These days, the Kenneth salon is run by Kevin Lee, who looks very out of place among the morning Sterno-buffet-goers at Oscar’s in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, though the salon is just one flight up. Lee is polite and disarmingly modest; clearly, he’s learned from his mentor. The feel remains fusty: all chintz and gilt and milky coffee sipped from white china. He charges only $95 for a cut. “It’s a craft,” he says. “And if you do it a lot, you can get very, very good at it. I’m glad that I make people’s days better, but it’s not like I’ve cured cancer here.”
It’s always hard to get an appointment with Lee, but if you’re trying on, say, the evening of a gala at the Frick, it’s near impossible. “I’ve been to a lot of people,” says Tory Burch, “but Kevin is as nice as it gets. I see him outside of work. He’s a friend.” Lee is the favorite hairdresser of 10021, and his close friendship with Michael Kors doesn’t hurt. Because not only does your hairstylist have to make you look great; the ideal hairstylist is also the perfect addition to your dinner party. If there’s anyone who knows how to work a social life to his advantage, it’s Frédéric Fekkai. “Look,” says Fekkai. We’re sitting at a raw-wood table in his new corporate headquarters overlooking Union Square. On the wall behind him are shelves and shelves of his products: pale-yellow conditioners, creamy peach shampoos. “A lot of people do a good haircut. You can’t just talk about hair.” With his olive skin, blinding Chiclet teeth, gleaming swoops of thick brown hair, his five-story salon above the Chanel store (his brand is a joint venture with Chanel) on 57th Street, his outposts in Los Angeles and Palm Beach, Fekkai, or at least the Fekkai method, touches more heads than any other high-end salon. “It’s not a salon,” he says. “It’s a brand.”
The Fekkai look is not edgy or rock-and-roll. “You don’t see the seams,” he says, making it the exact opposite of a Hershberger or John Sahag or something from Bumble and Bumble, where jagged edges strive to look undone. A Fekkai client should be able to go to any of his salons and receive a snipping from any of the handsome, flirty, heavily accented men wearing Lacoste shirts he employs and not notice all that much difference. “We start at the center of the head. It’s an orange-peeling technique. You lift hair straight, you cut it in a perpendicular way. There is a consistency, a methodology, a making sense.”
This, perhaps, is why other hairdressers waste no time in sniping about Fekkai’s skills. “Let me see how to answer that,” one hairdresser says cattily when asked about the Fekkai technique. “I have tremendous respect for Frédéric. As a businessman.”
“I really learned from business people. Hotels, resorts, even Disney,” Fekkai says. “You have to learn hair, so you learn it. But if I do not have a sense of business, I become a mom-and-pop.”
Fekkai sees his mission as making clients feel gorgeous. It’s hard to believe that the stylists in his salon, with their mocking eye contact and spontaneous shoulder rubs, have not been instructed to flirt. “I’m sure he makes them do it,” says another hairstylist of the flirting, “especially if they’re gay.” Fekkai himself has courted many of the rich blondes who’ve trusted their tresses to his care: Patricia Duff, Libbet Johnson. “He’s very nurturing,” Duff says. “It’s like he’s looking out for you in the big picture.” Fekkai cuts hair only a few days a month, and when he does, the price tag is $400, but he’s trained his boys—long-haired men with names like Fabrice and Cedric—well. I’ve never gotten my hair dried at Fekkai without the stylist bending down, so we are chin-to-chin, and puffing out his cheeks as if to say, “Well! Look at us!” “When hairdressers in my salons are successful, they really have a lot of self-esteem and confidence,” Fekkai says. “And they have status. Because being a designer at Frédéric Fekkai is not like being a hairstylist.”
Sometimes this “status” just isn’t enough. In 1997, three of Fekkai’s top stylists decided they didn’t want to cut orange peels anymore. They defected and formed Salon AKS. “After watching someone else for a long time, there are definitely things you would change,” says Susanna Romano, the S in AKS. She nervously eyes her partners. “We didn’t hate working there!” says Alain Pinon quickly. “He’s got a system. We wanted to try something else.”
Such defections are pretty common in the business. It seems that every top salon has its spinoff: For Fekkai, there’s Salon AKS; ex–John Sahagites can be found en masse at Eiji twenty blocks north of their former home. Last year, three stylists from the John Barrett salon formed Butterfly in Chelsea.
Barrett has survived worse. When he took the reins of the salon at Bergdorf Goodman from Fekkai in 1997, he brought with him a dazzling British clientele that included Princess Diana. But a year later, he was hit with a $124 million lawsuit by four male employees complaining of sexual harassment, including the allegation that he had squeezed the receptionist’s nipples so hard it hurt to take a shower.
Bergdorf supported him, he got past it, and Barrett went on to earn an exalted position in the pantheon of hair. “Out of all the salons I’ve been to, John Barrett is the most sceney,” says Plum Sykes. “He always has, like, five Brooke De Ocampos in there at once.” It’s no wonder, then, that Sykes set her first novel, Bergdorf Blondes, in the ninth-floor salon, with its lilac walls and cherry blossoms.
“It’s a hard business,” says Barrett, a tall and affable man from Limerick, Ireland. “People keep moving around. Every year, every salon loses a certain amount of staff. And people get so dedicated that they wind up going five different places: cut, color, manicure, pedicure, eyebrows . . . ”
Barrett’s appeal is one of understatement. “My look is more subtle than overwhelming,” he says. “You’re not coming here to get punked out.”
Serena Bass also likes Barrett’s devotion to a client’s total look. “When I put on too much weight, John told me I wasn’t allowed back in the salon until I’d lost it,” she says. “I’m not as good as Fekkai at the cocktail-party circuit,” Barrett laments. But he definitely knows how to coddle the famous girls. “When I first moved to New York, I absolutely hated it,” says Sophie Dahl. “And I know it sounds rather naff, but once I met John and started getting my hair done at his salon, I felt like everything was going to be all right.”