American girls have come a long way since the days of buttons and bows. And their career choices — once as confining as great-grandma’s corset — evolved with their fashions.
But customs shift more slowly, and some trades still seem tied to gender: Men’s versus women’s work, by choice if not by design.
Take hairdressing, for example. Although stylists who cater to the stars are famously male, skilled hands that cut and color hair in most area salons are still mostly female.
And if the gender imbalance is less so on the client side, the count still favors women.
Salon owners say that trend is changing.
Two local cases in point are newcomer Tony Lopez and veteran hair designer “K.C.”
The clientele at Body Mind Spirit Day Spa in Groton includes both sexes, but most are women, and the same goes for the staff, which includes five women and a man.
One of the stylists is owner Kerri O’Donnell-Stephenson, whose newest hire is Tony Lopez, of Fitchburg. Licensed in 2005, he’s been working there since May.
The owner theorized that one reason her two-year-old business is thriving in a tough economy is because women don’t abandon beauty routines when money is tight. Another is the “spa” environment, which she said is welcoming to men as well as women. But hair is still the main focus, and from the first, she had an eye out to integrate the staff.
“It’s always been my wish” to hire a male stylist, she said. “But it had to be the right fit.”
She found it when she hired Lopez.
“Every salon needs a man,” chimed in another stylist.
Tony is her apprentice now, but not for long, O’Donnell-Stephenson said. “People are requesting him already.”
Susan, a client, attested to Tony’s “awesome” technique, shampooing and blow-drying her hair.
The owner agreed. “He could have been a massage therapist,” she said. “He’s a well-rounded stylist.”
He’s even taken on “man’s chores” around the shop, she said, such as small fix-it jobs and taking out the trash.
Tony launched his career in Leominster, where he worked at a salon in a shopping mall and a couple of other places. Asked how he came to the trade, he said he started off wanting to work on cars, which he still does as a hobby. But when it came time to pick a major at Montachusett Vocational Technical High School, he chose cosmetology.
There was only one other guy in his class. But that didn’t discourage him, nor did teasing from other students. “There was some name calling, I didn’t let it bother me,” he said.
He liked hairstyling. As a kid, he hung around a cousin’s barbershop, not to work, just to watch. “The main difference between stylists and barbers is “they use straight-edge razors and we don’t,” he said. “And they don’t do color.”
In school, he enjoyed foiling and color theory. “I loved all that stuff,” he said, plus learning how to do “up” hairstyles as well as classic cuts. The curriculum also included science courses such as anatomy and physiology and he did well in those subjects, too.
Asked how his parents felt about his career choice, Tony said his mom wasn’t thrilled at first, but she came around. “When I started doing her hair, she got over it,” he said. His dad was supportive from the start. He said “I’m happy as long as you are,” Tony said.
He’s very happy now. “I love it here,” he said of his job. At home, he works on cars and helps care for his 4-year-old son, who loves trains, riding his bike and hanging out with dad.
K.C. has been in the hair business for 22 years. Set up in the Illusions Tanning Resort on Main Street in Ayer, where he also sells his own line of hair products, K.C. starts his working day at 6 a.m. Teachers may come in before school, or golfers before they tee off, he said. Mostly, though, his appointments are on weekends. As a member of the custodial staff at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, the schedule suits him.
Growing up with five older sisters, his propensity for hair design may have developed naturally, but the “real story” is more practical. An aunt had a Mexican restaurant that all six kids were recruited to work in every summer. He preferred to hang out at a friend’s hair salon, next door. “I never looked at it as a way to make a living; it’s fun!” he said.
He majored in construction management in college, he said, and worked at it for 10 years, at one point managing a crew of 64 men in his own business. “My dad was in the construction business,” he explained. “He was not into hair; he wanted no part of that!”
Eventually, K.C. headed for California. “That was the place to be,” he said.
Married for 17 years, he’s lived in the area for 11 years, first in Groton, and for the last seven years in Ayer. He leases the space at the Illusions and for now at least, is the only stylist on his own staff.
As a hairstylist, he may be a man in a women’s world, more so when he started two decades ago, but it doesn’t bother him, never has. “It’s not something just anyone can do,” he said.
Of 100 graduates in his class at hair design school, he’s the only one still in the business, he said. Noting technical parallels between those courses and his college curriculum, which included graphics design and drafting, he said he tied experiences together. “There are similarities,” he said. And he knows how to run a business.
His business now is style. “I’m a designer,” he said, color as well as cuts.
In K.C.’s view, there are cutters, stylists and “people like me, designers,” he said. His cuts feature a “triladder” system. “Everything in threes.” The theory is that any style can “become your own” that way, he explained.
For example, a client may defer to his idea of a style that would work for them, as confident in his expertise as he is. “It’s all about trust,” he said.
A book of classy photos showed off his designs. The book is a sample for display at hair salons. It was marketed for that purpose, he said, with proceeds from sales directed to his favorite charity, Relay for Life.
His clients are 70 percent women, 30 percent men, he said.
He doesn’t do ads, websites or promotions, except for Relay for Life, for which he stages a 22-hour cut-a-thon every year.
As for competition, he doesn’t worry about it. But make no mistake, he knows what it takes to turn a profit. “There are nine shops in Ayer; why would I stay in business if there’s no money in it?” he asked.
KC was forthcoming with his philosophy, but kept his counsel when it suited him. About his name, for instance. KC, plain and simple. And his physique. He’s muscular, like a weightlifter, but would not admit he works out. “This is just me,” he said, when asked.
He declined to quote prices, either. His answer to customers who ask “can I afford it?” would be “you can’t afford not to,” he said. “When your hair looks great, life is great.”
Asked if there are drawbacks to being a male hair designer in a world dominated by women, he smiled slyly. “Nope, not a single one” he said.