Chances are the most fashion-forward person you know is giving you a haircut.
Hairdressers figure high on the list of those in the service sector (along with shop girls and maitre d's) who dress better, or certainly with a lot more verve, than you and I do.
There are exceptions, of course. Go to any major hair show, and you'll find enough bad perms to pack a Dallas shopping mall with "Charlie's Angels" faithfuls still crushed that the show was canceled. And true, this causes the cutters and tinters who are smartly turned out in their requisite noirish fashion mufti to mutter under their breath, "For shame, for shame."
But by and large, hairdressers are a step or two ahead of the fashion game. Even in areas like Palmdale or Glendale, not known for their sartorial sophistication, you'll find assistants in their tender teens displaying an intimate understanding of Dries Van Noten, while other kids their age who wouldn't know their Dolce from their Gabbana are still kicking it at Clothestime.
Is it something in the rinse water?
"Gay or straight, doesn't matter, but either way they're totally checking you out," says Jim Wayne, hairdresser and owner of the eponymous Jim Wayne Salon in Beverly Hills. "Clients are not just buying the service; they're buying a whole package of entertainment and diversion."
Wayne cut 15 clients' hair that day.
"And 14 of whom complimented me on my shirt."
"Hairdressers are social people," notes Sara Carter, education director of the Crew at the Lab in Costa Mesa. "They're out all the time, going to clubs, into the latest music and seeing what's new on the street. They soak it all up. Their whole life revolves around creativity. Naturally, this is reflected in the way they dress.
"Also for hairdressers there's a particular craving for more fashion stimulation than just what's in the immediate community, hence an obsession for international fashion magazines."
Although there isn't one style that pegs a hairdresser per se, the look generally evolves along generational lines. Beauty school students and younger assistants tend to revel in fierce, streetwise, post-punk, preapocalyptic eclectic ensembles with a healthy dash of sex thrown into the mix. While fading fast from vogue (as opposed to Vogue), piercing and tattoos made quite the impression on the younger tonsorial set a few years ago. Later, when the serious money starts coming in, coiffuristas looking at 30 and beyond commonly develop a jones for high-priced designer wear.
On a given day, for example, Leanne Bilton, an assistant at Prive in West Hollywood, will sport tiger-print hip-hugger pants, a pink baby T, burgundy baby rocket sleeves and black platform boots. Jim Wayne, on the other hand, handsome 38-year-old father of two, favors classic, loosely constructed Donna Karan suits (he owns 10 of them).
"Twenty-four, seven," says Wayne, explaining that "hairdressers breathe, walk and talk fashion. We spend a large percentage of our income pursuing it. I've seen assistants go without eating for three days to make sure they get the right shirt."
This costly pursuit of fashion is why some salons, such as Vidal Sassoon salons throughout the country, have their assistants dress in black and white. The reasoning is that, thus attired, they will be easier for clients to identify, plus a duochromatic wardrobe won't break an assistant's already-skimpy budget.
Amber Delgado, a newly minted stylist in her early 20s working at the Renaissance Hair Studio in Glendale, is saving for an advanced hairdressing course in London. She's pared down her three shopping weekends a month to only two.
"Since fashion is always changing, I'm always changing too and always have done so even when I looked weird in high school. Besides, I get bored easily and don't like looking average," says Delgado, whose hair has been every color from "dark violet to light copper to vampire red to cherry red. Overall, I've recently moved out of my Gothic phase and am now into combining street fashion and high fashion together. My new thing is that instead of looking scary, now I want to look fun."
In all their costumey splendor, some members of the younger female hairdressing staff look downright provocative, what with bare midriffs, minis that hardly qualify as skirts and little teeny tank tops.
"There's a feeling of safety while you're in the salon," explains Prive assistant Bilton. "The environment is predominantly gay and female, so you don't have to worry about getting hassled or being made to feel uncomfortable if your outfit shows a bit of body. The atmosphere encourages it actually. Women live vicariously through the way we dress, and they're always telling us how much they love it. It's really nice that way, the freedom."
She gets so comfortable sometimes, however, that it's easy to forget that real-life civilians have a slightly more stringent dress code. "One afternoon, I went right from work to the bank dressed in a Pat Fields bustier, tight skirt and ankle boots, and all of a sudden it's, 'Whoa, I shouldn't be on the street in this!' "