Cork's hairdressers on reopening: ready for the tress test

For three months, we’ve camouflaged our roots, given ourselves headaches with hair-bands, tried to coax unkempt locks into some semblance of style – and missed our hairdressers more than we ever expected. Helen O’Callaghan talks to salon-owners about how they, and their clients, fared during lockdown and about the relief – and challenges – of finally opening their doors again.
Cork's hairdressers on reopening: ready for the tress test

Val Finnegan Cahill at her Ikon hairdressers on Marlboro Street, Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan
Val Finnegan Cahill at her Ikon hairdressers on Marlboro Street, Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

As hairdressing salons throw open their doors today after a 15-week lockdown, there’ll be some whose shutters will stay down.

In one week alone in early June, Danielle Kennedy, incoming president of the Irish Hairdressers Federation, heard of five that won’t re-open. But she reckons most will.

“It’d be like closing two weeks before Christmas – you’d be closing at a very busy time. Six to eight weeks down the line is when we’ll get a proper indication of how the sector has been affected – some may decide it’s just not workable.”

In the catalogue of what we missed most during lockdown, hairdressers near top the list. In some countries, says Kennedy, they were regarded as essential and never closed. “In others, they were in the first group to re-open. Outside of Ireland, salons were closed on average six to eight weeks. We were far in excess of that.”

Amy Shanahan of Cork-based Amy Michelle Hairdressing got no day off during lockdown. “There wasn’t a day went by that I didn’t get 10 calls or messages.” If a client had an emergency – e.g. DIY colour gone wrong – “they’d message me from all directions – phone/email/Facebook – ‘til they got a response”.

A hairdresser for 19 years and salon-owner for four, Amy has been doing webinars on hygiene and how to run a business efficiently – with extra costs now – while still making a profit. She posted how-to video tutorials on social media on anything from blow-drying curly hair to disguising roots. “For anyone with stress-induced dry scalp or hair loss, I advised on products.”

Colour was clients’ biggest concern. “Most didn’t mind about cut, but colour was big, whether they were blonde, dark or grey. I was adamant they shouldn’t colour hair themselves. But when we were told [in earlier roadmap] we wouldn’t re-open until July, I had to give in, and tell clients go for it if they wanted, but I made sure everyone did their patch test [to flag allergies].”

Amy Shanahan, of Amy Michelle Hairdressing.
Amy Shanahan, of Amy Michelle Hairdressing.

Amy got SOS calls – one person used a blonde box colour and went lime green. She expects 60% of post-lockdown hairdressing to be damage control. “Mainly colour correction – people who’ve coloured at home and not got it right, or those who didn’t colour and have four months of roots.” Her “nightmare” is ruined condition. “If they’ve bleached at home, there’s not a lot you can do until the condition comes back, which could take a few months or up to a year.”

Valerie Finnegan Cahill of Ikon Hair was just about to re-locate to her new salon on Cork’s Marlboro Street when lockdown happened. Valerie – a salon-owner since 1997 – and her nine-member staff got active on social media, giving advice, suggesting style alternatives and explaining why box dye wasn’t the way to go. “Our stylist, Maria, did a series of tutorials, all easy tips, like how to do a beach wave in your hair or a messy topknot.” Staff checked in on any clients not on social media, calling them on their house phone.

“Roots and fringes were big,” says Valerie, who got messages from women who’d had highlights, coloured their dark-showing roots and turned them orange. “I got panicked calls, even from non-clients, asking ‘please help’. But there’s no quick fix – that has to be professionally corrected,” she says, adding that another common problem – blondes going brassy – is easily fixed: violet shampoo neutralises brassiness. Some people had disasters with fringes. “Cutting a fringe is all about balance, structure of the face. If you do it yourself, one side will be longer than the other, you try to fix it and on it goes – a road to disaster.”

For Valerie, a lovely lockdown moment was running into a client who said: ‘we’re wearing our roots like a badge of honour – we’re holding out for you’. She’s so grateful for that, but also understands someone “getting fed up looking at their hair and just throwing something in”. She imagines some will feel they can’t face their hairdresser after a bad DIY job. “We won’t judge you. We’ll fix it.”

During lockdown, Valerie completed five two-hour health and safety webinars and each of her team has done four hours training. She has a wait list and will open 13 hours a day, six days weekly, with staff divided in two teams. “If someone on one team gets sick and they have to go into isolation, the other team can carry on.” What the future holds is anyone’s guess. “It’s hard to quantify the expense that’s going to be on top of us all now. It’s endless. None of us knows what we’re going into.”

Val Finnegan Cahill at her Ikon hairdressers on Marlboro Street, Cork
Val Finnegan Cahill at her Ikon hairdressers on Marlboro Street, Cork

For Amy too, the biggest challenge is will the salon survive. “Due to social distancing, we’ll only be doing half the clients we normally would. The biggest challenge is can we make enough to pay bills and staff. We won’t know until we get in.”

Danielle Kennedy says hairdressers are under pressure to gain consumer confidence, but points out salons are already very sanitary environments. “They need to take sanitising measures up a notch now to adhere to Government safety protocols.”

She sees cash-flow as the toughest issue. “Lockdown happened on back of a tough few years – VAT increases, and last year trainee wage rates were abolished. Many salons had to take a huge financial hit on training juniors. They’d been hoping things would level out this year,” she says, adding that lockdown came hot on the heels of January/February, traditionally salons’ quietest time.

As to why we’ve missed our hairdressers so much, Kennedy puts her finger on it. “There are huge mental health benefits to having your hair done. Many people associate looking good with feeling good. And salons are positive environments – people rely on that bit of positivity in their life.”

Even hairdressers are pleasantly surprised at how essential they’ve proven to be in clients’ lives. “I can’t believe the world is screaming for us to be back. Who’d have thought it?” asks Valerie.

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