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January 09, 1994|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a contributing editor of this magazine and the author of "1-800-AM-I-NUTS?" Her last article, "They Call It Cyberlove," was about life in cyberspace.

So the Southern California real estate market is in the toilet, we've lost Star Wars, and the B-2 bomber and the C-17 are hanging by a thread. Relax, we've still got the beauty biz. The Cold War may be over, but there's no truce in the war against clogged pores, drab hair and chipped polish.

Take my beauty regimen--please. I used to get my hair cut at a funky little shop around the corner from my house. Now I go to the largest salon in California: Umberto, a 12,000-square-foot Beverly Hills shrine, complete with a cappuccino bar and costume jewelry boutique, where in addition to offering the usual cuts, color, perms, manicures, pedicures and facials, they will bleach a woman's arm hair or wax a man's ears. For this extravagance, I blame my mother, the Manhattan Beauty Maven. When I decided to cut off my long hair, she gave me Umberto's name. For under three figures, he gave me a cut so sensational that even my notoriously frugal husband urged me to return.

Not that I needed much prodding. Visiting le grand salon is like going to an opulent theme park--LovelinessLand!--where any physical imperfection can be repaired and the raison d'etre is to pamper me. The sheer excess is mind-boggling; from the faux Pompeian frescoes over the reception desk to trompe l'oeil wood beams on the shampoo room's ceiling. Sixty-five hairdressers, five colorists, 14 manicurists, three facialists, five makeup artists and a scalp-treatment specialist are all decked out in the beauty version of Mickey and Goofy costumes--black, avant-garde ensembles straight out of Elle or Details. They perform magical transformations in 18 rooms, five private suites and endless nooks and crannies. I am given to understand (from a press release) that my fellow pilgrims include Madonna, Shannen Doherty, Janet Jackson, Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone and Winona Ryder.

"I figure we have around 600 clients a day, five days a week, who spend an average of $100," said Babette Beja, salon manager.

I figure it's more than that, since the shop has sly ways of getting you to spend money. For instance, if an assistant graciously offers you a Diet Coke and you gratefully accept, it later appears on your bill. When my hair was still long, a stylist put it up in a spectacular chignon. I was charged $1.50 for every fancy bobby pin she used (luckily, I passed on the $79jeweled chopsticks in the boutique). And, of course, each operator favors a different miracle hair glop, and the salon carries them all. Retail glop sales alone probably cover the monthly rent.

"Soon a woman will be able to walk out with a fantastic pasta primavera for six to take home for dinner," promises the courtly Umberto, who is installing a " tutto Italiano" kitchen next door to his salon. If this seems excessive, over at 2 Rodeo, Jose Eber and his partner, the oh-so-fabulously-French Laurent Dufourg, have spent more than a million dollars on a 10,000-square-foot neo-Rococo temple which is open seven days a week.

PERHAPS MORE IS MORE IN THE BEAUTY BIZ BECAUSE THERE'S SO MUCH competition. In Beverly Hills' 1.2-mile golden triangle between Wilshire, Santa Monica and Robertson boulevards, there are more than 208 licensed hair, skin and body-beautifying businesses. And Beverly Hills has no monopoly; beauty transcends social, cultural and economic boundaries. In 1992, Southern California's resources included 51,588 manicurists, 1,434 electrologists, 5,392 cosmeticians and 112,816 cosmetologists (this includes hairdressers)--more than 10% of the national total pampering less than 5% of the nation's population. Salons in Los Angeles County made more than $100 million in hair and nail care alone. Nationally, salon services were projected to gross $35.5 billion last year with $4.5 billion coming from nails alone.

And to think I went to college instead of beauty school.

The business is not entirely recession proof, according to another Beverly Hills hair-meister. "Clients don't come in every third week like they used to," said Giuseppe Franco, whose press kit, with winning understatement, bills him as "the most famous hairdresser in the world." "They make their color last until the last second. When they have black roots and blond hair, then they come." Why not skip it entirely? "If you want to live in L.A., you have to keep up the image."

"In boom times, a salon owner could open 15 or 20 locations," said Mary Atherton, editor of Modern Salon, a glossy, Illinois-based magazine with articles like "How To Pitch Perms to a Reluctant Client." "But now rents are prohibitive. And a lot of people are deciding to make the one salon that they have truly spectacular. To survive, you have to have as many people as possible come through the door. So you add more services."

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