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The art of hairstyling (or how I learned to love my locks)

Shampoo Alley owner and hair stylist Sarah Kelly talks about her passion for transforming her clients through their hair.

One day, a young Sarah Kelly decided that it was time for a change and she was going to take matters into her own hands. The intended target of her change was clear: her hair.

Problem was it was the day before her Grade 7 class pictures. And she used gardening sheers.

“I had very long hair and I hated having long hair,” says Kelly. “I had naturally blonde curly hair down to my butt. One day I decided I didn’t want it anymore and I would cut it myself.  I always visualized it shorter.”

She put her hair into a hat to mimic the shorter look she was going for and showed it to her mother. “My mother said she thought it looked really cute on me at that length and I thought, ‘Oh yeah?’ An hour later I came back downstairs and I had really done it.”

Then one of her sisters asked her to cut her hair. She did that too.

“Growing up I wasn’t artistic in other ways. Hair was my thing. It was my art. My sisters were artistic in other ways and I always admired that in them. Hair styling wasn’t something career wise that I had thought about doing, but hair styling was always something that I just had in me. I even used to cut my dolls’ hair but quickly realized that it doesn’t grow back.”

Kelly can visualize potential haircuts. “I can see haircuts that would suit people’s faces, their face shapes and even the way they dress.”

Fast forward to Grade 11 and Kelly decided to take her talents and sign up for the then new Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program to complete hairstyling. “I was 16 years old and started at Sault College when I would have normally been going into grade 11.” Kelly was taking classes at the college and completing her high school at the same time.

After graduating, she began working at a local salon Shampoo Alley, which was then located on Spring Street. After ten years there, an opportunity to purchase the business came up. Kelly once again decided to take matters into her own hands, so she bought it. The business is now located in the Frontier Village at the Trading Post.

20 years into her career, Sarah Kelly still has a passion for the art of hairstyling. Like any art, there are definite artistic principles at play every time she works with a client. “Colour is one of my favourite things. I love everything about it. There are now more colours for hair available than in the past and I love making them. In this field, like a painter, you need to know and understand the colour wheel, be able to identify a client’s primary, secondary and tertiary colours quickly.”

“If someone with really dark hair approaches me and says, ’I want your [platinum] hair colour,’ well it can’t happen today and not in one sitting. It might take a long time to get that hair colour. When you are stripping hair colour out, even dark brown as an example, it is going to show red, then orange.”

She notes that she has clients who come to her and say that their last hair stylist turned their hair a colour they didn’t want. “I always will defend the other hair stylist, recognizing that that stylist may have really done all the hard work of removing all the previous colours in the hair and did it in steps to not compromise the integrity of the hair …We have to treat hair gently, like a baby. So patience is required and change isn’t always going to happen today. Working with a client is not like having a blank canvas of hair. We can’t just do what we want…Simply adding colour to a client’s hair would be like painting a layer of paint over a picture and expecting it to not show through. It is going to bleed through.”

Not only is a client’s hair not blank, it is not two-dimensional. “There are elements of sculpture in hair styling. You work with the shape and the material you are given … Hair frames the face. Face shapes are something you learn about in this career. Faces are square, round, oval, heart, and diamond shaped. Noses have all different shapes and can impact hair style.”

Sarah Kelly’s skills have brought her full circle where she is now teaching at the college. “Hair styling is an evolving art. Things change all the time and evolve and improve and it’s fun to share that with the students. There’s a science to cutting hair. We calculate things. There are fundamentals to holding scissors and comb, to keeping hair even, calculating degrees, pulling hair for elevations and angles, how to position our body and hands, how to work ergonomically and work smarter not harder.”

In 2014, Kelly was talked into participating in the Annual Hairfest Competition in North Bay. “I was entered into the master stylist category. The judges are looking for drastic changes on the subject. They are not just looking at a haircut, but an entire outcome.”

So Kelly enlisted one of her longtime friends and clients as a model. “Certain people’s hair just listens to me. My friend and client Dana has been my model forever. I have been doing her hair since she was in grade nine. She is now a married woman with children and I still love working with her hair.”

Dana had dark red hair and was in the process of growing it out. “I explained the visual I had to her and what I wanted to do. I wanted her hair to be white and bubble gum pink. Luckily, she was on board.” Dana’s hair, which was at her waist, was cut it up off her neck in an asymmetrical way. “Even if it is asymmetrical, there has to still be flow to it. I was up against some phenomenal artists onstage who created super avant-garde work. I wound up placing third in Northern Ontario. Out of that entire experience, the greatest feeling was having other hair stylists approach me and ask questions about what I did.”

A dramatic change from long and red to asymmetrical white and bubblegum pink is not something that is done every day, although Kelly notes that people often sit in the chair and say, ‘surprise me.’

“I am not going to just surprise you. I am going to ask you what my limitations are, because most people have them.” Occasionally, there are clients who literally want to be surprised and want the change without limitations. One of Kelly’s regular clients has her chair physically turned away from the mirror in the salon. “After four hours, we turn the chair and have the big reveal. It is exciting and fun.”

My favourite is when we do something a client didn’t initially plan and they are happy with the result. I love seeing them out and they are styling their hair the way I cut and styled it. That is rewarding work.”

It is that transformation that hairstyling offers that fascinates Kelly the most. “I have the pleasure to make people feel beautiful,” says Kelly. “Every single person worries about their hair. It is one of the first things people look at when you introduce someone. We describe people by their hair. We don’t describe their blue jeans. My work transforms how they see themselves and how others see them.”

“Maybe there is a woman who is down that day, they come in for something simple and it makes her feel good. She gets a scalp massage. To just have that warmth of contact with someone else is important. In a sense, you are taking care of someone. I take care of people every day in a different way, sometimes for their own mental health.”

Kelly works with clients who come in because they are dealing with hair loss due to cancer treatments, alopecia, post pregnancy, post gastric bypass stress and other reasons.  “Hair changes people’s confidence level, because it is such a part of them. Hair is a safety blanket. No one wants to lose their hair. That’s why they came up with cold caps for cancer patients. It can be one of the most heartbreaking things to deal with.”

Kelly notes the importance of initiatives like Hair’s To You, where funds are raised to help pay for wigs for those suffering from hair loss. “Anyone affected with hair loss, just not with cancer patients, can come to Sault College and get a free wig. Wigs have come a long way,” says Kelly, who notes that in the past there was a stigma about wig use. “We need to lose that stigma. Every person you meet has something fake going on, whether through hair extensions, fake eyelashes, and fake nails. Wigs have come so far that they now can be matched to a specific type of hair. It is personalized.”

Like many artists, Kelly’s physical space in her salon is designed purposefully. “It means everything to me.”

Mirrors are horizontal to ensure clients don’t feel uncomfortable in a full body mirror. The lighting and wall tones are done to avoid creating certain hues in the room. “My space keeps evolving and it makes me so happy,” she says. “If I wasn’t doing hair, I would be doing interior design. Clients have even noticed that I even painted my ceilings green.”

She has noticed a growth in men’s grooming. “The business is growing and changing. Men are more apt that ever to use specific brushes, hair products. Beards are also huge now. I will trim, shave and reshape your beard. Barbering is all coming full circle and is back. But to be a barber you still have to take hair styling. You still need to know all the fundamentals of hair.”

Besides clients booking at her salon, she is regularly hired for weddings, local fashions shows, and by photographers and video production companies.

“I will often work with other stylists. It is so great to have that connection to other people, we all follow each other on social media and comment on each other’s works and support each other. This is not a competition. I love having that network and friendship with my colleagues.”

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