My Life As A Hairstylist

Salon owner, hairstylist, educator, product maker, photographer


The Dumbing Down of Hairdressing


There is nothing more dangerous to development and growth than fast success; success that hasn’t been what would be considered earned in the traditional sense. Most of us lack the ability to deal with rapid success, which is why you see most pop stars become insufferable assholes after a hit or two, and why they all tend to be broke and forgotten a few years later.

Our industry is in full Kardashian era right now, and much like what the K family is doing to the priorities of a large chunk of the under 30 set in the western world, this is causing what might be irreparable damage to the industry.
The reason is that hairdressing has become generic, boring and way too easy.

I’m a cranky old bastard so we can get that out of the way. Perhaps I’m being super dramatic, but I don’t think so.

As much as a few people like to think I’m a progressive thinker, I’m very old school in my belief system; develop your craft through apprenticeship, working your ass off under a master or two. Overcome adversity and work until you are deemed good enough, fight for your skillset and your station. At the same time, I do believe in faking it until you make it and putting out the perception to clients and potential clients that you are better than you might be in order to build your books. Because clients want to sit in the chair of an exciting and passionate hairdresser, and they certainly want to have faith that their stylist is fantastic.

But the important part here is that the stylist themselves need to know that they have work to do and that they should never be satisfied with their current skills or abilities. Never being satisfied means the stylist will continually work to become better, through ongoing training as well as a truly objective opinion of their own work. The issue we are having today is in how many relatively new stylists view their current skillset, and who they are influenced by each day.

I was lucky to have apprenticed under a few very demanding hairdressers who were much more knowledgeable than I was. They weren’t always nice, but they were fucking awesome and I had a deep need for their approval and to figure out how to get my work to be great, like theirs was. That need in me was personal, but was also part of the culture of the salon I worked with, to grow through the ranks of the company and become a master stylist. And this is what I attempt to do with my own company as well.

Today we have a very different industry than we did 3 years ago, even 12 months ago. If you’ve read this far, I thank you. But here is where I will start pissing some of you off:
Instagram, YouTube, “PLEX” products are hurting the future of the craft of hairdressing.

Instagram itself is an awesome tool for sharing work and allowing people to build their businesses by showcasing the type of work they like to do and are excited about. It’s wonderful in that we all have a website that anyone can view in seconds and it broadens our potential reach drastically. It’s basically given everyone an equal opportunity platform to let the world know what they are all about. Awesome, right?

What we have seen since this phenomena started is a rapid dumbing down of hairdressing. This platform has launched a new generation of industry stars, virtually unknown, almost overnight. And that in itself is amazing, except for when some of those people aren’t that good at doing hair.

Now this is not at all trying to imply that Instagram famous hairdressers aren’t great. Many of them are amazing and do wonderful and sophisticated cuts, colours and finishing.
But a small handful of these stylists are not very good. At all. And it’s clear that they are unaware of it. And no, I’m not naming names.

So now what’s happening is that a few shit stylists have become influencers to an entire new generation of stylists, who try to emulate them. Product companies are sucking up to and endorsing stylists because of reach rather than skills.

Now we come full circle to that thing about surrounding yourself with amazing people who are way better than you so you can always see that you have room to grow. Many of these people won’t look around the room because they are starstruck by IG hairdressers and want to follow a similar path to success. And because most of these stylists are also constantly putting up bullshit inspirational memes about independence and being true to yourself, new industry talent sees this as their path also, rather than working their asses off to perfect their craft and to climb a ladder in an amazing salon company. It’s now a race to rent a “loft” space and work alone. While I totally get independence and the micro-salon thing, it absolutely should not be the goal for anyone but the most together, driven and entrepreneurial of us, and that is an extremely small minority. But that is another article.

So here we are today, where tens of thousands of hairdressers are making a cacophony with largely similar, often mediocre to completely shit work on social media. In literally 3 years, the legends, the people who have put their time in, who have dedicated a lifetime to artistry and craft are disappearing from eyes of the vast majority of the industry while mediocre curl-sets hiding mediocre cuts reign supreme.

We used to rip through trade magazines each month to see who was featured and who was doing what. We would wait for the Contessas, the NAHAs and the British Hairdressing Awards to see what new, incredible work would be put out and who would evolve into a future icon or legend by consistently being nominated or winning. We would see what the latest photography and makeup trends for editorial were going to be and who was going to do something truly meaningful and lasting.

Whenever I speak, I ask if my classroom knows of certain industry icons. Of course everyone has heard of and icon like Vidal, but in a very vague, mythical sense. But few will know of Roger Thompson, Trevor Sorbie or Tim Hartley. And of course I don’t even bother with names like Akin Konizi, Angelo Seminara or Mark Hayes.

But they absolutely do know the Instagram stylists with huge followings. Again, this is not at all meant to be negative about people putting out work that they love. And again, many them are fantastic and we should all have had the foresight and have worked so hard at the outset of social media to secure our place. And, they deserve all their success for putting out work that people are loving.

What it is about is our technical and creative leaders who have spent a lifetime honing their craft being replaced almost overnight, sometimes by people who are incapable of cutting a one-length bob. And when a standard of technical excellence and pursuit of perfection is being replaced by a pursuit of likes and followers, our industry suffers.

I believe in having a solution before bringing up a problem, and there is hope, but it falls on a few key people:

All hairdressing school instructors and mentors have a responsibility to teach people about the history of modern hairdressing. Vivian Mackinder‘s wonderful video series, “I’m Not Just A Hairdresser,” is part of my academy curriculum and I make it my mission to introduce my students to the icons of this industry. My personal hero is Trevor Sorbie, so I make it my mission to introduce him to my students and staff.

The trade magazines already promote NAHA, Contessa and BHA winners in print and showcase what can happen when hairdressers push the boundaries. But they should celebrate these people on one IG post per day. It would be invaluable to young hairdressers. Let’s be honest, our trade magazines’ social media accounts are following right now rather than leading. I get that they have to tap in to the popular vote in order to gain followers, but they also have a responsibility to uphold the highest of standards and only showcase the best of the best. They should also make it their agenda to help push rather than follow, which seems to be what is happening lately.

The Hairbrained Teach-In is one of the few ongoing platforms where icons, legends and new talent alike get together on a stage and show their work and talk about their beliefs. I love what they do over there, and I think it would be amazing if they would invite an Instagram famous stylist to participate at each teach-in. Right now there seems to be a divide, and by welcoming them into their arms and giving them their platform, it will bring people together, and this can only be good for our industry. And the gang at HB will discover what many of us already know; that these are awesome, passionate talented hairstylists who are capable of great work and inspiring others. I consider the HB Teach-In to be a showcasing of the elite, and I think the elite should embrace these artists and start to bridge a widening gap.

The artists themselves need to work harder for a stronger social media presence Of course the trade magazines promoting them should help as well. I looked at several IG accounts of the 2016 NAHA finalists, and most have dismal followings. The scale needs to become a bit more balanced, as the work we currently see and is celebrated by the community at large is more or less all the same.

Right now the industry is heading towards Idiocracy. But there is hope, because we have never seen so many people taking pictures of and celebrating their work. This is incredible. But what needs to happen is an industry-wide effort to improve standards and raise the bar. And to recognize mediocrity and not reward it with likes, follows and compliments.
We need to not be afraid to say the Emperor has no clothes.

But Michael, why are you bitching about “PLEX” products? They are awesome!
Well, they have made it so nobody has to master the art of the colour correction anymore. Slap on some high volume bleach and you’re there. While it is a true miracle and an incredible breakthrough, it has made doing hair colour something that your average person can learn on Youtube in an afternoon and perform reasonably well in their kitchen now. And not only that, we have so many hairdressers teaching professional colour technique publicly rather than in private accounts.

Again, I’m a cranky old guy, so take that for what it’s worth. It’s my opinion that the majority of hairdressers out there suck and the majority have always sucked. I myself am only fairly decent at it. But never before have we seen an era where mediocrity and sameness has been so celebrated en masse. If you’re a hairdresser and you care, decide that you aren’t good enough and then invest the time in truly becoming great.
But it is going to require looking outside the wavy hair-noise we are inundated with each day.

1 Comment

Never Let A Client Leave The Salon Unhappy

We’ve all been guilty of this at some point, trying to get a client to live with a colour they don’t love. But when we lose sight of why we are there and what our job is, we fail as hairdressers and service people.

Make your service about the client, not about your pride and ego. Sometimes we fail, and how we deal with our mistakes is what defines our service aptitude and professionalism.

Leave a comment

Michael Levine Answers You- Should I charge My Staff For Products Used in Services

Charging your staff for the products needed to perform their job is a challenging thing to do as a business owner. If you don’t do it right, it can make you look cheap and it can cause resentment. But you need to get those costs covered, and the salon shouldn’t be paying a high commission and also paying for the colour used.

The reason salons need to charge for products is because industry commissions are simply too high. Change your pay structure and charge more for your services. And make sure to explain the cost of doing business to your team so they don’t feel like they are being given a bad deal.

Do things right and everybody wins. Do it wrong and it’s a sure way to create a rift between you and the people you rely on.