Washingtonian Magazine
Am I Worth It?
What's the Difference Between Cuts Costing $17, $80, and $350?
One Woman Finds Out. By

I asked Cathy Horyn, then a fashion reporter for the Washington Post Style section, a burning question: "What Washington hair salon do you recommend for women who are ready for a change?"

"Okyo in Georgetown" was her answer.

When I walked into Okyo, a stylish Englishman named Robert* led me to a high director's chair and studied my hair while we chatted. I told him I yearned for color in my solid-brown hair, but no hairdresser would ever cooperate. Robert's eyes lit up. "Nonsense, darling. Let's sprinkle a few golden highlights around your face. It will be fabulous."

Robert's strokes of sunlight gave me a confident radiance only perfect hair--or maybe a Chanel suit--can bestow. At a wedding reception where my new hair debuted, there were younger and better-looking women, but my dance card was full.

Robert left Okyo soon after we met. I followed him from high-end salon to high-end salon, writing checks ranging from $130 to $200 to Cristophe, Georgette Klinger, Elizabeth Arden, and others. I eventually grew weary of the half-day commitment, with its parking expense and confusion over tipping the trio of specialists who touched my head. The fragrant bouquets and occasional flutes of Champagne did not assuage my frustrations.

To top it off, my hair was too blond. The highlights had taken over. I was overprocessed.

I begged to return to my Italian roots, but Robert and I had become like bored lovers, together out of habit. He wasn't listening anymore.

One day, I picked a fight after an appointment for a trim took two hours and resulted in a $50 parking ticket.

Robert must have been tired of me too: "If you want your hair cut in 30 minutes, go to a Hair Cuttery."

That's what I did.

Now I frequent the Bethesda Avenue Hair Cuttery, six minutes from home. Carrying my own Quartermaine latte, I walk in, type my name at the front-desk computer, and take my chances. The multicultural staff gives a perfectly fine cut with a wash and blow-dry for $17. For $35 more, I leave with the shiny brown hair of my youth.

Hair Cuttery does not pamper customers, but the staff will help out if you need to feed the parking meter.

I sometimes backslide to more prestigious salons. I recently dropped $200 at the Bethesda Aveda and had instant regret. My hair did not look great, and I was not even coddled. The salon was freezing, and the staff was slow to respond to my discomfort. When 1 asked for a beverage, I was served mediocre tea.

Just when I thought I wasn't missing anything, I heard about the Richard Stein Hair in New York. Stein, who created the shag in the '70s, has apparently come up with a new method of highlighting, using unexpected colors strategically placed.

I did have a wedding to attend in May.

A costly haircut is never just a haircut. It is a chance to be studied by a master.

Stein does not want to chat when he initially sits you in his chair. "First, I need to get a vision," he says.

In front of you is an immense gilt-framed mirror. On each side of the mirror are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beautiful people below on Madison Avenue.

To justify the price, the person in the chair must be ready to let go of preconceived notions of what looks good. I expressed three opinions to Stein: My hair was longer than usual but I was liking it; I prefer long bangs; and I would not be happy with something too crazy for my age, 49, or for my Iowa-raised husband.

Having said all that, I told him I did not want to limit him. Stein--who has coifed Winona Ryder, Marisa Tomei, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, and Jamie Lee Curtis--studied me more. The longer he observed, the more special I felt.

"I see where the weight is," he finally said, then added, "I'll have to take some length off."

At the shampoo station, I overheard a young actor talking about the play he is in and an elegant woman bemoaning her rush to leave so she could "pay the help."

Stein and I chatted a bit when he began to cut, and then he said, "Let's not talk." How could I be offended when someone wanted to concentrate on me? He cut and snipped and moved my head and hair every which way. He spent at least a half hour cutting before I was escorted to the colorist.

Stein's goal is hair that looks just as good when you do it at home for the next two months as the day of the cut. He considers the $350 investment good for the first cut, an interim checkup, and another cut; he believes it takes three visits to achieve excellence with a new client.

"You don't need any brushes or tools. Towel it off, and then blow it using only your fingers, like this." He made sure I was watching him, as he demonstrated curving the hair toward my face. "Use a little bit of gel if you like; it's not really necessary."

He was right. When I washed my hair myself the next morning, I was surprised how little effort it took and how perfect it looked. It is shorter than I would have chosen, but it suits me. My bangs are as long as I like them, and they are subtly highlighted, appropriate to Washington and to a woman who is beyond the blush of youth.

Is Hair Cuttery in my past? Absolutely not. For me, cheap maintenance cuts are fine.

Since I don't believe in Botox, I can spend those dollars on a luxury salon now and then--say, when I'm tired of my look or when an important occasion is looming. I do have a 50th birthday coming up.

Illustration for The Washingtonian by Victoria Roberts

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