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SMALL BUSINESS | ENTERPRISE ZONE: Lessons and Insight
on Southland Businesses

Sex and the Single Curl

In O.C., L.A. and N.Y.C., Women Cut In on Stylist Stardom

November 19, 1997|HELAINE OLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gerilyn Freedman hasn't gone steady with a hairdresser in more than 10 years. The Woodland Hills advertising executive continues to haunt the haute beauty salons of Los Angeles in search of the perfect haircut.

Her most recent stop: the chair of Laurent Dufourg, owner of Prive, for whom Gwyneth Paltrow famously shed her locks earlier this year. If there's one thing Freedman devoutly believes, it's that men cut hair better than women.

"I try to work with women in business and I prefer women doctors--but when it comes to hair, the guys just seem better," Freedman said.

Her predilection is hardly unusual. Although the vast majority of hairstylists are female--about 70%--as are their clients, in the influential urban circles of New York and Los Angeles, it's almost exclusively men who earn more than $100 a cut, receive the prominent press and have customers clamoring for their services.

From Cristophe, famed hairstylist-to-Hillary Clinton, to colorist Louis Licari, men own and run the power hair factories, creating a glass ceiling in an industry that caters almost exclusively to women.

The latest hairdresser to hit the jackpot is New York's Frederic Fekkai. A multimillion-dollar deal with Chanel Inc. in 1995 has led to an expanded salon in New York and a new salon scheduled to open on Rodeo Drive on Friday, as well as products encompassing everything from hair and skin care to perfume, candles and eyeglasses.

However, a number of women are beginning to challenge the industry's male dominance. Though their numbers remain small, there's no question that their impact is being felt.

In 1994, New York stylist Kim Lepine left a highly rated salon after 25 years as an employee to open her own eponymous shop on Madison Avenue. She now charges $200 a head and has become so successful that her husband, an international banker, recently left his position to run her burgeoning company.

In Los Angeles there's Sally Hershberger. Not only does she charge $250 a head at the Jonathan salon in West Hollywood, she's now discussing a partnership with its owner. She says they would like to open a shop in New York and are in talks with players in the cosmetics industry to establish their own product line.

Hershberger's also a star in the lucrative world of video and print ad assignments, where the pay can start at $2,500-plus a day--double or triple that with overtime.

Said Hershberger: "I don't want to be standing on my feet 10 years from now, but planning takes time and money, and it doesn't happen overnight."

The situation in Orange County is similar. The exclusive salons clustered around South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island--where haircuts can easily cost more than $100--are dominated by men. For example Jose Eber's local outpost is headed up by Neil Letham, who charges first-time clients $150.

There are, however, women who have made a name for themselves in this world.

Most prominent is Laurel Cherico, a former partner of Allen Edwards and now co-owner of Toni & Guy salons in Newport Beach, Irvine, San Juan Capistrano and Long Beach. Yet Cherico, an entrepreneur and player in the hair biz for more than a quarter of a century, has never put her own name on the door of a beauty establishment.

"I know how society works and a male name makes [the salon] sound like quality. That's what it takes to work," Cherico said ruefully. "In our society today, we need that male icon. I've always wondered why."

A few prominent smaller salons owned by women seem poised for further success. In Los Angeles, both Delux, owned by Jillian Fink and Roz Music, and Planet Salon, owned by Ginger Boyle, are beginning to receive attention and press.

Yet the obstacles for these enterprising women and others remain formidable. Primary among them is the long-whispered belief that sexy males wielding scissors hold an advantage over their equally competent female counterparts.

Many believe that if you're going to charge astronomical rates for what is still, after all, just a haircut, it helps to be handsome. A mysterious European accent probably doesn't hurt, either.

"Women become intimate with their hairstylists," said Martha McCully, beauty director for Allure magazine. "It's a classic relationship. Remember 'Shampoo'?"

"In salons, you get a lot of women customers who prefer a man. Either they like the attention, or they genuinely believe that men are better," said Clay Wilson, owner of two tres trendy salons, Doyle Wilson and BOBS.

"Opposites attract. Men and women are opposites," Cherico concurred.

Women don't doubt that sex appeal is a factor when it comes to success in the business, but they point out other factors at work.

For instance, financing may be more of an obstacle for female entrepreneurs in an industry where start-up costs can run well into the six figures. The department store Bergdorf Goodman gave Fekkai his own start. Cristophe worked with silent backers, whom he later bought out.

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