Salon owner Walter Claudio spent three weeks in China recently working at a tony salon in Chengdu, which is rapidly becoming the Silicon Valley of Sichuan, a province in Southwest China. He’s convinced that there are opportunities for other hairdressers in this emerging market.
About four years ago, Walter Claudio met a young Chinese student named Weiheng Du—“He calls himself Duke,” Claudio says—in Santa Barbara, California, where he owns an eponymous Aveda lifestyle salon. Claudio’s own children were studying abroad, the nest felt empty, and Duke needed a host family so he could continue his education. Claudio and his wife took Duke in, and four years later when he moved back to his hometown of Chengdu, he’d become like a son to them. For the last year Duke has been pestering Claudio to visit him in Chengdu, where luxury apartment buildings, boutiques and high-end restaurants have sprung up all over the downtown area.
“He even began researching the best salons in Sichuan to see if I could turn my visit into a working vacation,” says Claudio, who ended up spending two weeks at Hair Code, part of a high-end chain of salons that started in Hong Kong. The owners, Steve and Calvin, who Claudio estimates are in their late 30’s, aggressively promoted his visit on social media. Instead of Facebook, which is banned, the Chinese use a free messaging and calling app called WeChat. “I had people come in from Beijing,” says Claudio, who did makeovers on about 15 people and taught a HeadMapping seminar to 70 stylists—HeadMapping is his system for turning a color service into an exact science. “It was exactly the kind of salon I wanted to work at,” says Claudio, who compares it to Van Michael in Atlanta or Juut in Minneapolis. As it turned out, Claudio wasn’t the only foreigner working at Hair Code. When he arrived, he met Lisa Foothead, a hairdresser and makeup artist from New Zealand who worked on Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series. “She was between projects, and when she got a chance to work in China for six months, she took it,” he says.
In the months before he left for China, Claudio interviewed potential interpreters on Skype. When he narrowed his choices down to a few people he felt he could work with, he arranged to interview them in person when he arrived in Chengdu. Those meetings took place at a three-story Starbucks, the company’s flagship store in the region, which offers a range of rare and exquisite, small-lot Arabica coffees from around the world and is located in the Chengdu Taikoo Li retail and entertainment complex next to the Daci Temple, a key cultural landmark in Chengdu. “They literally built the mall around the temple,” says Claudio, who ultimately decided on an interpreter named Nora who spoke Spanish. “I lived in Argentina until I was six,” he explains.
Duke helped Claudio find an apartment in a nearby high-rise that he could rent for the few weeks he was in Chengdu. On the few days he wasn’t working at Hair Code, Claudio was able to explore the city where he learned a few things about Chinese culture. “It’s very common for young people in China to come up with nicknames for themselves like Snow or Daisy,” he says. “I met one kid who called himself Cash.” We’re talking Johnny Cash, not the cold, hard variety. One thing that surprised him was the number of very young girls opting for some kind of cosmetic surgery, like Botox or breast augmentation. “A lot of them wanted to have their eyes altered so they’d look more round,” he says. His culinary options included scorpion and a lot of deep-friend insects, including crickets. “They actually tasted pretty good,” he says. His verdict on the chicken feet, which he was actually game enough to try, is a big thumbs down. “Too rubbery.” Uh, you think?
At a tea house owned by one of Duke’s cousins, Claudio discovered that very wealthy families will pay anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for heirloom teapots that can be passed down from generation to generation. “They come in for a tea ceremony and try out different pots before deciding on one they’d like to purchase,” he says. “It’s like investing in a piece of property.” The tea itself—Claudio saw a plastic bag containing tea that came from an 800-year-old tree—can cost up to $10,000. “It’s more expensive than buying the same amount of heroin,” Duke told him.
So are there any appreciable differences between hairdressers in the U.S. and those in China? “Most of the them are men, and they take hairdressing very seriously. It’s a real profession to them. They map out a plan for their lives, and a lot of them expect to get married early,” Claudio says. “They’re incredibly disciplined, and I never heard them bad-mouthing anyone. There’s also a real reverence for teachers there so if you have knowledge you can share, they will have so much respect for you. But they’re also hungry for information on how to run a profitable business. I think that’s something we can teach them to do better.”
One of the unexpected highlights of Claudio’s trip was being asked to appear in a scene in a popular Chinese soap opera that was set in the salon. “Basically I played myself while these two actors had an argument about five feet away from me,” he says. Since life in the salon can sometimes feel like being in a soap opera, he must have felt right at home.—Marianne Dougherty
Photography courtesy of Walter Claudio