Not Fade Away
January 2, 1952 - June 15, 2005
Handsome and charismatic, John Sahag loved being a hairdresser. Ten years after his untimely death at 53, we remember the “mad professor of hair.”
His obituary in The New York Times described him as the industry’s rock star, and in his skin-tight leather pants, pointy-toed shoes and mane of shaggy, dark hair, he certainly looked like one. “He was like the mad professor of hair,” Edward Tricomi told reporter Eric Wilson, comparing Sahag’s dry-cut technique to sketching a haircut by hand.
“I loved watching John cut hair,” says Dwight Miller, who brought Sahag to Hawaii in 1985 to be a guest artist for Zotos. “Nobody knew who he was so I showed a little video of all his covers for Vogue. It only took a minute for them to realize that he was something special.”
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Armenian parents, Sahag—his given name was Sahag Jamgotchian—grew up in Australia where he swept floors in a salon before moving to Paris at 18 to hone his craft. By 1985, he had opened his first salon or “workshop” on Madison Avenue in New York City, and quickly began cultivating a stable of celebrity clients that would grow to include Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi. He famously gave Demi Moore her trendsetting boy cut for Ghost and Paltrow the crop she wore in Sliding Doors. Still, he was reticent about name-dropping to further his own agenda. “He did a million celebrities, but he’d never talk about them,” says Miller.
Before he met Sahag, Miller had never cut hair dry, but he remembers it being a “beautiful thing to watch him do it.” Sahag’s technique was very specific. First, the client would have her hair shampooed and blow-dried. Then Sahag would create small sections, straighten them with a curling iron (yes, you read that right) and cut them. According to Miller, Sahag had the stations at his Madison Avenue Workshop designed by a famous sculptor—poured cement was designed to resemble bamboo or river rock—so he could lay his hot tools right on top of them. Apparently for Sahag, form always followed function.
In the early ’90s Albie Mulcahy was between jobs (he had been director of education for Anasazi, a professional haircare product company founded by Dwight Miller that had just been sold) when he got a call from “this gentleman with an Australian accent.” Like first-time authors who got the call from Oprah back in the day, Mulcahy was skeptical at first. “John was like a god. I didn’t believe it was him,” Mulcahy says. But it was. Sahag asked what he was doing that weekend, then proceeded to tell him that he had already booked a flight scheduled to leave Miami at 2 p.m. that Sunday. A car would be waiting at JFK to whisk Mulcahy to Sahag’s Manhattan apartment where he was to wait.
“So I’m in a dream world right now, and then this girl opens the door. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen,” says Mulcahy. “We’re on the sofa having some wine when I hear the door open. John walked in looking like a rock star and asked me to stand up. Then he gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and said to his girlfriend, ‘He’s perfect.’” Mulcahy still had no clue why he was there, but Sahag didn’t want to talk business. Instead they all went out to dinner. The next morning, Sahag announced that they were going to work. Still confused, Mulcahy accompanied Sahag to the salon. “He told me to go with his assistant to get some coffee,” says Mulcahy, who did what he was told. In the break room was a huge sign that said, “Welcome, Albie Mulcahy, our new Director of Education.” The salon manager handed him a box of business cards with his name and title on them. And that was that. “We hadn’t talked money or responsibilities or anything up to that point,” says Mulcahy, “but I felt like I had no choice but to accept the job.”
Two weeks later, Mulcahy asked Sahag why he hired him. “Because Dwight told me to,” Sahag said. But that was only half the story. It turns out that Albie’s given name—Albert—means “man with a big heart” in Arabic. And that, says Mulcahy, is why he was hired.
Dwight Miller remembers that every time he came to New York he’d get a call from Sahag asking him to come up to the salon at the end of the day to have a drink with him. His stock response was always, “I don’t go above 14th Street.” Yet somehow he’d end up dragging his suitcase to the Upper East Side where he’d eventually spend the night at Sahag’s apartment. “His loft was very stark. That’s how he liked to live. He didn’t collect anything,” says Miller, who allows that one room had been created specifically to store three copies of every magazine that had given him a cover or a few pages inside. In the morning when Miller would go outside to hail a cab to the airport, he’d invariably find a town car waiting for him, courtesy of Sahag. “John would give you the shirt off his back,” he says, “unless you were playing backgammon, and then he was out for blood.”
Generous to a fault, Sahag was notorious for picking up the tab when everyone went out to dinner. Miller remembers him grabbing the check one night over the protestations of others offering to pay their share of what easily could have been hundreds of dollars. “It’s only a bang trim,” he assured them as he handed over his credit card.
In fact, stories about Sahag’s largesse are legendary. Practically everyone who knew him has one. Mulcahy was in Detroit—“I was scheduled to teach classes for the next three days,” he says—when he got a call from his brother in Atlanta telling him that their mother had died. “I didn’t know what to do so I called John,” he says. “He told me to hang up and talk to my brother. Fifteen minutes later he calls to say that he cancelled my classes and got me a ticket to fly back to New York.” When Mulcahy got off the plane, Sahag was waiting for him at the gate. He had already booked him on the next flight to Atlanta. “He asked me if my mom had insurance. I told him I doubted it. Then he took $5,000 out of his bag and handed it to me. He told me to go see my brother, tell him how much I loved him and use the money to bury my mom. Now that’s pretty heavy stuff.”
Some things you may not know about Sahag include the fact that he played himself in the 1978 film Eyes of Laura Mars, starring Faye Dunaway. He also spoke at least seven languages, including Turkish. His Greyhound Byron became a fixture at the Workshop and was driven to the salon every morning in his own town car. In the ’90s, Issey Miyake wouldn’t do a fashion show without Sahag. “John would only work with designers whose aesthetic he appreciated,” says Miller. “He wouldn’t bother with most designers because he didn’t want to do a ponytail.”
Miller’s first inkling that Sahag was ill came when he saw a photo of him in a magazine. “He was bald,” says Miller, who knew that Sahag would never shave his head on purpose. “He was a rock ’n’ roll guy.” Miller was home in Sante Fe, NM the day Sahag died, and he says he knew his friend was gone before anyone called to tell him. “I felt him at the end of my bed.”
After his death, actress Julianne Moore remembered Sahag as being kind, genuine and normal. “He was never, ever a diva,” she told Sarah Ballentine of The New York Times. Those who knew Sahag best would agree. Mulcahy remembers seeing Tracey Ullman and Paltrow sitting in the reception area next to “Mary from Queens waiting to get a haircut. He never made a big fuss over celebrities.” In fact, while everyone from Brad Pitt to Winona Ryder expressed interest in attending his funeral, Sahag had made it clear that the service was to be a private affair for friends and family only, including the “kids” who worked for him.
As Helen Oppenheim, who helped Sahag open his salon in 1985 and has archived most of his work on her website, helenoppenheim.com, says, “It’s been 10 years, but John is as alive and inspirational today as he was in his heydey. His work has not dated. In fact, I think it’s stood the test of time. There is simply no one like him working today. No one.” ✂ —Marianne Dougherty
Photography: David Webber