Hair salons offer a nick of nostalgia and a lot of pampering

Salons move away from the unisex shops of the 1990s to cater to men or women – with everything from steamed towels to flat-screen TVs.

The scent of hair spray hangs heavy in the air as Doug Fitzsimmons settles in a barber chair holding a remote control in one hand and a cold beverage in the other. He is getting the "deluxe" haircut at Major League Trim, a year-and-a-half old salon in trendy West Los Angeles.

The attention is, indeed, deluxe. Every chair has its own cable TV. For the next 40 minutes, Mr. Fitzsimmons will surf through more than 100 channels. He will receive a hearty scalp massage infused with tea tree oil, while enjoying a drink in an environment that resembles a sports arena. The cost: $40.

"This is my guy place," says Fitzsimmons, an advertising executive. "I used to get my haircut at my wife's salon, and it felt kind of emasculating. But I always remembered going to the barbershop with my dad, and it was a guy place geared toward helping you relax."

Welcome to the new world of haircuts. For years, the trend was toward unisex salons, places where men and women trouped to get a cleave or weave. Some were chichi, others catered to the Head and Shoulders set.

Now, however, there's a shift back to salons and shops aimed specifically at men or women, evoking the 1950s when bouffant hairdos and straight razor shaves were strictly the domain of beauty parlors and barbershops. Yet today's single-sex salons also often offer amenities – flat-screen TVs, steamed towels, massages, bottled water – that make them feel as much like a country club or spa as a place to get a trim.

"We're seeing ... more barbershops and hair salons that are making men feel like men and women feel like women," says Alfred Osbourne, an associate dean at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Hair salons are more than just a place to get your haircut. It's about the experience."

• • •

Nowhere is the new coiffure culture more pronounced than in southern California, the nation's unofficial capital of pate grooming, where every kind of trendy do, gel, and scissor-snipping technique can be found.

Take Major League Trim in Los Angeles, for instance. When Rob Reed opened the salon, he wanted it to be exclusively for men. "You won't find Oprah on the TV here," says Mr. Reed, standing beside a coffee table with stacks of magazines, including ESPN, Spin, Sports Illustrated, and Men's Health. "This is the new hip. We are customizing the experience for our male customers."

In other cases, shops are still catering to both men and women – but in consciously distinct ways. At Salon Pop & Barber Shop in Long Beach, pink pastels and hair curlers surround one station, while transparent blue Barbicide jars flank Pinaud Clubman talc at another one.

Before the store opened in January, Nicole Welke, co-owner and manicurist, says she and her partners were tired of the fast food, hair-flinging feel of the major salon chains that began proliferating in the 1980s.

"We wanted a salon that helped our clients express their own personalities," says Ms. Welke, who cuts cuticles and paints nails from the pedestal of a wooden throne awash in gold. "We didn't want a clinical environment, nor a place that made customers feel like they had to be rich to get their haircut here."

But it's not only haircuts that Salon Pop offers. Its services include straight razor shaves and hot lather, makeup, body treatments, and even back facials (defined as "an effective treatment to cleanse and clear problem areas on the back and shoulders," according to the salon's website).

Professor Osbourne says many hair salons are beginning to resemble spas as a result of the sales potential of facial wash, in addition to bottles of shampoo and other products. "The consumer is being sold on the idea of total wellness," says Osbourne, noting that hair products alone account for $100 billion in sales a year.

Yet, even though men make up more than 30 percent of spa goers in the US, barbershops have to be careful not to go too froufrou and risk alienating their male clientele. For example, before Billy Burks breaks out the clippers and steamed towels at Salon Pop, he offers his clients a glass of beer, wine, soda, or chilled water. It's a simple touch that clients "really dig," he says.

Dave DuPre travels 30 miles from Orange County to sip Chardonnay and receive the steamed-towel treatment at Salon Pop. The punk rock guitar player says he doesn't mind spending a little more gas money to sit in an environment that oozes cool. "I'm a creative person, and I like getting my haircut in a creative setting," says Mr. DuPre, consulting with Mr. Burks about what kind of hair gel would provide more "lift than volume."

About 30 miles up the coast at the nautically-themed Old Glory Barbershop in Venice, Calif., owner Sarah Stanton is preparing to open the store. She's wiping down a row of barber chairs from the early 20th century, buffing their candy-apple red upholstery.

Ms. Stanton says her vision of Old Glory is to combine the charm of a period barbershop with modern services. From beard trimming to full color treatments, Old Glory's pricing starts at $5 and goes up to more than $100.

"A lot of hair salons may offer similar services, but customers are sick of conforming to a Fantastic Sam's or Supercuts mentality," says Stanton, who opened Old Glory about four years ago. "Customers also want to be able to buy products that they're not going to see everywhere else."

That's why Stanton stocks her shelves with Black & White Hairdressing, the same pomade that Elvis used to stiffen and scent his pompadour. Old Glory also offers its customers Jamaican drinks.

• • •

Stanton's barbershop evokes something else customers are looking for, too: a whiff of the past. Many people pine for the era of TV trays and Brylcreem. They see the salon as a community hearth – a place to congregate.

"There's a huge cultural stereotype associated with the 1950s and 1960s, and people are attracted to nostalgic things," says Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "The era is comforting for some. It can also evoke a sense of romanticism. Barbershops and beauty parlors were places where people gathered during that era. They created a sense of community."

Linda Husjord is well aware of the fascination with earlier times. Five years ago, she opened a 1950s style beauty parlor for "girlie girls and greasy guys" in Burbank, Calif. Everything is pink at Frenchy's with the exception of Ms. Husjord's Chihuahua, named Chalupa, who sits quietly at the front of the store.

Husjord, who studied psychology in college, doesn't cut hair herself. "I'm here to manage, and that's what I like to do," she says. The salon's pink cottage cheese ceiling is filled with gold sparkles, and black-and-white headshots of Jean Harlow, Lucille Ball, and Myrna Loy adorn the walls.

Frenchy's offers haircuts and spa services designated for men and women, "and we do have a fair number of male customers," says Husjord. Still, about 40 percent of her customers are "soccer moms." "People come here to escape from their daily lives and enjoy the creative environment," she says.

In other cases, shops don't need gimmicks to create a wistfulness for yesterday. They are yesterday. Richard Carrillo, a former paratrooper, has been cutting men's hair for more than three decades. He runs a two-chair shop called Sir Richard's Barber Shop on a quiet street a block south of a veteran's health center in West Los Angeles.

"I don't offer nothing fancy," says Mr. Carrillo, a mound of gray beard trimmings collecting at the base of his chair. "Just good conversation."

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