Everyone knows drinking and dancing frizzes your hair. So at select Manhattan bars, women will soon have access to pay-per-minute straightening irons. For the price of a martini, hard-partying scenesters can look like Winnie Cooper even when they feel like Courtney Love. Placing white-hot tongs in crowded, darkened bathrooms may seem like a recipe for seared earlobes, yet women have gone gaga for the items. Eight hundred wall-mounted flatiron vending machines are already operational in British clubs, gyms and malls. And the concept recently snapped up an international design award for “best grooming gear 2007,” by style bible Wallpaper* magazine.
It’s the latest chapter in the decade-old hair-straightening boom, now a multi-million-dollar industry. “If your hair is off, no matter how expensive the cut of your clothes, you will look like a pig in a nice suit,” says Samantha von Sperling, owner of Polished Social Image Consultants, a service catering to executive-class New Yorkers. She expects the flatiron vending machines will be a hit stateside. “After an hour of heavy dancing, hair that looked fabulous a few hours earlier may have gone from wavy to frizzy or just plain soaking wet.” In the U.K., the Straight Up machine costs 1[pounds sterling] for 90 seconds–just pricey enough, say its creators, Beautiful Vending, to deter one from hogging the tongs.
Oddly, the concept was thought up by two men, event marketers Neil Mackay and Richard Starrett, both 32. The pair met as business students at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. Between lectures, they ran a side business planning madcap student parties. They saw enormous potential for personal grooming in clubs and bars, and installed their first flatiron vending machine in the U.K. in April 2005.
Few could have expected the straight-hair look a la Friends to be so long-lived. But it remains fashionable from the catwalk to the boardroom. In current print ads, major design houses Fendi, Hermes, Prada and Versace feature rod-straight manes. Fashion editors are calling for straight hair through next fall and winter. And every morning, in bathrooms across the nation, women arm themselves with relaxing conditioners, anti-curl creams, serums, waxes, sprays, mousses, gels, blow-dryers, paddle brushes and flat irons of all shapes and temperatures, to achieve the smooth look nature never intended.
Rather than lose 45 minutes of sleep to wage that morning war, some are opting for Japanese straightening–named for the method, which originated in Tokyo, not the result. Something like a reverse perm, the hair-relaxing treatment gives women wash-and-go, spaghetti-straight hair that lasts over six months. It’s a tortuous process. After a deep-cleansing shampoo, a relaxant that smells like Drano is applied to release the hair bonds. The hair is rinsed, blow-dried, sectioned, wrapped in foil and straightened, piece by an eighth-of-an-inch piece. A neutralizing agent is applied, then conditioner. Then the hair is re-dried, re-sectioned and re-ironed.
In Vancouver, the Cadillac version of the treatment can be found at Moods Hair Salon in upscale Yaletown, the former meatpacking district now populated with SoHo-style lofts and boutiques. The salon fills up months in advance, and charges $350 and up for the half-day-long process plus extensive pre-appointment screening. A budget version is offered at Red Hill Salon, a Chinese-staffed hairdresser in a strip mall near the airport, where a consultation lasts 15 seconds and involves a ruler. My 16 inches are priced at $180; a same-day appointment is negotiated on the spot.
Moods stylist Kelley Schedewitz describes the shiny, healthy-looking results as miraculous, but L.A. stylist Tina Cassaday, dubbed the “hair doctor,” by client Catherine Zeta-Jones, warns of the hidden costs. Since the Japanese straightening craze hit the Hollywood Hills, the trichologist has seen over a thousand post-treatment clients, some with golf-ball-sized bald patches. “After a second or third treatment,” she says, “there is no moisture left in the hair.” The bonds are blown out; hair feels “straw-like” to the touch.
The promises are bewitching, and sometimes false. But one cannot dismiss the advice of women who have learned from their indifference. “The most important thing I have to say today is, hair matters,” Senator Hillary Clinton told the Yale graduating class in 2001. “Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.” She was only half kidding.