29 May 2023

Up Close and Personal with Stephen Moody: Celebrating 40 Years in the Hair Industry

November 11th 2020 marks hair icon Stephen Moody’s 40th anniversary in the hairdressing industry.

Starting as an apprentice in London at Vidal Sassoon in 1980, Moody ended up traveling the world together with Vidal, moving to California in 1987 to manage the Sassoon Academy in Santa Monica and finally joining Wella in 2012 where he currently holds the position of North American Education Director.

How do you feel about celebrating 40 years as a hairdresser?
I am thrilled, it doesn’t feel like 40 years at all! It just feels like yesterday that I started. Personally, I feel very healthy and in good shape. I think a big part of that is the fact that I work with young people. I work with hairdressers. Hairdressers are my customers. And that makes me think and feel young, so I can’t believe that 40 years have gone by. It’s been an incredible journey. I wouldn’t change anything.

Tell us about your beginnings in the UK. Why did you choose hairdressing?
Well it began with my mother really. She was a failing hairdresser. She converted the front living room of our house into a 3-chair salon. She was doing roller sets, like Jackie Onassis, beehives, teasing hair, and wasn’t doing very good at all. One day she went into the bedroom above her hair salon and gave birth to me. I was born in the bedroom above the salon. Even the word salon is an exaggeration… it was a tiny place. She couldn’t afford child-care. I’m not from a wealthy family, so my child-care was the customers. I spent time with my grandmother, I spent time with neighbors. But most of my time growing up was on the customer’s lap. So that was really my introduction to hair. I grew up in the salon.

When did you first hear about Vidal Sassoon?
Very shortly after my birth, my mother realized that her business was going nowhere. It wasn’t doing well financially or creatively. So, she researched in newspapers and magazines things that were happening that were new and different, and she saw work being done in London where people were beginning to cut hair rather than tease hair. So, clear out of the blue, she wrote to this person in London – she just picked one person– and said, “I’d like to learn from you.” And he wrote back and said, “Sure! Come and see me and I’ll interview you as an apprentice.” And my mother wrote back –this was before texts and fax and email, this was actually on a piece of paper– and said, “You don’t understand. I’m Catholic, I’m honest, I’m a single mother, I have no husband, I’m raising a child, I have my own salon and would learn what I need from you and then leave. But I will sweep the floor, I will make sandwiches, I will shampoo, I will make coffee, I will help out. You don’t have to pay me. In the evenings, if you have an extra model, maybe you could teach me.” So this man wrote back, and I think at this point he was fed up hearing from this stupid woman, and he said, “Sure”.
So I was given to the neighbors and off she went to London. She didn’t know anybody at all. She had no money. I don’t know where she got the train fare. She didn’t know where to stay. But basically she made coffee. She shampooed. She swept the floor. She made sandwiches. And in the evening this man when he taught his other trainees, taught her to cut hair.
And at the end of three months, she said “Thank you. You’ve changed my life. I’m going to throw away my razor. I’m going to throw away my rollers. I’m going to start giving my customers precision haircuts. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of hairdressers who will gladly pay money to learn what I just learned. Why don’t you open an Academy?”
This man’s name was Vidal Sassoon.
She would save money with her tips and every year, like a Muslim goes to Mecca, she would go to London to Sassoon Academy and take a one-week course. And bit by bit her business was elevated. Not just the creativity and the technical experience, but also the clientele, the finances. The money was coming in.
As a child growing up, at the dinner table was where I heard about Vidal Sassoon, I witnessed how education changed my family’s outlook completely.  
So growing up, I just knew this man’s name. It was in my head. Eventually my mother took me to London’s Salon International (the largest hairdressing trade show in the world), and I began to witness the craft, I went to shows, seminars, and at age 13 I decided that what I’m doing now – Education, is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to give back. I wanted to pay it forward.

When did your direct relationship with Sassoon begin?
Well I started on November 11th, 1980, as an apprentice in a Sassoon salon in Knightsbridge, London in a salon that had a barbering, a ladies’ and a color department. I think there were probably sixty or seventy staff members. It was huge… absolutely huge. A busy, busy salon. And I was introduced to the world of Sassoon right there. I shampooed, I cleaned the salon… In the evening, I was allowed to bring a model and begin to learn my craft. And I quickly decided –because you have to choose at Sassoon– that my forte was cutting, not color. So, I quickly went into that direction. All the time, in the back of my mind I wanted to share. My total vision was to be an educator, as such I knew that I could reach more hairdressers as an educator in the Sassoon Academy than as a stylist in a Sassoon Salon.
At Sassoon I learned my craft, I learned cutting, and I wanted to get that salon experience. But my vision at the end of the day was to eventually have hairdressers as my customers. That was always my vision.”

What’s your best story about Vidal, one of his most important lessons?
I think it would have to be Vidal’s humility. He was very humble. It didn’t matter if you were in a hotel with Vidal, on tour in China or Japan or wherever we were, he would treat the guy at the front desk of the hotel the same as you would treat an executive of Procter & Gamble. He would give everybody the same level of respect. I think that was probably my biggest learning, was how he was an incredible human being.
And there’s one particular story: I remember teaching in Sassoon Academy London and we were insanely busy. We had hairdressers and models everywhere and everybody was working super hard. It was a hands-on session; the hairdressers were doing models and we were teaching them when the door opened and Vidal walked in completely unannounced and into the midst of this controlled chaos. He very calmly walked over to the first model and said, “Hello, how are you? Are we taking care of you?” Then he said “hello” to the hairdresser and shook the hairdresser’s hand.
And as he worked his way through the classroom, there was a jacket over the back of a chair; it wasn’t hung on a hanger. And he accidentally brushed against it and the jacket fell on the floor! Maybe five people went to get the jacket and put it in the closet. He stopped everyone. Then he bent down, he picked up the jacket, he shook the jacket, he opened the closet door, took out a hanger, put it on the hanger, put it in the closet and closed the door. He never said a word. I think no matter how successful you are, maintaining humility is important.

When you moved to the US, did you feel like you were starting on a completely new and different life?
Yes absolutely, the mistake I made was thinking that there was a common language, therefore there would be similarities in culture, humor and hair. It was a steep learning curve!
I did make a decision when I first arrived, and it was actually Vidal who gave me the motivation, he said, “As soon as possible become a citizen and vote.” And I do think that is important. He said something very interesting: “If you’re going to ride in the canoe, make sure you paddle.” I took a lot away from that.
I came to the US originally on a two-year contract. I left a very successful Sassoon Academy London to a not so successful Sassoon Academy Santa Monica. I walked into a terrible business… it was incredibly unsuccessful. There were some big challenges. Over time we managed as a team, to turn the business around and make it the number one business of the Sassoon empire. It took about five years, but we created the Harvard of Hair.

At that time fashion trends were very different between the US and UK. What do you remember about that?
When you ask about how things have changed over 40 years, I think the biggest change is the Internet. In the 1960’s some of Vidal’s classic haircuts were on the front cover of Vogue magazine. You got trade magazine covers that were literally about hair. However, that cover, that image, that message probably took three or four years to get to the middle of Africa. If you think about the Beatles’ music, the image and the album cover, it took three or four years to get to the middle of America or the middle of Africa or the middle of China.  
Today, if a band makes some music in Liverpool, ten seconds later it’s in Africa. And it’s the same with fashion, music and hair  – everything travels now so quickly. It’s fantastic, really amazing. However, as hairdressers we have to be equally agile, open, educated and prepared for rapid change.

What impressed you most about Santa Monica and American clients back in 1987?
I think the biggest shock was that many people weren’t really cutting hair. They were styling hair. I was very impressed by how clients grasped change once they had experienced great hair. The gap between what was happening in Europe and the USA at that time was vast. In large part that has lessened.

How did you start working with Wella?
In many ways it was 40 years ago, because the day I started at Sassoon the color dispensary was Wella, the styling products were Wella. When I moved to Sassoon Academy in London, about 40% of our business was customers of Wella taking classes with us. We would go to Japan or we would go to South Africa and we would do a show, and the customer we would do the show for was Wella. My whole 40 years I’ve never really worked with anybody other than Wella. So, when I left Sassoon in 2012, the transition to Wella for me was pretty natural. I knew the products, I knew the history, but more importantly I knew the people. I knew the person who ran Wella in Russia. Wella UK, I had a relationship already because Wella was my customer at Sassoon Academy… It’s really 40 years of Wella. Wella would never admit that, because they’d have to give me a clock or something (laughs).”

So did you start in Education with Wella NA?
I started July 2nd, 2012, and my work at Wella has always been connected to Education, it’s always been connected to cutting and craft, because obviously that’s really my forte. I’ve never been directly involved in sales or marketing, Wella has amazing teams in those departments… my connections are really with hairdressers, salon/school owners and although I’m based in the USA, I do travel overseas. I traveled a tremendous amount for Sassoon and now more so with Wella.
The last five months, due to Covid-19 we have developed some exciting virtual education. I now Teach virtually 1:1 Coaching, Look + Learn demonstrations and CutCraft education all from home (laughs) So the Internet is my best friend.

With the development of education in Wella, what do you think your contribution has been, maybe together with hair legend Fabio Sementilli?
It’s funny, because Fabio and I had a similar mindset. It’s a mindset of putting Craft at the forefront of education. At Wella we have the best performing color and styling products. Yes Wella is selling products, but ultimately through education we want to excite and inspire our customers to see a client and think: “How can I make them happy? How can I make them beautiful? How can I get that person to return in four weeks, six weeks? How can I get that person to refer me to their friends and help me with my salon clientelle? That all connects back to craft.
We all know that when we connect color, cut, finish – that’s the magic formula in salons all over the world. When we look at the client and we think of only one service, the chances of that person returning are much lower than if we give them two services, or three services, or four services… and that may include nails and OPI.
The big thing that I’ve worked on over the last eight years is Triple Craft – the mind set of aligning color-cut-finish with a suggestively driven consultation. And it’s not any haircut, it’s not any color. It’s color and cut that talk to each other and fit the client’s persona.
And the thing that I’m really passionate about at the moment is really sharing with hairdressers things that make customers more salon-dependent. Because in many ways in our industry, we’ve given our business to YouTube. We’ve given our business to the drug store. And we need to get our business back.

So your passion is winning back customers…
Yes! I talk to stylists, salon owners, to people who have multiple salons. I talk to Americans who have booth rental or work in suites. The number one thing that concerns hairdressers is the elongation between the appointment. You and I remember four-weeks between color appointments, a six-week haircut. In the last 8, 9, 10 years hair has gotten longer and longer, color has gotten more and more mid-length and the ends… it’s a four-month color, it’s a six-month haircut.
I believe something that is going to come down the road is texture. Now texture is a very broad statement, but just imagine curly hair, for example. A woman may have been told since she was three that her curls are frizzy, and not attractive. Perhaps she’s not being told directly, she’s being told psychologically, perhaps through the media, that straight shiny hair is the only hair that’s beautiful. Well, straight shiny hair is beautiful, but there is also other beautiful hair too. Fast forward, now that woman is 25, and for the last five months she’s been on lock down, not on any dates, she’s not been to work, she’s not been to the office, she’s not been out in public. She’s got five months of beautiful curly regrowth and she hasn’t blow-dried it straight or used an iron, she hasn’t chemically straightened her hair. Right there is 5 months of virgin curls/texture!!!
There is such a fantastic opportunity for the industry at the moment to celebrate texture, to celebrate texture with the right color, for obviously color in textured hair is very different from straight hair, the way you place the color. Styling products, shampoo is all different for textured hair. And cutting textured hair is very different from cutting curly hair to be straightened.
And when I say texture I don’t necessarily mean African-American, but it could be. So there’s an opportunity there for hairdresser to pivot though education, because a lot of people in the industry have a skill set of cutting, coloring, and styling straight hair.

What is one of the most memorable Wella moments over the past eight years?
For sure, it’s celebrating Triple Craft with hairdressers in America, South Africa Turkey, Russia, Mexico, Canada and wherever we’ve been. It’s exciting delivering education hairdressers can connect to and commercialize. Changing the format, changing the mindset of how you show up at an event. We’ve broken that down to: “Let’s do hair in a Look + Learn format with real people” and let’s do color, cut, finish the hairdresser can relate to. They can look and think “I can do that tomorrow morning on my customer and I can make money from that. I might not cut it as short, the red might not be so bright, but I can connect with that.
So I think my proudest achievement with Wella over the past years is bringing together that magic of color-cut-finish. We do this with hairdressers at TripleCraft in a Look + Learn format and also the all-important hands-on format too. The Hairdresser brings a model they want to work on and mood board. We work with them hand-on, we show them all the little tricks, the color, the cut, the finish. We take them through a photo shoot… that’s really powerful. They learn the best tricks in connecting the best looks for the after photograph. It’s all based on commercializing what they’re doing. Color-cut-finish-transformation. Folks walk away with amazing before and after photographs/videos as well as educational inspiration.

How do you draw inspiration from the Wella Community?
I get inspired by hairdressers and the talented team I work with at Wella. Sometimes a hairdresser will say something or do something and I realize I could expand on that or I could exaggerate that. I just love being around hairdressers. Yes, I love looking at Instagram, whenever possible I love art galleries, I love art and art books – but what makes me wake up on the morning and gets me excited is the hairdressers. For the past 40 years I haven’t had an alarm clock. I’m just super-excited to do what I do and I am as excited now as I was in 1980.

How do you envision the future of the industry, and what would you still like to do?
I think what we’re going to see in the next five or ten years is the emergence of two channels: hair being done in people’s homes/underground, and then separately, almost on the opposite extreme, I think salons that focus on a team, education, multiple services, niche, higher end, and an open space layout, they will also be very successful. I think a 12-chair salon will be considered BIG.
I think what may diminish is the middle ground. I think that in the very short term, suites and one-and two-chair salons is where people will feel safe. The challenge with this model long term is that the career journey is lonely and physiologically challenging. Ultimately hairdressing is football not golf.  
I think from a hair standpoint, the prediction I made earlier about hair being livable, being lived in, hair having texture, hair being fun and quirky, whether it’s the color or the cut… I think that will be important. I think hair not being quite so polished and finished and blow-dried and ironed and straight will be a strong direction. I think that texture will become so big that we will see the emergence of a word that we have not heard for a long time –we might call it a different thing– but I think perms are going to be big. Not perms like we remember, but with texture and movement, perms that maybe could be done every two months. Perms that connect with color. I believe that coming out of Covid-19 the salvation for many hairdressers will be creating looks that are solid cut and finish rather than looks that are only good until the client showers. This will separate the men from the boys.

Last but not least, how do you see yourself in the coming years?
I’ve still got seven years left in me, and if hairdressers and the industry and Wella still want me, I want to continue to do what I’m doing. I am just about to head up the new Cutting Council at Intercoiffure North America, that’s exciting!
I want to continue to help hairdressers like Vidal helped me and my family, my industry, my passion.
First with Sassoon Academy and now with the amazing global Wella Education family I am in a place where I can continue to help hairdressers carry on this wonderful journey of making our craft a better place.”


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