Matt Swinney, 2016 NAHA Hairstylist of the Year, talks through his tattoos, many symbolizing...
Matt Swinney, 2016 NAHA Hairstylist of the Year, talks through his tattoos, many symbolizing nature and transformation. (photo credit: Alison Alhamed)Alison Alhamed

When Matt Swinney was in high school, a promising career in professional football was derailed by an injury, and his dreams of going to Arizona State University took a detour. And though the Minneapolis native has had plenty of jobs ranging from bouncer to server to a palett-deconstructer and a UPS employee, a career in beauty was in his blood.

Swinney is the proud son of two hairdressers who have a combined 84 years in professional beauty as salon owners of a successful “shampoo set/Friday salon” and both served as presidents of pro beauty trade associations.

“I’ve been going to hair shows since I was a little kid,” Swinney says from across the table at a Starbucks in Las Vegas, right before the North American Hairstyling Awards, where Swinney won the evening’s top honor of Hairstylist of the Year. “I don’t care what anyone says; Minnesota pumps out some amazing hairdressers.”

The biggest education, he says, was what he learned in his parents’ salon, setting the hair for the mature clientele who came in for weekly styles.

“When I went to hair school at The Aveda Institute in the ’90s, we were known for texturizing the hell out of hair and tossing lots of pomade in it—I was too cool for ‘shampoo set Fridays.’ But let me tell you something—what you learn from those older ladies in styling hair properly isn’t taught in school. You also learn how to treat people the right way because they won’t put up with any of your ego bullsh*t. Those clients gave me a dose of how to be humble.”


It was this intense training in classic styling that served as Swinney’s inspiration for his 2016 NAHA Hairstylist of the Year collection: five images consisting of a modernized beehive, French twist, waved blowout, ’80s punk style and a mushroom-topped pillow of hair.

As a member of the core L’Anza creative team, Swinney used all L’Anza products to create the finishes. And the models’ hair is all theirs.

“When I submit for categories outside of Avant Garde [Swinney took home the prize in 2013 for this category] I don’t use wigs or faux hair,” he says. “There’s no slam on using faux hair, but I like to look at it as what can I do with the elements I’m given. I want to take what she has and I want to make her look the best she can.”


One day, Swinney discovered an image of Audrey Hepburn where she was sporting her classic beehive, but she had tattoos Photoshopped on her to create full sleeves. After photographing his models, Swinney designed tattoos, and his photographer layered them onto the images.

“I wanted to create these tough-looking women with really soft hairdos,” he says. “This is the woman who will go to the gym and be a hard ass, then she’ll go with girlfriends and laugh, and then out with her husband and be this vixen that’s ready to have a good time. I love how women morph throughout the day. It’s not even a lifetime of morphing, over the day her whole personality changes. I find that to be so fantastic.”


Swinney, too, is covered in ink. Most notable is his right hand, which sports a beautiful butterfly covering the entire surface.

“To me, the butterfly has a very similar lifespan to a human,” he says. “It’s born into a shape and lives its life, then one day there’s an awakening. It could be death, or something spiritual or some sort of connectedness. But at some point in life, we go through the same process of changing shapes and transforming.”


Although technically he’s an only child, Swinney's family hosted 18 different foreign exchange students from all over the globe. It was this experience, he tells me, that helped him get inspired to see the world.

“Now, I can go into any situation in any country and easily get acclimated to different cultures,” Swinney says. “It doesn’t matter where I go and what I do; I never feel out of place or have awkward moments with people in other parts of the world—I really respect different cultures.”

As an educator, Swinney travels the globe teaching techniques in color, cut and styling. Twelve years ago, he was L’Anza CEO David Berglass’ second hire for the education team, and he’s been with the brand ever since.

“As a brand, we’re growing,” Swinney says. “When I joined, we were infants, essentially. And the one thing I’ve noticed with David—because that’s what it boils down to essentially is the guy who makes the decisions—he is continually open to change. I am a firm believer that you have to be willing to change even if things are going really well. You can’t just get into the mold; you have to be willing to evolve, make mistakes and learn from your mistakes.

"I’m not the best social media person. I don’t self-promote; I just love what I do, and I found a place that allows me to be myself.”

MATT 2.0

As for his parents?

“They’re bragging about me all the time,” Swinney says with a grin. “My dad works for me now doing hair three days a week. I started my career with him, and he wants to end it with me. He’s 76 and still cutting hair. That’s his hobby. And all the little old ladies are back!”

Evolution, Swinney’s salon he co-owns with two friends, is a very urban space with 16-foot ceilings and gigantic prints of musicians as artwork.

“It’s so funny to see the little old ladies looking up at the photos of naked Madonna, getting their hair done with rap music playing in the background,” Swinney says.

Father to two boys (Bastian, 13, and Meyer, 9) and husband to Heidi (whom he’s been with since he was 18), Swinney, just like his own dad, is all about longevity—perhaps it’s in his blood, but it’s also because he’s fiercely loyal to his team.

“We’re a family at L’Anza,” he says. “They all inspire me to be better. There’s zero competition within our culture with each other. One mind thinks less than 10 minds, and we want the best for each other. Ammon Carver, Leah Freeman and I continually talk about how we need to continue to support each other. The stronger the three of us are together, the stronger we’ll be for the brand. That’s one of the reasons why people are attracted to us as a brand right now.”


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