Expert Advice

Be a Red-Hot Colorist

Victoria Wurdinger | July 10, 2011 | 6:18 PM

Be a Red-Hot ColoristBe a Red-Hot Colorist

(Hair by Klaus Peter Ochs and the KPO Artistic Team; photography by Alex Zajaczek; make-up by Gudrun Muller.)



Whether your goal is to be color-famous in your hood or across the globe, the battle royale for bragging rights starts with skills excellence. That means being grounded in chemistry and theory, proficient at formulating for both level and tone, and skillful in your application.

The Hook

To muscle-up education, start with a realistic skills assessment. Establish specific criteria for colorists and amp-up education. Don’t think mannequin work is too elementary; a doll’s head is the best place to make a mistake. Put “color specialist” after your name or in your ad before you’re ready, warn experts, and you hurt an entire industry while demolishing your own business.

Jay Dupree, owner of Dupree’s Salon and Day Spa, The Color Specialist, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, agrees. He bought an established salon with a small spa 10 years ago. He knew he wanted a color focus, so he took every color class he could and then trained his staff.

“It took about two years from the time I bought the salon to the time we got a strong color reputation,” says Dupree. “Classes are one thing, but experience is another.”

Dupree knew he’d arrived when nearly 90 percent of new referrals came in for hair color.

Opinions split regarding departmentalization. Some say color and design are too big for one person; others say doing both is possible and practical. Susan Curtis, ABCH and co-owner of Susan Alan Salon 2000 in Northridge, California, employs four certified colorists but still does cuts herself.

“Ten years ago I tried to get out of cutting but my clients wouldn’t go for it,” says Curtis. “You limit yourself if you just do color.”

The more common approach is to employ both specialists and generalists or “color stylists,” says Shelley Manning, a Goldwell educator who with her husband co-owns Imagine in Encinitas, California.

“If you only do color, you have to be the best,” she says. “By specializing in corrective color, I get referrals from other salons in the area. It’s great, but it’s not practical for everyone.”

The (Tag) Line

Salons using “color specialist” taglines know certification is a draw. Many manufacturers have added their own color-certification programs, which help drive business to their salons and improve colorists’ success rates.

In St. Louis, Missouri, Marie Harrison, owner of Salon St. Louis, says getting known for color was an evolution that relied on ongoing education for the entire staff. She’s not departmentalized.

“To go beyond the norm and offer clients options, we added ‘Herringbone Color’ and the ‘Z-Weave’ to our menu,” says Harrison. “Referrals, which come from consistent salon work, are huge; we’re now becoming certified.”

Even media darling Don Stacy, owner of D.S. Parada Color Café in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that in the future, certification will be super-valuable. “Color is a billion dollar industry, and the majority of professionals do color,” notes Stacy. “Any way you can make yourself stand out will be important.”

The Sinker

Dupree says education brought him word-of-mouth clients, which was all it took to become the place for color. But with so many salons aiming to be rainbow-central, is this all it’ll take in the future?

Don Stacy’s road to fame is a state-of-the-art example of a success slam-dunk. As a media-savvy editorial stylist in South Beach, Stacy had learned about photographic lighting before moving to Raleigh and opening his salon. Using his on-set know-how, he created three primary color rooms, fashioned for the colorist’s eye.

“Our room for brunettes is yellow, the one for blondes is soft blue and the one for redheads is soft pink,” explains Stacy. “By using full-spectrum lighting and accounting for reflections off the wall, colorists in the red room can control the color, so they don’t get overly hot copper or too-cool burgundy. It was this concept more than my magazine connections that got publicity.”

Stacy says his color-focused website not only lured the media; it attracted top-notch colorists who were relocating to booming Raleigh. Now, he has two locations plus an advanced hair color school, and his salons have gotten ink in every magazine from Allure to Elle. He’s also appeared on CNN, Regis and Kelly and Ambush Makeover.

“If you want to be known for color, stay focused on your philosophy and do photo shoots,” he advises. “Send the media your best work with an original idea. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

Showing off your skills at community events and fashion shows gets you local notice; cultivating media relationships brings national attention. Harrison says becoming proactive with the local press and doing high-impact color makeovers helped secure her reputation. 

“Editors are very open to new makeover ideas that involve color,” she says. “Inviting people who are highly visible in the community to be color models is another good idea.”

Like Stacy, Curtis says her website was instrumental to growing her business. Focusing on “excellence in hair color and design,” she uses the tagline on her website and all printed material.

“To be known for color, you need a defined vision, and everything you do has to support it,” she says.

She has another weapon in her arsenal for future-proofing her salon. While she’s built her business on the promise of healthy hair color, she’s never given cutting and design the short shrift. Expanding on the idea that certification counts, she got four of her staffers certified in Japanese thermal straightening. This gives her employees both a specialty and a range—they do it all, but also offer specific expertise.

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