Michelle O’Connor and Dilek Onur-Taylor are sitting inches apart on a cluttered couch inside a garage studio on Manhattan’s lower east side. The duo just finished a morning of shooting spring hair trends for The Salon by InStyle at JCPenny and sat down for a quick chat before grabbing a bite to eat and moving back to the set.
Becoming Who We Are
Before the conversation even begins, their friendship is evident. “Six years,” O’Connor says. “We’ve been working together for almost six years.” Hairdressing wasn’t always on her radar, though. “I was in the arts—the kind of world where there’s a lot of backstage, a lot of hair and makeup.” O’Connor was always intrigued by that side of the world, and when she realized that she didn’t necessarily want to be a dancer for the next 20 years of her life, she looked to hairdressing. “I was going to want to eat a donut. So I just said to myself, You know what? I can eat a donut and be a hairdresser,” she laughs.
Onur-Taylor, on the other hand, always knew hairdressing was for her. “I went to beauty school in high school. I just knew.” Prior to their roles at JCP salons—O’Connor worked with Mizani and Onur-Taylor with Joico—the two climbed the ranks pretty quickly. “We both shared this vision for doing more in the industry. We wanted to be involved in a bigger way and I think that’s what brought attention to us separately,” O’Connor says.
Shortly thereafter, the two were recruited to JCP Salons as Creative Directors during a major rebranding. “It was kind of a salon brand that people associated with a place your grandmother got her hair done,” Onur-Taylor says. “We made it our mission to connect the brand to the beauty industry because they seemed like two separate entities.”
Bridging the Gap
Even five years ago, JCP Salons weren’t as available as they are today. “A lot of our salons were in small towns—there are no big hair shows, no extravagant hair events,” Onur-Taylor says. And because of that, the stylists in these small towns were getting a majority of their knowledge from YouTube or rising social media stars. “There were heavy hitters, like Sam Villa, and those stylists were like movie stars to these small-town hairdressers,” O’Connor says. “And then it became, ‘well I’m in Pierre, South Dakota, how do I become a Sam Villa?’”
As part of their educational outreach, O’Connor and Onur-Taylor offer an in-house show for 11,000 of JCP Salons’ hairdressers. “We bring in those heavy hitters and interview them, ask them how they got to where they’re at,” O’Connor says. “It’s really about bringing the outside to them and sharing stories of how you can be anywhere or be anything. There are infinite possibilities in this industry of ours,” she says. “We kind of became the bridge. JCP Salons and the rest of the beauty industry were two separate islands,” Onur-Taylor says. “We built the bridge and said, ‘come with us.’”
O’Connor and Onur-Taylor credit a lot of their success to being strong women. “Even though this industry is primarily female, I feel like we have to work that much harder to leave our mark,” Onur-Taylor says. “I think the woman component drew us to each other,” O’Connor adds. “I saw this other woman that was juggling being a mother, being a wife and maintaining a household while being out on the road and chasing her dreams,” she says. “I was like ‘that’s what I’m trying to do, and I see someone else doing it too, so maybe it’s possible,’ and we found strength in that.” Each season, JCP Salons holds a trend shoot. Based on current trends, O’Connor and Onur-Taylor decide on an educational avenue—be it technique-driven or product driven—to pursue for more than 800 salons nationwide. The images from the shoots are then used for educational purposes and salon facelifts throughout the country.
Don’t Dilute The Craft
Both O’Connor and Onur-Taylor pay homage to social media for driving their inspiration and keeping a close eye on trends, but they like to remind their educational team that there’s no easy way. “We tell them you don’t rise through the ranks in a year. You don’t get to work on a shoot after being an educator for six months,” O’Connor says.
“The influencers we’re seeing on social media have so much hustle, and they’re truly challenging and changing the hair and fashion world,” Onur-Taylor says. “It’s inspiring and we take that all into account, but we’re also trying to preserve the art of hairdressing,” she adds. “We can’t afford to lose the pure art of hairdressing for shortcuts.”
There’s an obvious amount of pride that O’Connor and Onur-Taylor share when they reflect on their ladder to success. “We feel we have a duty to keep this industry elevated. This is our life,” O’Connor says. “It wasn’t a side job or a nine-to-five job while I worked at the local bank on Saturdays and Sundays. I was all in from day one and I want everyone to experience what I’ve been able to achieve,” she says. “But you have to be all in.”