Head Cases

Sunlight filters in through the windows of the Ritz Carlton bar, casting a glow over the mahogany tables and half-empty martini glasses. Frank Xavier leans back in his chair, his eyes dancing about the room. “Hairdressers in Boston used to be a creative team,” says the longtime stylist, who cuts a sharp profile with his rakish blond hair, square-framed glasses, and black leather treads. “But these days, everyone's just working for themselves. There's no mission, no sense of purpose, or ounce of leadership any more.”

It's a surprising thing to hear, considering that today — 30 years after Xavier first started cutting hair — Newbury Street packs more than 60 salons into an eight-block stretch, collectively employing at least 375 stylists who charge an average of $80 for a cut. With such a thick concentration of hair shops, you'd think Boston would be on the industry's cutting edge. But the salon world here is run by a complicated network of stylists, some with little training, skill, or appreciation for the chemistry of a cut. And many salon owners turn a healthy profit by undercutting quality and overdoing style.

Now a quiet grumbling is starting to demand something better, which seems destined to turn the Newbury Street beauty business on its pretty head. How did things get into such a tangle? Frank Xavier is probably the only one who will tell you. He's one of four leaders of the industry who represent the salon business at its most successful — and the distinctly different paths it's taken.

When Xavier walked into his first salon in the 1970s, the perfume-scented clients sat neatly in swivel chairs while stylists wound strands of hair into bouffant updos. Xavier, by comparison, intuitively approached his craft the way a fashion designer eyes a ream of fabric: with an eagerness to unstitch the seams, ruffle the edges, and cut a new pattern. At Continental Coiffures in Newton Centre, where Xavier worked with founder John Dellaria, he immersed himself in the texture of angles and the geometry of pixies, bobs, and halos. After working on the cutting-room floor for four years, he broke out on his own, first opening Allesandro (later renamed Frank Xavier Salon) in Newton in 1978 before moving to Newbury Street in 1982.

Before the paint on the walls was dry, Frank Xavier Salon had earned a reputation as Boston's top shop. “Getting a chair at Frank Xavier Salon was harder than getting backstage at a rock concert,” one stylist recalls. “You had to be completely confident, talented, and cool.” Xavier raised the level of hairdressing to an art form, churning out wildly inventive punk 'dos and French bohemian cuts. Boston socialites booked standing appointments, while magazine editors from Vogue, Glamour, and Women's Wear Daily insisted on using Frank Xavier talent for their fashion shoots.

In the center of this whirlwind, Xavier kept a steady hand on his business and the training of his staff. “The stylists had to be serious about their work,” he says. “I was an educator as much as I was a creative director.” Attitude did not crowd out aptitude.

Down the street from Xavier, Mario Russo was taking a sharply different turn as he started his ascent to the top of Boston's hairstyling world. With an olive oil-infused eponymous product line that soon would expand to everything from styling gels to candles and lip balms, Russo became famous far beyond the local beauty beat. He was a celebrity, a star. His assistants today seem in awe of him as they watch Russo move about his mirror-strewn studio. He talks while he administers a cut in a shower of shears. An apprentice rushes over to sweep up the fallen shards before Russo can tread into the mess with his designer shoes. Another swoops in to clean up the products laying about his station. “I always knew I wanted to have my own salon, so I went after that goal very ambitiously,” he says. It's paid off. “We're doing great,” Russo says. “We are so busy all the time. The books are always full.”

Other stylists say that there is no love lost between Russo and Xavier, who decries hair products that can sculpt, mold, and gel flyaway strands into shapes that mask the shortcomings of an errant cut. These made it easier for hairdressing to be driven more by ego than ability, a shift that paved the way for an influx of shoddy, quick-trim salons on Newbury. “By the late '80s it had become cool to shred, texturize, cut the form out of hair, and make strands stand up and fly out,” another stylist says derisively. Xavier adds with a sigh: “Suddenly everyone wanted to buy into a look, whether it was with clothes, hair, or makeup. A lot of talent went out the window.”

In some salons, others contend, not much has changed. “These days, stylists exist in a world of unfounded opinion and attitude,” one salon owner says. “They just fake their way through haircuts, relying on texturizing shears, round brushes, and hair spray to hide the fact that they can't cut a straight line.” These salons skimp on training and employ apprentices whose only credentials seem to be a fabulous attitude and a certificate from Blaine beauty school. “If you are an assistant or apprentice, you are a glorified cleaning person who does shampoos,” scoffs a particularly critical salon owner who says this system offers little in the way of real training. “You get little support from stylists. They beat you up mentally, for whatever reason — maybe to protect their warped sense of authority.”

After about a year of such lackluster handling, many assistants toss in their towels and go look for work at another salon. “Somehow assistants feel ready to become a stylist at this point even though they haven't learned a thing,” the disapproving owner says. If they're hired by someone who promises to train them, they might assist for another six months. “During this time, the assistant may attend random classes, which basically means they stand around and watch the surrounding salon chaos, attend occasional weekend seminars, develop opinions about looks, but not an awareness about how to use their eye, and acquire absolutely no sense of the skills needed to be a hairdresser.” It's enough to make you want to tear your hair out.

It didn't use to be like this. The stylists who later became stars — the Vidal Sassoons and the Kenneth Battelles of their day — learned the craft the old-fashioned way:from mentors and strict teaching methodology, says Xavier. And today in Boston, he says emphatically, only one place offers this level of training. It's at the crest of a new wave of resurgent creativity in the world of Boston's beauty business.

You almost have to squint to notice the tiny “Umi” placard on the smooth façade at 75 Newbury. Two narrow slats in the door allow a glimpse into what looks like a laboratory drenched in shades of gleaming white. The atmosphere is Zen-like: calm, cool, and collected. When you take a deep breath, you can almost feel the relaxed pale of the interior wash over you. Jeffrey Dauksevich works busily in the back of the salon, eyes focused as he weaves his scissors across the strands of a woman in her thirties. He is completely absorbed, focused on the intricate edges, angles, and texture. After an hour, Dauksevich finishes the cut and smoothes the ends with the palm of his hand.

Raised by a salon family (his grandfathers and two uncles worked in the business), Dauksevich, now 38, got caught up in the hair game at an early age. The mirrored salons of the 1970s became a laboratory in which he'd sit cross-legged and observe how hair could be scientifically sectioned into pieces, cut into precise angles, and textured just so. He would drum his fingers to the staccato rhythm of whirling scissors. By the time he was in his late 20s, Dauksevich knew how every strand of hair moved, how the body reacted, how a subtle flip of the part could change an entire silhouette. In short, he was obsessed with hair.

Dauksevich opened Umi four years ago as a departure from salons that offered fluffed-up haircuts. “I wanted to approach hairdressing seriously, and in order to do that, I needed to assemble a team of stylists who were equally serious and dedicated to that vision,” he says. His coterie of cutters has learned every atom, particle, and fiber of being about hair by the time they finish what can only be described as salon boot camp.

Apprentices at Umi spend nearly 18 months learning about styling, cutting, hair products (“It's important to know the viscosity of hair cream and how it will perform on strands,” Dauksevich offers), even the history of their craft. Before they're even hired, each applicnt has to survive three rounds of interviews: one to go over his or her initial application, a second with Dauksevich, and a third with the senior apprentice staff. “Then we teach them everything from how to address clients, where to stand in the salon, how to speak to stylists, and how to help guide the flow of the client visit,” Dauksevich explains. “Every detail is meticulously covered.” The training regimen is so unique that Dauksevich is asked to speak at industry seminars. He has even guest-lectured at hair-care company Bumble and bumble's famous styling academy — dubbed the Harvard of hairdressing.

Try to find this level of expertise at some other salons, and instead you'll find plenty of slick marketing. “Other salons rely on hype and buzz, which we completely ignore,” says Dauksevich, who credits Xavier as his mentor. “If that's what draws in customers, then they're not paying for the quality of haircuts. They're paying for image.”

But these days image is everything — whether it's on runways or reality TV shows. (Witness Blow Out, the reality series about an L.A. hair salon.) Customers who let image steer them into salons shouldn't complain when the haircuts seem second rate, says Marc Harris, co-owner of Ecocentrix. Harris got into the hair game 14 years ago, drawn by the ego-pumping allure of making other people look good. His salon reflects the mentality with its base-thumping music and Dolce & Gabbana-styled coifs. “It doesn't worry me when I see another salon open up,” he says. “There's enough business to go around.”

Considering that hair grows at the rate of half an inch per month, Harris is technically right. But on another level, competition does not exist because there is no great talent to steal away. In the land of mediocrity, no one worries much about what the other guy is doing. “When I first opened up Ecocentrix, Mario Russo was the most expensive haircut in town. But when I raised my prices, he raised his. It was just a ridiculous farce. It was all about being the most expensive place in town-like that meant you were the best,” Harris says, rolling his eyes. “The haircuts were exactly the same anywhere you went.”

TODAY IF YOU WANT TO FIND talent, it means looking beyond the glossy products, buzz, and heady hype. It means cultivating your own sense of awareness, not simply grabbing onto the next trend as you fill your bathroom shelves with styling gels you'll never use. Beauty can be a beast, but it shouldn't be.

“Why did I become a hairdresser, after all?” Xavier asks rhetorically, relaxing at the Ritz bar, and running his index finger around the rim of his glass. “I guess I viewed it not in a self-important way, but as a method of helping others. I love making someone feel beautiful and changing their attitude about themselves.” And the industry will reflect that mentality if others demand better quality up front, says Xavier, who closed the doors of the Frank Xavier Salon in 1997 and now works independently at L'Elegance. “Everything else is just a waste of time and money.” Or maybe it's the price of beauty.