Set Free - The Book About Hair by Richard Stein

looking great is the best revenge

Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Stein

his book is different from anything else you may have read about taking care of your hair, cutting it, or figuring out the "right style" for you.

This book is about seeing yourself in a new way as a "wearer" of your hair, and it's about my particular methods for making that hair healthier and more beautiful. It also includes recipes for dozens of my natural "remedies." This book is meant to be a guide and a resource. And in the final assessment, it is about a lot more than just hair.

With the right cut and correct information, you should be able to sleep on your hair, run your hands through it, wash it and dry it in no time. It will feel better on your head, you will spend less time and money attending to it, and you will feel more in control.

After all, that's the whole point, isn't it? To be self-reliant?

There are two "philosophical principles" that could be said to reflect my signature way of working with hair; both are central to the decision-making process in my creative partnership with a client:

  1. a commitment to NATURALNESS
  2. a great respect for the concept of BALANCE.

These principles do not separate out neatly; they overlap and are interdependent, as you will see when I talk about them. In fact, they are complementary--in a sense a single perspective on how your hair should feel on your head, how it should be handled, and what it should do in the creation and maintenance of a particular way of seeing yourself. Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Stein

But let me explain more about the Stein way.

Naturalness and balance. You can see why-how--they're related. Hair should both be a vehicle for self-expression and "reveal" its own character. Hair that is hard to handle, or must be fixed constantly or endlessly fussed with, is not doing its job--that is, expressing you and making you more comfortable with yourself. Nothing should interfere with your pleasure in wearing your hair, and if it is "taken care of"--if you feel balanced, pulled together, at ease--there is one less thing to worry about and one more thing that encourages you to get on with the important business in your life.


I've always been dedicated to the belief that natural hair care would enhance natural beauty and keep hair alive longer. My purpose in my work has been to get "nature" back into hair: natural treatment products you can make yourself, natural methods of care and enhancement, natural "styling," and a natural look.

It's important to emphasize right away that the idea of natural treatment products you can make at home-where you can control quality and freshness--is very close in concept to the idea of a natural look. In both cases I am talking about appreciating and making use of something in its most basic, most self-expressive, most "real" state, whether that something is the conditioner you blend fresh from flower petals and honey, or the hair you are going to learn to accept for what it is. This is how I came to develop my own shelf-stable products-the Fleuremedy line.

When I first had my own salon and was in a position to do--and use--things I really believed in, I began to explore the potential of hair care products that were as close to natural as possible. Initially, I spent a good deal of time raiding the health food stores. Their products were--for the most part--acceptable, but it made intuitive sense to me that whatever I could make fresh would be even better: after all, if you make something yourself, you have absolute control over what goes into it. And you have absolute control over its freshness.

Perhaps because I was raised in England, I grew up with a profound love for gardening and the cultivation of flowers and herbs. This is probably how I first became interested in applying my knowledge of herbs and flowers to hair care.

But you will see how this works later, in the sections of this book that teach you how to take care of your hair....

I see hair simply as another substance to be worked with--and understood--much the way fabric, or stone, or even raked gravel of a Zen garden is worked with. Trying to understand hair this way, I work with it much as I would arrange flowers. The right balance can free my client and make her aware of all the positive and unique qualities her hair possesses.


A good haircut-the right haircut for you-will not only be balanced in the way it looks and feels on your head, it will "balance" your whole presentation of yourself. It has to do with the experience you will have of your own hair when it is cut in such a way that every single hair is balanced on your head. The sensation of the head is changed, and you will feel yourself balanced.

Take a cowlick, for example--or what some people think of as a "lump" of hair that never seems to do what you want it to. It can be anywhere on your head, but you are always somehow conscious of it. You may feel that all your life you have had to "deal with" that lump of hair, and it is forever in the back of your mind as an aspect of yourself that somehow "unbalances" you ... and by implication, keeps you from being fully and comfortably yourself. When you are finally "balanced" with just the right cut, it can be a revelation. Something that kept you off balance (literally) has been set right, has been attended to. Balance is beautiful. It's as simple as that.


The phrase most often heard by a hairdresser (not counting "Oh, just do what you want"--which can be a bald-faced lie as well as a veiled challenge) is "Not too short!" or "I only want an inch off." Although every style can benefit from a trim every six weeks or so, the sad fact is that most women get their hair cut too infrequently ... and let it go too long between cuts. Hanging on to all that hair is often a symptom of hiding--usually from yourself.

Getting in touch. Being honest. Sometimes it's hard to do things the easy way. That's where I come in. Because my job is much more than just cutting hair. I try to see the whole person, to help her see herself. I take a very active role in the process of beauty transformation.

The kind of woman who tends to say, "I'm not a good-looking person; I don't have this or that," gets so locked into her insecurities that she can't experiment.


Women often "freeze" their look to reflect a particular time in their lives when they knew they looked great--or thought they looked great--and begin to build their self-image around that one secure moment. There is real danger in this.

You can see when this happens to certain movie stars who stop allowing their looks to evolve naturally and begin to look like older and older versions of their younger selves. Sometimes this qualifies as real style--as understanding who you are and what you want to say about yourself like Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, or Claudette Colbert. More frequently, it comes from "freezing up," from a fear that they are losing what was precious to them about themselves (youth ... beauty). So they freeze. And you can see them years later--decades later--looking like cartoon caricatures of the women they once were.

The most satisfying challenge I can meet is to bring a woman into the present with just the right cut.


Fundamental to a good cut (and any other major styling decision) is the understanding of a client's vulnerabilities and insecurities--that vital need to be reassured. Thus a great deal of sensitivity is required, not only so the "right" decisions about what is to be done with someone's hair will get made, but so that each person I deal with is handled with the utmost gentleness, courtesy, and insight.

So what is about to take place is almost magical: a new hairstyle (like a different makeup, or a face-lift, or a weight loss) hints at an adventure into unexplored dimensions of the image you hold of yourself. There is always the hope, of course, that this "change" will go far beyond a "new look," and that the new look in turn will open up your self-perceptions ... that you will see yourself as you never have before, and that other people will respond to the transformation in a way that will make you more secure, or more accepted, or more loved.

And I am expected to be the agent of this transformation. As my grandma would say, Oy, vey!


A step like this--a commitment to change, and even adventure--can be exhilarating or it can be disastrous. And which one of the two it is depends a great deal on the quality of our "partnership"; it depends on my insight and on your willingness to let yourself be "seen" and then worked with.

I think of one new client in particular.

My immediate impression (the incomplete analysis) on first meeting this woman was that she was overweight and had a curtain of long hair that fell forward over one eye. She was, in fact, a woman in hiding.

But what I saw when I concentrated on her face was ... Garbo. This wasn't idle flattery; it was the structure on which I began to construct my working impressions.

This process of intuiting some likeness can give hope to a woman, so it's a hunch I use fairly often. It also gives a sense of security to someone who is new to working with me. She feels "discovered" because she knows I can "see" her as she might be at her best. You help someone like this make a change when you lend her confidence--right up front--that you care and are making an effort. Why? Because someone who doesn't feel you care is going to have a hard time trusting you. I need to participate in whatever she is feeling--her insecurity, her fear, her hope. I look at the face, I look at the clothes, I read the body language, each tells me a great deal about what kind of person this is--how she feels about herself, how far I can go with my vision. I look everywhere I can for clues and allow myself to feel for some kind of resolution.

This particular woman, for instance, had expensive clothes, beautiful jewelry, an imposing carriage, a lovely face. Her hair was an exquisite natural color, a sort of taupe, but it was so long and shapeless it dragged down everything about her, making her look worn out and virtually obscuring her face. (It turned out she had been cutting it herself--and very little at that, from the look of it--for many years. In all, it was in terrible condition.) She also came dressed entirely in black--a black designer tent-that she presumably thought hid her body. There was a stunning woman there, buried under layers of silk and flesh and hair.

This "uncovering" was a radical change for her ... and a great risk to take. When she saw the first hank of hair go, she told me she was going to faint. I didn't fall for this,. I simply told her in that case she'd better lie down on the salon floor. But what happened in the course of a drastic cut was a revelation. Ten years were lopped off along with the foot of hair, and her new chin-length look took advantage not only of the loveliness of her face, but of her really beautiful hair. Suddenly the person in the mirror was gone, replaced by an embryonic new image, the insecurity by a glimmer of hope.

Now, every time this woman passes a mirror, her reflection reassures her that she is indeed beautiful. There is that constant reinforcement for both herself and me.

This story has a happy ending. The entire transformation, which took some eighteen months, finally included new makeup to complement the hair (it was, after all, the first time in years her face was really seen), an astonishing loss of weight, and a new wardrobe that said "I am a beautiful woman, and I know it." It was wonderful to participate in this incredible metamorphosis.

There is another type of woman who brings me a very different kind of "partnership" potential: she looks the way she thinks she looks already. Let me explain.

This woman has been to one too many hairdressers. She knows what it is about, is ready to "take me on." What she is looking for is reinforcement and acknowledgment that what she has been doing is right, that she is terrific looking. What she is not looking for is a challenge: she will probably insist on giving me instructions all the way through the haircut, because she knows what she wants.

The challenge with someone like this is to help her see more, to learn more, to go beyond where she is. In the larger sense, it is critical to appreciate-as I said-that there is always more. This is what growth is all about.

That inner image--the one that propels you when you get up in the morning and do your makeup and your hair and get dressed, the one that drives you--is very precious. And what I do for the experienced woman-the one with the strong intact image, the fully realized, consonant sense of self-is to fulfill that image for her, to make it manifest...and then to push beyond it. She is allowing me to explore her fantasies on her behalf, then bring reality into line with the fantasy.

It is still the same creative partnership. We just start farther down the road in the matter of transformation.


Building a new self-image--or improving on an old one--is a big challenge and an intimidating step to take, no matter how secure you feel. I have spent enough time with enough people to understand that just because you are powerful, or important, or famous, or wealthy, doesn't mean that when it comes to your appearance you aren't frightened and insecure, overly sensitive, and in need of help and special handling.

A personal style change is especially intimidating when it involves hair: makeup can be wiped off or thrown out; a fashion mistake can be returned, shoved to the back of a closet, or given away. But once you have submitted to the ministrations and vision of a hairdresser, you may find yourself stuck with an error of minor or major proportions. Your hair, after all, must be worn all the time.

In fact, it is my opinion that hair has become the crucial element in the creation of a strong sense of personal style.


Getting your hair attended to is much like the consumption of any service, from car repair to medical attention--the more you involve yourself in the decisions being made, and the better informed you are about what goes into the decision, the better the service you will ultimately get.

First you need to find the right person--a person you can trust with your hair. Then you need to know how to prepare yourself to make the hairdresser's job easier and yourself more comfortable--in short, how to make that partnership a success--by being aware of how to present yourself at the salon, which questions to ask and which directions to give (should any need giving), and what a good cut looks and feels like.

I often think that if you are prepared in these ways, and then trust your instincts and judgment, things can't help but go swimmingly. It is as important to know how to be a good client as it is to be a good stylist.


Unless you live in New York of Los Angeles, it is hard to do research by scanning the fashion or life-style magazines or picking up names from designers' shows. It is not impossible to find "your" hairdresser through these more formal channels, but neither is it particularly easy. Or necessarily efficient.

I think it is much better to trust hairstyling you see on a real live human being. Every day you probably see other people with healthy, shiny hair and a cut you admire. The best way I know of to do research is to start asking every one of these people where they go to have their hair done, and who at the salon actually did it. (You will probably find that a couple of the same names keep turning up.) When you feel you have collected enough names--or have heard the same one often enough--drop by the salon(s) and see how you feel about the ambience and the atmosphere of communication you sense between the people working there and the patrons.

You can find out a great deal this way, so don't skimp on this stage of your research.


Once you've settled on a hairdresser, you will probably feel anxious to get in and get on with it. To avoid any sort of disappointment, however, the absolutely best thing to do--in my opinion--is to arrange for a consultation prior to an actual cut ... or perm ... or change of color.

There is an advantage to arranging for a separate interview before you even make that appointment to have something done to your hair: neither you nor the hairdresser is under any pressure to make an on-the-spot decision about what to do with your hair. You can have a more leisurely discussion about your own needs and goals and really focus on what you would like to have done rather than rush to get on with it; plus you can begin to establish a sense of whether you and a particular stylist are compatible or not.

A prior consultation also gives you the opportunity to show pictures if you have brought them-of a former hairstyle you particularly liked on yourself and would like to work toward if you are growing your hair, for instance, or some examples of hairstyles you like on others. I love seeing any pictures a client has chosen. They are very revealing and can help me understand what she has in mind. It doesn't mean you will end up looking like a specific picture, or that we will even decide to use the picture as a point of reference. It does help me to see what sort of thing appeals to you and gives us a common basis on which to discuss what it is you are looking for in your hair.

Some women, of course, have little sense of the "appropriateness" of particular hairstyles for them--the forty-year-old woman, for instance, who has decided she wants to look like the latest rock-star sensation. As the hairdresser, I have to decide quickly why she sees this look as being right for her or what aspects of it she is particularly drawn to and then decide whether there are ways in which it can be translated or adapted to her.

Sometimes I must say, "Sorry, in my opinion, nothing I see here is going to work for you." But then I can also say, "Tell me what about this you particularly like," so I get some sense of how this woman feels about herself and how I can give her something that will express her.

All in all, it's much easier to be speculative and creative if a drastic change is not imminent, if you are in a position to say that you want to go home and think over a suggestion. It takes the pressure off both stylist and client.

Having a consultation before making an appointment for the actual cut has other advantages. If you do come back, you are going to feel ever-so-slightly more comfortable because it will be the second instead of the first time you and the hairdresser will have met and worked together. You'll have had the opportunity to mull over any suggestions that may have been made. And both of you are surer of yourselves, so the communication during the cut should also go more smoothly, with fewer opportunities for misunderstanding.

If you don't feel comfortable with someone during the consultation, don't go back; this hairdresser isn't right for you, no matter how good (or "chic," or "in") s/he is supposed to be. You must be able to communicate with her or him just as you have to with any other person in your life whom you have hired to work for you.


This testing of communication is your best guarantee of satisfaction. How are you treated? Does s/he seem interested in you and what your life is like? Are you listened to? The quality of the dialogue is critical.

The basic elements of the relationship should work themselves out in the first five or ten minutes of conversation. If you had communication problems with your previous hairdresser, don't be afraid to say so. Doing this establishes that you are not a sheep to be shorn, and that you have a basic right to ask questions about what the stylist intends to do ... and have them answered.

If you have booked an appointment to have something done, and for some reason--once you get there--you don't feel right, for heaven's sake, don't stay then, either. You should never feel pushed: it's your money, your time, your hair. Guilt should not be involved. If you feel guilty for canceling an appointment on the spot, pay the person: sometimes it's cheaper to give someone fifty dollars and not get butchered.

And trust your instincts! Too many women don't, and that's too bad, because women have great instincts and are probably safer following them than not. I believe very much in personal chemistry; if you sense something negative between you, or feel put down or insulted, you must trust those instincts, or you will in all likelihood be doubly sorry: you won't like what's done, and you'll feel like a fool because you knew it all the time.


I find that as I get to know a woman, our sense of understanding and commitment to each other grows...and that is as it should be. It is, after all, a very charged situation; touching someone's head amounts to a sort of "psychic massage." Women especially are extraordinarily responsive to all this touching, and I am convinced it "opens" someone up, emotionally and psychologically--emotionally in that it inclines them to want to "make friends," to feel close to their hairdresser, and psychologically in that they begin to see new possibilities for themselves and are more receptive to their own potential. I truly believe there is something about having your head touched that "releases" you; it may sound strange, but I think it is nearly impossible for a woman not to be open with me when she is in my chair.

A note of caution, however: too many women go to a first session with someone new hoping to establish this rapport immediately. Now, while you should certainly be able to make judgments about a hairdresser's personal receptivity to you within the first few minutes, you cannot expect the kind of warmth and acceptance you will surely have after getting to know him or her. What you can reasonably expect is to be greeted cordially, made comfortable, and asked for your thoughts about your hair and some questions about your life-style (see the question agenda that follows). What you cannot expect is love at first sight.

It may sound wearyingly self-evident to say this, but simple politeness and respect for the hairdresser's experience go a long way toward laying the groundwork for a good, working, mutually supportive relationship.

And don't arrive in a sweatsuit, with your hair unwashed or uncombed. This doesn't help the hairdresser to see anything about you except that you're a mess. (I have insight, but even my imagination has some limits!) Do your hair yourself as best you can. Wear daytime makeup. A new hairdresser is going to take his or her measure of you by what s/he sees at this first meeting and make judgments that may affect how your hair ends up looking.

In short, the hairdresser's immediate impression of you should be how you see yourself at your best.


Part of my job is to make information available to people. Information about hair, about style, about solving or caring for special problems. About their hair and style and problems.

These are the most "basic" questions about hair. Are you growing it in? Are you cutting it off? Are you tired of coloring (either the process or the product of the process)? Have you permed, and do you want to continue?

Here are some of the questions I run through with a new client ... and periodically with people I have been cutting for a time:


How do you see yourself? What is your life like at home, on the job, at play.

  • How do you feel about your hair?
  • Are there any particular hairstyles you are interested in at this time? Have you brought pictures?
  • When have you last really liked your hair? What was its style then? Did you bring pictures?


Changes in your hair:

  • Do you want to continue to color, perm ... ?
  • Would you like to grow your hair longer? Conversely, are you specifically looking for something shorter?
  • Would you like to give me carte blanche? Are you ready for a brand-new look?


Why are you switching hairdressers? How would you like me to be different from your previous one?


How much do you really know about your hair?

  • Do you know what type of hair you have? (You would be surprised how many people have no idea.... I'll talk about this later.)
  • What do you feel are your hair's "weakest" points? (cowlicks? thinning? a damaged patch?)
  • Do you know what color your hair really is? (And are you willing to go two months without coloring to find out?)
  • Are you aware of exactly what your hair does if you just wash it, comb it through, and leave it to dry naturally? (It beats me why so many people are afraid even to try this!)

It's not just that I'm nosy; your life-style is a critical factor to our successful collaboration.


There may be some disagreements. That's life. You should not, however, ever have to tolerate a tantrum from a hairdresser. Although many of us are by nature temperamental, you are the paying customer, and it is you who should have the final say. Set Free - The Book about Hair by Richard Stein

I have heard so many stories about the first cut that is going well--the weather has been discussed, a few anecdotes have been told, some personal history has been exchanged--when you do something as presumptuous as commenting on the course of the cut or perhaps requesting that it not be too short.... Suddenly the communicative Dr. Jekyll becomes a raving Mr. Hyde, hurling his brush at the mirror and screaming at you. My advice in this situation is simply to get up out of the chair (even if you are half-cut or your hair is wet) and explain calmly that you cannot tolerate such behavior, nor can you trust someone so excitable to finish the cut. Dress, and leave without paying the bill.

Of course it takes guts to do this; but the confrontation rarely gets this far. Usually the hairdresser will realize s/he has lost control with the wrong person and will apologize and calm down. It is a hard stand to take--and not a comfortable one for most women, who are much more used to acquiescing because they don't want to cause a scene--but it will do you good. You will also help the hairdresser to put things back in perspective.

While this kind of thing doesn't happen often, if and when it does, you should have your response prepared just in case. Don't allow yourself to be pushed around. The salon is as good a place as any to begin assertiveness training.


Question: So what happens when you finally get the great cut that is going to change your life? Answer: Look over that whole "mix" of your self-presentation with a cold eye. A good place to start is by asking the person who has cut your hair for his or her advice about wardrobe and (especially!) makeup.

Cutting bangs begs for more "eye"; hair newly revealing the temple may require lipstick if you have worn none. And if you change your hair color, you almost certainly will need to adjust the shades of your makeup palette. One way or another, makeup frequently does have to be redone. We do it at the salon and, increasingly, so do many other hairdressers. It is an appropriate part of a full-service business where self-image is concerned.

Advice might not be offered without your asking. So don't be shy--ask. Maybe you'll find out something that will make you look better, make your hair look better, and allow you to have the total good feeling about yourself that you deserve.

Richard Stein Hair Salon, New York City

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