Hairstyling by Computer: Is It a Wave?

Times Staff Writer

Kay Killmeyer walked into Mitch & Co. Haircutters in Irvine on a recent Saturday morning with short, curly gray hair. Within 20 minutes, she had collar-length, strawberry blond tresses. Then she had a burgundy bob. Soon after that, a waterfall of ash-blond curls tumbled past her shoulders--all without the aid of wigs, dyes or scissors.

Instead, Mitch Mitchell used a computer to create hairstyles for the 52-year-old Huntington Beach woman, who left the Irvine salon after an hour with her hair unchanged, her wallet $30 lighter and a Polaroid before-and-after picture: Kay gray and Kay as a redhead.

But Killmeyer got what she came for, she said, and she vowed to return for a make-over.

That's why Mitchell spent two years and $20,000 to create his Video Image Processor, which uses video and computer technology to give his customers a risk-free way to see how they would look in dramatically different hairstyles.

Entrepreneurs like Mitchell are only beginning to cash in on this, the cutting edge of the health and beauty industry.

The first high-tech personal care gadget--a device to analyze a woman's skin using computer and microscope--appeared four years ago; hairstyling computers have been on the market for an about 10 months.

The few industry analysts who are aware of such innovation say it is the wave of the future for the $19-billion personal care and cosmetics industry. The question today is whether it will be a permanent wave.

Costs Questioned

"There haven't been rollouts in terms of very large numbers of systems, but virtually everyone who's played around with this stuff has gone forward with a program," said Thomas Rauh, a retailing specialist with the accounting firm of Touche Ross & Co.

Not everyone shares Rauh's positive view. For the hair-care industry in particular, the biggest questions concern costs: Can a salon owner attract enough business using computer wizardry to make the steep computer prices worthwhile? And will consumers pay up to $50 for a Polaroid picture of how they may look--someday?

"Personally, I think it's a limited market," said Sheldon Kasowitz, assistant analyst with Goldman, Sachs & Co. "If it's going to be that costly . . . it's going to have to be one of these fun luxury items. If it can be cost effective, though, it has a place instead of just being a fad."

But cost often is of little import when a person's image is at stake.

Hair, particularly "is an incredibly symbolic thing," said Gary Emery, a clinical psychologist and director of the Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Therapy.

But, he said, people "are afraid to go full bore to see what (change) will look like. They don't want to take the risk. This could be a shortcut to get around that."

Underscoring in a bizarre way the importance some people place on hairstyles, a Florida man was arrested this week for trying to drown his wife by slitting open their water bed and plunging her head into the water. He told officials he tried to drown his wife because he hated her new hairdo.

Most disputes over haircuts are resolved in a less dramatic manner, but systems such as Mitchell's could put an end to even the mildest arguments.

And if the reactions of Killmeyer and La Mirada businesswoman Brenda Solorzano are any indication, high-tech hairstyling is here to stay.

Solorzano recently had her hair substantially restyled at Mitchell's salon--after first viewing a variety of new looks on the computer.

"I once had it cut very short. My husband hated it. . . . He told me, 'Don't ever go back there again,' " she said.

"I'm a businesswoman and I need a specific image. . . . I need to know what a hairstyle looks like before I do it."

Described as Amazing

Killmeyer, who was the first paying customer for Mitchell's VIP system, called it "amazing. It's so hard to conceive that this can be done. . . . Changes are always nice. They give you a lift, but if they're drastic, you wonder how long they'll take to grow out."

Now the wondering is gone--for technology-conscious consumers, at least.

But those who market hairstyling computers, experts said, must rely on consumers' willingness to pay for nothing more than an image--sometimes printed, sometimes not.

"The economics for someone selling this as a service, dependent on people being willing to spend, say, $25 for one of these consultations, is a little bit suspect" without a direct tie-in to a product, said Rauh of Touche Ross.

In addition to making the service affordable to customers, the actual computer systems have to be made affordable to the average salon owner. One way to do that is by manufacturing the computer systems in quantity, as the cosmetics industry has already learned.

New York-based Intermark Corp. is a 3-year-old business built solely on what industry experts call "interactive retailing," using computers to sell products and services. An estimated 75% of its business is from the personal-care industry alone.

It has built a small, inexpensive computer that helps consumers pick cosmetics--and has sold 21,000 of them to Noxell, a cosmetics maker that has installed the machines in drugstores across the country.

12 Arden Computers

By comparison, Elizabeth Arden--which introduced one of the first cosmetic computers--has just 12 of them. They are moved from store to store to promote products. The Arden computers cost $100,000 each. The Intermark computers cost Noxell $325 apiece.

"The whole industry is being rethought," said Lisa Ferkovich, Intermark's vice president of administration. "Traditional advertising is not working as well. Women are working and are not home to see commercials and read ads. And VCRs are allowing people to cut out commercials.

"This really looks to be the new wave of advertising and merchandising."

Mitch Mitchell is betting on that.

The Irvine stylist spent 10 years in electronics--"medical research, putting people in ejection seats and centrifuges" as a civilian technician at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, he said, before breaking into the hair business, where he has spent the last 25 years. It was that mix of interests that led him to design his "Video Image Processor."

In the last year, he assembled the appropriate components--a computer, an electronic sketch pad and stylus, a Polaroid printer, a color monitor and a video camera--and developed the software that ties them all together.

Although he has no defined plans for marketing his systems, Mitchell said he hopes to sell to other salon owners for $10,000 to $15,000. For now, he uses it in his own salon.

Choosing a Style

The first step for a customer wanting a computer coif at Mitchell's is to look through an album of nearly 100 separate hairstyles and choose three. Then the video camera takes two pictures that are stored in the computer: a "before" picture showing the original style and a picture with all of the customer's hair held back in a headband.

Mitchell keeps the headband shot on the screen and enters the code number for the first hairstyle. With the stylus, he maneuvers a video image of the style, a sort of "electronic wig," onto the customer's head and blends the edges so the style looks as though it fits the customer's face. The stylus also enables Mitchell to "cut" the electronic hair and modify the style.

Finally, the two favorite looks are printed out beside the "before" shot, and the customer is free to take the picture home for reactions from friends and family members before taking the plunge.

The ability to poll peers before actually changing hairstyles is the step Mitchell thinks will bring success. "Before this, we've had husbands call and say, 'What did you do to my wife? I want it changed back. She's coming tomorrow,' " he said.

While Mitchell's VIP business is still in its infancy, with no way to tell how successful it will be, a Woodland Hills firm offering a similar service has made what Rauh calls a strong showing for a fledgling company.

A Laguna Beach salon is the first in California to use the system developed and marketed by New Image Inc.

Array of Services

The device offers an even wider array of services than VIP. It tells customers what hairstyles would look good, tells them what colors their wardrobes should be during different seasons of the year and even models the results of a hypothetical plastic surgery.

"In a beauty salon environment, there isn't a woman in the world who wouldn't want to see themselves first before they make a change," said Robert Gurevitch, New Image president. "It (New Image) eliminates the fear of change."

The system costs $15,000 to $20,000, Gurevitch said, and his company has sold 400 since it began marketing them in February.

But if marketing research for Seja Systems--the only other company solely in the high-tech hairstyling business--is correct, Mitchell and Gurevitch could be in for trouble.

In initial test marketing, company officials found that consumers will not pay much more than $40 for the service.

Mitchell, however, could prove those studies wrong.

"It's been a month since I've started, and I've done at least 30 (computer make-overs) without any advertising, only word of mouth," he said, "and most of those people stayed and got their hair done--I'd say 90%."

He said that he now plans to raise his price to $50 from the introductory $30 for a 30-minute session.

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