Los Angeles salons note a client downturn

COLOR COORDINATORS: Beckielou Brown, left, and Nadia El Kholti Pettigreen pick out nail polish at Larchmont Beauty Center.
COLOR COORDINATORS: Beckielou Brown, left, and Nadia El Kholti Pettigreen pick out nail polish at Larchmont Beauty Center.
(Irfan Khan/ Los Angeles Times)

“The weave is gone. Forget about it,” says Rebecca Opong, as she leans on the counter of African Image Beauty Supply & Salon on Western Avenue. She sighs. “The economy is bad. Now, they all want half-wigs.”

On this recent Saturday afternoon, the chairs in the corner hair salon of Opong’s shop are empty, but a steady flow of customers slip in and head for a wall of Black Pearl and Magic Touch synthetic wigs and ponytails that run from $9.99 to $23.99. (A weave -- a process in which human or synthetic tresses are woven into natural hair -- usually costs upward of $200 and lasts about three months.) A teenage girl wearing a Fendi scarf on her head browses wigs with her mom. Both closely compare price tags. “See?” Opong says. “She’s not getting a weave anymore.”

Costly weaves aren’t the only beauty fixes on the endangered treatments list in this bedraggled economy. Women who pruned and primped their appearances as precisely as orchid growers are suddenly overlooking their overgrowth. Bikini waxes? Ha. Weekly mani-pedis? The latest do-it-yourself hobby. Even hair maintenance -- that crowning glory of all grooming indulgences -- has been carefully scrutinized for a trim. The estimated $60-billion beauty industry, which includes spas and salons, may be due for a rude awakening and a few dark circles.

Indeed, former fiends for beauty upkeep are becoming self-reliant as more women eschew pricey services for at-home treatments and look for ways to extend the time between visits to the pros.

“I just went and bought this avocado hair conditioner so I don’t have to go to the salon twice a month,” says Melba Johnson, a 50-year-old yoga teacher and model, who now spends $200 per month on one visit that includes a texturizing treatment, deep conditioning process and a trim at Yuki Sharoni salon in Beverly Hills. “I also looked at my nails the other day and decided, I have a clipper and a file and I can do this at home. It’s empowering.”

And it’s a cultural shift in a vain city where gray hair and chipped nails have been sniffed at in some circles as signs of an underachiever. The move away from hyper-narcissism can’t be good for Beverly Hills, with its 23 spas and 88 salons clustered in less than six square miles. According to an online U.S. salon industry poll in June by the National Cosmetology Assn., 70% of respondents claimed that business is down. Even at nail spas, where revenue in the U.S. jumped from $5.5 billion in 2007 to $6.4 billion in 2008, industry insiders expect a flat year in 2009. (The average cost for a basic manicure is $19.18, according to Torrance-based Nails magazine.)

Over at H.a.i.r.D.a.y., a popular salon in Koreatown with a parking lot big enough for a USC tailgate party, there’s barely a wait for a $35 trim on a recent Saturday. “We’re always busy,” says owner Angela Kwak, who opened 10 years ago. “This is the first time it’s slow. People who get perms and color every two months are waiting three months now.” Still, she and the salon’s makeup artist Jessica Lee agree that hair is a top priority among their clients. “Nails are not as important,” Lee says. “And we don’t wax.”

Six months ago, many women with high-maintenance routines didn’t blink twice at the $30 cost of an eyelash tint. But nowadays, even among those who can afford it, what was once a ritual is being deemed a costly and unnecessary habit.

“I keep putting off a haircut, and my new Sunday ritual is doing my manicure,” says Rachel Abarbanell, vice president of production at Lynda Obst Productions, who recently gave up her laser hair removal treatments too. “I was being so blasé about how much everything costs.”

The average monthly beauty regimen is tough to tally, and it’s definitely gotten trickier to rationalize. “I can forgo a bikini wax one month and shave, and suddenly, I’m a martyr,” says author Jordan Roter Stodel. “I’d rather get less manicures and pedicures than try it at home though. That would not be safe.”

Devoting even $100 to monthly upkeep may seem like a stretch -- especially with the endless reports of layoffs. And with everyone working longer hours, who has the time to devote three hours at a salon to a single process and a head of highlights? Beauty retailers can relate. In August, upscale salon icon Frédéric Fekkai launched a $30 at-home hair color kit; celebrity colorist Oscar Blandi recently introduced a $23 root touch-up pen. This year’s debut of Nice ‘n Easy Perfect 10, with its odor-free formula that colors hair in 10 minutes, has been a hit too.

Over at Larchmont Beauty Center last Sunday, attorneys and friends Rita Morales Patton and Marcia Osborne were being stoic about stocking up on new cosmetics. Just as women are now “shopping their closets,” the two had browsed their beauty drawers and realized that they didn’t need more lipsticks and eye shadows.

“I already have all that,” says Morales Patton, who did succumb to a weakness for a $24 Nars glitter eyeliner. “Now, I just buy the basics like foundation that I use every day. I only replenish.”

The women agree that hair tops their lists of beauty priorities, but both have recently scaled back on their appointments. Morales Patton now colors her long raven tresses at home in between salon visits; Osborne no longer gets her chic bob styled weekly. The mere mention of bikini waxes makes both women cackle.

“Now, I am saving those treatments like getting my nails done for special occasions instead of thinking of them as regular maintenance,” says Osborne, as she eyes a display of nail polishes. “We’re going to the inauguration, so I am going to get a manicure and pedicure for that.”

She smiles and winces suddenly. “Oh, and my hair too.”