In Pittsburgh where he has a chain of 12 salons, everybody knows his name. We look back at Philip Pelusi’s remarkable career as he celebrates 50 years in beauty.
Philip Pelusi’s first job while still in beauty school was as a shampoo boy at a high-end salon called Boutique Coiffures in Shadyside, a tony neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he was born and raised. “It’s a Starbucks now,” he says ruefully, but then what isn’t? A born entrepreneur, Pelusi decided to go into business for himself and opened a salon called Studio of Elegance in 1965, when mod fashion was all the rage. “I brought Mary Quant and Anna Cat of London fashions in and sold them in our boutique,” he says. “We were the first salon in the country to do that.” A stringer for Women’s Wear Daily happened to be in town to report on department store boutiques, a relatively new concept. When someone told her about Pelusi’s considerable prowess with a pair of shears, she scheduled an appointment for a haircut. One look at his in-salon boutique convinced her that Pelusi was onto something. “I guess she thought that boutiques like mine were becoming a trend,” says Pelusi, who scored a write-up in WWD.
From the get-go, Pelusi documented his work by taking his own photographs. “I’d do a beautiful haircut, and then the client would leave, and it would disappear,” he says. “I wanted to immortalize the work.” His camera of choice in those days was a Leica, which was the same camera brand used by noted photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Today he uses a Nikon D2, though he admits that on occasion he dusts off his old Nikkormat, which uses film. No doubt about it, if Pelusi was a young hairdresser today, he’d be all over Instagram.
By 1966, Pelusi had created his own haircutting system, which he called Volumetrics and describes as a series of techniques that makes every haircut better. “You can’t just cut hair by angles and numbers. Hair is a living, breathing thing, and each head of hair is different,” he explains. “We customize every cut so the hair looks as good when you do it yourself as it did when you left the salon.” Pelusi still teaches classes at the Space for Photography and Creative Expression, his training center on Pittsburgh’s South Side. In July he’ll offer PhotoSynthesis, a crash-course retreat for hairdressers who want to have their work published.
In the ’70s when hair became all about texture, Pelusi began creating his own products. “We started by making concoctions in a blender, using fruit, celery, anything we thought would condition the hair,” he says. The only problem was that those homegrown treatments couldn’t penetrate the hair shaft. “They worked momentarily, and they were also too heavy for fine hair.” Then he met a chemist, who introduced him to hyaluronic acid and sodium PCA, a humectant, which had been used primarily in high-end skincare products. They’ve been working together ever since. “Back then we were doing a lot of perms, so it was imperative that you had seriously good products. That’s when I decided that I wanted to create quality products that could actually rebuild hair,” says Pelusi, who admits that his clients were like living laboratories. “We tested everything on them, and we got to see the results months down the line.”
His first line, called Philip Pelusi, included four products: Moisturizing Shampoo and Conditioner and Shampoo and Conditioner for Normal Hair. By the 1980s, he launched a shampoo and conditioner for color-treated hair. “Haircolor was starting to come back by then,” he says. “In the ’70s it was all henna and perms. You’ve got to follow trends.”
In 2008 he opened a salon called Tela Design Studio in New York’s Meatpacking District. Again, he was ahead of his time. “The definition of the word ‘salon’ implies an exchange of ideas, culture and art, so we held art expositions and events for emerging designers there and offered an assortment of 80 organic teas and light, organic fare in the tea room that was attached to the salon,” he says. Then in 2009, he launched Tela Beauty Organics, a line of certified organic hair care products sold in high-end salons and luxury retailers through the U.S., U.K. and Germany as well as online (telabeautyorganics
.com). “Our signature fragrance came from organic lavender,” says Pelusi. Last year he made the decision to close the salon because of astronomical rent increases in the Meatpacking District. Recently he moved back to his hometown with his wife, Jennifer, who is the sales and marketing director for Tela Beauty Organics. In Pittsburgh, his salons employ 350 hairdressers and provide 400,000 services a year, 80,000 of which are haircolor.
That’s some legacy. So does he ever think about retiring? “Retire to what?” he laughs. Indeed.