Why your Fantasy Hair costs so much
For years, it has slowly come to my attention exactly how much I've been undercharging which is a common problem with fantasy hair artists. There are several major factors contributing to the cost of fantasy hair services: the time it takes, the experience of the cosmetologist, the expense of quality chemicals, and the hair you're working with, the canvas (as it were) for the art that is fantasy hair.
I want to talk about this multi-layered problem, the dilemma facing fantasy hair artists in general and those specifically in Austin.
Part 1 : The part that applies to all fantasy hair artists
In general, it's difficult for any visual artist to know what they're worth, which is one of the reasons I felt okay about trading art school for beauty school - in the latter, you at least have ballpark idea what you were worth upon graduation AND there is more demand for your art. But fantasy hair is complex and, as such, is far closer to visual art than to a flat-priced service like a haircut. Haircuts vary in price due to factors like tools used or hair length or whether a shampoo and style is included. In the landscape of fantasy hair, however, the sky is the limit! You can get a single fantasy color allover, a multi-hued wave design, tiny rainbows on every single strand or a pixelated hair design that reveals a pikachu when you comb it a certain way. (This exists!)
Throughout my career, I've struggled with finding a consistent pricing structure. At my last salon, the owner would often point out that I was undercharging, but it was something I found difficult to recognize for myself given our price structure and internal, non-competitive pricing conventions. Now that I'm running the business myself and in charge of my own pricing, I’ve been able to see how vastly I was underpaid. I desperately needed to develop a fair and consistent pricing structure - one that could accurately reflect the cost that goes into each individual fantasy hair creation...
Good fantasy hair is demanding, a single sitting fantasy hair service takes double, triple, quadruple processes, unlike say the single process of dying your hair black. The processes multiply both the time and the amount of chemicals needed compared to your standard, single process permanent color. Like any quality ingredient, good hair chemicals are expensive to begin (sidebar: a LOT of corporate research has gone into pushing the limits while maintaining the integrity of your hair, see Olaplex, and stay tuned for a future blog on that very subject shortly). On top of this, many of the best canvases for fantasy hair are people with lots of thick hair. Much of the time, I’m using 10 ounces of bleach or more on a person before we get to the fun fantasy color part. One head could easily take 20 ounces of lightener/color. To put this in perspective, fantasy color tubes come in 3 ounce tubes, which means I can easily need 4 tubes for one person’s head - the overhead cost adds up very quickly.
I adore doing complex color layouts, but the more complex, the more time it takes to create. An allover color melt of 3 colors can easily take 4-5 hours, more if you need color correction underneath that. What many people don't realize is that expecting all of that to be done in a single sitting is expecting A LOT. I’ve had experience with these kinds of single session hair transformations, while maintaining hair integrity, for 20 years now. I generally know what’s possible in a day and what is going to fry your hair. And when no one else can do it, I probably can. That's why I have earned the title of Hair Wizard. I enjoy doing single day transformations but the majority of people who want fantasy hair don’t understand the true expense (in money or time) and in many cases can’t afford what a one day transformation should cost ... and that's where my sympathy used overpower my need to make a living and I'd undercharge.
This became scary to me personally because of some real life issues I had to face over the past few years. I found myself suffering from severe neck and back problems because of the physical strain of my job, but I din’t have the resources to afford a chiropractor. The vulnerability I was facing forced a long-needed decision to update my pricing structure. After consulting with other artists, I chose to start pricing by the hour - as a colleague advised me, it's the only way to make the pricing totally transparent and fair. Pricing hourly allows people to choose up front how much they want to do (and pay for) at once. This opens up options particularly in situations when people have requested a complex service then told me they cannot afford the quoted price. If you cannot afford the entire transformation in one day, an easy solution is to break it up into multiple appointments a week or two apart. If you're planning it for going out of town, then book your hair appointments as far in advance as your plan your plane tickets so that there's not this sudden panic to get your rainbow hair done in one day. Charging hourly allows both me and clients to choose how many hours of my effort they want to spend on their hair. While planning ahead may not be the most exciting thing in the world, it is MUCH better than attempting to do it yourself and messing it up. Or, worse, going somewhere you think is going to be cheaper, having them mess up your hair, and then paying more to have an experienced artist like myself fix the color and correct hair damage. Beautiful fantasy hair like is like every other luxury good or service - you get what you pay for.
Would you sit down for a meal at Uchi without having the money to pay for it?
Would you spend a whole day picking out a Porsche and then be shocked by the sticker price?
Would you order a craft cocktail and expect it to cost the same as a can of Lone Star beer?
What I do is the craft cocktail of hair. I use top shelf ingredients, I take the time to do it properly, and the result is going to taste better than what you could achieve at home.
Part 2: the part that applies specifically to Austin, Texas
Here I’m specifically addressing the “ATX Demographic” -
What do you really want from your hairdresser? There are a few reasons why I’ve had many people migrate to me and stay for years. Skills aside, I don’t push products, and I don’t trick you into living a higher maintenance hair lifestyle than the one you want to live. In fact, I’m more likely to tell you you’re washing your hair too much, and if I do recommend a product, it’s because the integrity of your hair needs it, like medicine. Like I’m a doctor, your hair is sick and here’s the prescription if you want it to stop breaking off. You don’t even have to get the medicine from me, I just want you to get better.
But throughout my entire beauty school and career, I've always heard the same thing, "HALF of your income comes from selling retail products!"
Uh, no. No one here wants to use products in their hair every day. My haircuts last a really long time because I have to structurally engineer a magical way to get your hair to "do that thing" with zero products and styling, as per the request of my clients.
The reason why?
THE CLIMATE. We have nine months of 100 degree summer days with high humidity swamp weather. Its literally too fucking hot to bother. No one wants to wear a bunch of pomade or mousse in their hair because after 5 minutes of walking outside it will be dripping down their face. Or, you’re swimming all the time anyway.
Another reason is TIME. 99% of my clients would rather sleep in for an hour than style their hair in the morning. I'm not complaining, because I'm from here and I GEDDIT, because all of the above applies to me, too!
I love being able to put a lot of products and effort into my hair when I feel inspired or for a special event, but I don’t have the time or energy to do it every day. And if I did do it every day, I’d have to wash my hair that often, which I passionately preach against as it overly dries out your scalp. And if I, a professional hairdresser, don’t have the time or inclination to do all of that every day of the week, I know that the vast majority of you are not going to either.
I always say that fantasy hair is “passive effort” in your hairstyle. People can roll out of bed and get compliments on their disheveled hairstyle when they have fantasy hair, which (while not impossible) is less likely to happen with their natural haircolor. Since fantasy hair is a high dollar ticket item, it’s unrealistic to expect these same people to spend $100 more on products and 2 hours of styling their hair every morning. It would be cool, but it’s not the climate we live in.
So, here are the products I can retail in Austin: shamp/cond, curl creams, dry shampoo, deep conditioners, heat protection, color/toning assistants (like purple shampoo or UV protection), various stuff for flyaways (like a water wax or hairspray), various stuff for texture (texture spray or hair powder).
Now, given the MASSIVE amount of stuff available in our industry, that's an incredibly short list. I know Freakflag has a limited selection of retail right now, but even if I was fully stocked on all those things, I might sell one or two products a week if I'm lucky.
My point being.... In Austin, with my specific demographic, retail does not realistically supplement my income.
You want your hair to be healthy enough to have pastel hair and still look good with minimal products?
You want your haircut to be structurally engineered so that you can sleep in another hour?
You want a hairdresser that doesn't give you a product sales pitch at the end of every appointment?
All of that means my prices have to make up for the lack of product pushing I'm doing.
Part 3: The revolutionary part
Let's talk about tipping!
One time I lightly complained about an occasion where people didn't tip for a $200 service, I don't normally complain about people but I wanted to use my frustration as an opportunity for advice from other service professionals. I found the best advice from an unusual source - legendary producer Tony Visconti, who chimed in with his two cents on the subject:
"Only Americans have to have this anxiety about tipping. Everywhere else in the world service people earn a living wage."
Very true, I've known this for a long time since I was married to a Brit in my early 20s. But this little reminder inspired a revolutionary moment of epiphany - I realized I was my own oppressor, but I can also be my own savior.
Thus, I restructured my pricing to include 15%-18% gratuity on services. (I rounded down from 20% for nice even numbers.) There is still a tipping prompt at the signature stage of Square checkout, but the percentages are 5%, 10%, and 15% so that you can tip additionally if you deem me worthy, or you can walk away without doing any math at all and still know you contributed to my service. Math-free, guilt-free.
I’ve had this structure for about a year now and it is so much easier!
The concept of the single serving size mini salon was already revolutionary to begin with. It minimizes drama, provides a private experience, and allows a much more customized environment that is perfect for specialized artists like myself. I hope this tip-included idea catches on amongst my fellow independent contractor cosmetologists and maybe someday we can change the outdated concept behind tipping in the service industry as a whole.
Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of the secret world of fantasy color and fantasy hair artists.