women's Wear Daily. When he does cut hair, he
charges $400 but is planning to raise prices next year, he
wrote in an e-mail message.)

Robbin McClain, the editor in chief of American Salon, a
trade magazine, said her antennae first perked up several
years ago upon hearing that John Sahag, the onetime
tonsorial minister to clients like Jennifer Lopez, was
charging $400 for a cut.

"At that time that seemed really outrageous," Ms. McClain

In the last year several high-profile hairdressers have
opened salons with big ambitions or big price tags. Leading
the fray was Sally Hershberger, whose eponymous salon
opened on West 14th Street last fall. Ms. Hershberger, who
became famous for the shaggily demure style worn by Meg
Ryan, charges $600.

According to a report by American Salon, the average
women's haircut in the United States costs about $21 for a
cut in a salon with fewer than 6 chairs, up to $44 for a
salon with more than 13 chairs. So what makes a haircut
that costs 14 to 18 times the average high-priced salon
haircut in the rest of the country worth it in New York?

"Look, even $250 is expensive," Ms. Hershberger said over a
high-protein breakfast at Pastis on Thursday, her hair
scrunched in a style college students typically refer to as
"bed head." "But you have to remember, hair is the first
thing people notice. When you get a facelift, people say,
`Hey, you look great, did you change your hair?' "

At Orlo, Mr. Pita said, he had at first had misgivings
about charging such a high price. "I toyed with it at
first," he said, a spectral black-and-white portrait of
Kate Moss in platinum-blond hair staring down from the
freshly painted white wall behind him. "Eight hundred
dollars is a lot of money, but so is five, six, seven
hundred dollars." But he said his price was a practical
one, in line with the fees he charges for his work in the
fashion industry doing runway shows and magazine shoots for
photographers like Steven Meisel and companies like Gucci.

His explanation didn't wash with Ms. McClain of American
Salon. "To me that honestly doesn't make that much sense,"
she said. A stylist on a shoot or a fashion show is paid by
a corporate source, typically willing to spend the kind of
money necessary to achieve perfection in an image that
might reach millions of people.

"When you're on a shoot, someone else is paying for it, but
when someone is in the salon, they're paying for it
themselves," Ms. McClain said. "I don't get it."

Mr. Pita stood by his number.

"I decided not to offend my
friends in the fashion industry," he said.

Kenneth Battelle, who runs the Kenneth salon in the
Waldorf-Astoria and whose clients have included Jacqueline
Kennedy Onassis, Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor, Lauren
Bacall and Marilyn Monroe, said that charging $800 for a
haircut was "an ego trip."

"And anyone who pays that much money to go to the
meatpacking district to have their hair done is a
meathead," he added. (Mr. Battelle charges $155, and does
not accept tips.)

Certainly, having one's hair cut by one of the high-priced
brigade means careful scheduling, and earns the kind of
bragging rights New Yorkers love, like securing a table at
Per Se or a private viewing of the Modern's galleries
before the official reopening. In the case of Serge
Normant, the new stylist at John Frieda on Madison Avenue,
he is required by the terms of his contract to be in the
salon just four days a month. His price: $500. (He said he
tried to avoid tips.)

Mr. Normant said that because he, like Mr. Pita, has spent
the bulk of his career working on runway shows and shoots
and is not yet well known to the civilian salon-going
public, anything higher than $500 would be "pretentious."

"But I'm not saying that next year I won't raise the
price," he added with a wink.

Clients are quick to defend the pricey hairdressers. Kelly
Killoren Bensimon, a former model and the author of
"American Style" (Assouline, 2004), has had her hair styled
by both Mr. Normant and Mr. Pita and said that women should
consider the expense worth it.

"I know women who spend $400 on a pair of shoes they wear
once," Ms. Bensimon said. "Why not spend $600 on a haircut
that lasts for six months and turns a nobody into a

The notion that a nobody will become a celebrated somebody
by virtue of a haircut bothers Dr. Dawn Esposito, the
chairwoman of the sociology department and a professor of
popular culture at St. John's University in Queens.

"That sounds like it's about the cult of celebrity and
living vicariously," Dr. Esposito said. " `Wow, if this
person has done Naomi Campbell's hair or Sarah Jessica
Parker's hair or Jennifer Aniston's hair, then maybe I can
be more like that celebrity. Imagine whose hair they have
touched.' " While the price undoubtedly lures a clientele
that is mostly wealthy, "you're probably also seeing a fair
number of middle-class women who are putting the charge on
their credit cards," she said. "And that's just sad. It's
obscene the things we do with our disposable income. And
the disposable income we imagine we have."

Penny Howell Jolly, a professor of art history at Skidmore
College and the principal author of "Hair: Untangling a
Social History" (Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, 2004),
said that hair has been known throughout history to
function as a billboard, advertising one's status, class
and political or religious beliefs.

"But I'm not sure an $800 haircut would be evident walking
down the street in the way that an 18th-century French
aristocrat would be noticeable with a powdered wig," she
said. "So what is it for? Your own satisfaction knowing
that you can spend $800 on a haircut and almost no one else
in the world can? Or maybe it's something you talk about at
cocktail parties, and everyone in your social circle knows
that this person charges $800, and it becomes a social
marker that way."

At Bumble and Bumble, Mr. Gordon (who cuts hair very
rarely) said that high prices often make for an eventually
boring clientele.

"When I started out, training in these blue-blood salons in
London in the 70's, we got a very specific type of person,"
he said. "These were women who visited the salon once,
twice, five times a week. They didn't even touch their own
hair with a hairbrush. And that's not the kind of client we
want here. I knew we didn't want that Park Avenue, Madison
Avenue, just-wealthy types. They don't want change. We want
the cool people to come. And they do."

But the cool celebrities flock to the high-end stylists.
Ms. Hershberger often styles Sarah Jessica Parker's hair,
she said. But Mr. Normant also mentioned last week that he
had an appointment with Ms. Parker. John Barrett, whose
salon is in Bergdorf Goodman, has also done Ms. Parker. And
so has Mr. Pita.

Celebrities, by the very nature of the work they do, tend
to flit from one hairdresser to the next, who tout their
celebrity-friend affiliations like 8-year-olds with cool
baseball cards.

The reality is, Mr. Barrett said, that "if you're the right
person, you won't be paying anyway." The famous actress or
singer won't pay; the public relations firm or the
production company or the magazine will.

"The reality is Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Roberts get
their hair done on a daily basis," Mr. Barrett said. "And
the person who will do their hair is determined by the
photographer or the art director of the shoot. I hate
claiming actors as my own because actors tend to be fickle,
and they go, as they should, from one person to another
because they don't want to look the same all the time. I've
done everybody, but do I claim they are my loyal clients
and best friends? No."

He added: "Actors struggle and struggle and are penniless,
until one day they become famous and rich and no one allows
them to pay for a thing. It's kind of hilarious and sad at
the same time. When you are making $104 million a film, no
one will let you pay for a haircut or a dress."

Mr. Barrett charges $400 for a haircut, a price he calls
"bargain basement."

Whenever a stylist is written up prominently in a fashion
magazine, he or she will start to see a group of clients
Mr. Barrett refers to as "the searchers," a group probably
eagerly dialing Mr. Normant (the subject of a glowing
profile in November Vogue) and Mr. Pita (scheduled for
January Vogue) right about now.

"This is the troupe of people who read every beauty story,
and they come in and get a haircut, and then they read
someone else's name in a magazine and move on," Mr. Barrett
said. "They'll go from stylist to stylist, constantly
looking for the magic thing. I don't know quite what they
are looking for. Because I don't think they ever find the
magic. And I don't think what they are looking for can be
found in a pair of scissors."


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