After sitting in celebrity hair stylist, Kristen Shaw’s, chair at her newly launched Venice salon, Cabin, I walked out with the best.haircut.of.my.life. Hyperbole? Absolutely, not. This hair cut deserves excessive praise. (See here for pics of my hair – air dried?!) Typically, I hate my hair after a fresh cut and it’s not until a month goes by allowing the blunt ends to soften that I love it. Yet, with Kristen’s scissor + clipper technique, which she learned working for one of the most esteemed hair stylists in New York City, April Barton, whose clients include Ethan Hawke, U2’s Bono and Malcolm Gladwell to name a few, my hair now moves with balance, falls perfectly weighted and air dries to perfection. For two hours, Kristen worked her magic on my hair and shared her story of how a small town girl travelled to New York at the age of nineteen to find success, failure, adventure and entrepreneurship. Read on for the full interview.
I grew up in Freeport, Illinois; a small town of about 25,000 people. You had to drive an hour in every direction to get to a proper city. Most of the surrounding towns ranged from 500 people to 1,000 people. It was small, but I loved growing up there.
My family is a huge outdoors family, so I spent most of my time encouraged to stay outside. Sometimes, my parents would take us camping during the school week- they would drive us back to school during the week each day and then pick us up and take us back out camping. Nature was a huge part of my childhood- more that, less TV.
I was an only child until I was ten. My mom tried for ten years to have me, and then after I arrived she tried for ten more years for a second child. When they couldn’t, they adopted my little brother from Romania. I went over there with them to adopt him when I was ten.
My dad worked in environmental health and safety and my mom was a teacher’s aide. They’ve always champions for my brother and me. They worked hard for our family, taught us that to work hard, be humble, and do a good job silently will get you longevity in what you love to do.
When I was a kid my mom would book us in every four weeks to get our hair done. It was this thing that we did together. For some reason when I was a kid, I thought I was meant to have an afro, which I clearly was not born with, so I kept begging her for a perm when I was in 2nd grade. I ended up with zig zag crimped bangs and a bob. It was terrible but so amazing at the same time. But that was me. I always loved trying things- it was almost like a science experiment. All throughout my childhood, what I could dream up was encouraged, so it made for a great base in being curious.
When I graduated high school, I was apprenticing at a tattoo shop drawing for them and I was going to school for painting and theater. I was restless and I just knew I needed to go but I didn’t have any idea what to do, mostly because I liked so many things. I had been cutting hair for fun since I was fourteen, and when trying to figure out what to do, my parents and friends started encouraging me to check out hair school. I thought, okay, I’m going to go and pick up this trade, but only if I could go to Aveda where it was more environmentally conscious, and see where it takes me.
I didn’t really know that the job I have now existed and that hair styling could be such an art to me. I just thought it was a way for me to BE an artist- so I could learn this trade, make money to leave my hometown and support my life as an illustrator. I could make money to support the art that I make. I’ve been drawing and illustrating since I was young, but going to art school wasn’t an option for me, so this was the compromise. Little did I know, I would end up falling in love with doing hair.
After hair school in 2006, I moved out to New York City after being offered an apprenticeship at The Arroyo Studio in Soho. I dropped out of hair school, went with a partial transcript, two suitcases and a four hundred dollar check. I found a sublet in Green Point and the artists who I stayed with pointed me in the direction of Williamsburg, to live at this loft above the Roebling Tea Room. It was this big artist loft called Magic Land, with 5 incredible people and I was like “yes, absolutely yes.” So, I lived in a photo darkroom with no windows for $700 in the most beautiful raw loft in Williamsburg at the age of nineteen. It was everything I wanted at the time. It had unobstructed views of Manhattan and it was, like where am I?! I’m getting the chills talking about it now. When you get to a city like that you kinda show up and you’re just like, life is never going to be the same.
The salon I started assisting at was a sixty person salon and as I was there for a two year apprenticeship, I was unsure from the get go that that environment was right for me. Within two weeks of moving to NYC, I left and ended up meeting an assistant from April Barton’s Suite 303 in the famous Chelsea Hotel and she was like, “I think April is going to like you, you should come to the salon.” The salon was in a hotel room on the 3rd floor of the hotel and you had to know it, to find it. The girl was like, “just show up and she’s going to take one look at you and you’re either hired or not.” So, I got there and April looked over at me, smiled with magic in her eyes like she has a way of doing, and was like, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And from there the rest of my life changed.
Working there – it was amazing. It was such a cool place to be working at the age of nineteen. I got to meet so many interesting writers, directors and people who were so inspiring. No one had a normal job. Everyone was doing something really crazy and inspiring. And that was nothing like I was brought up around, so it created this hunger in me.
And the way April taught hair was like nothing I had ever seen. She would say, “See these scissors, we’re setting them down. I’m going to show you how to do an entire women’s haircut using the edge of a clipper.” And she would carve along the rounds of the head, noticing every area where weight might be more heavy, or where you could build up the illusion that more hair was there than there was. Her mix of the clipper and scissor was the best trick I have ever picked up. That, and less is more when is comes to styling from another mentor, Parisian hairstylist Yannick D’ls.
I’d see these clients come back in 2, 4, 6 months down the line with the most beautiful haircuts that morphed into something new over that time. It’s a type of cutting that is so difficult to teach because it’s something you have to feel- and why it might not be as well known.
When I left New York, it was because I needed a break and wanted to travel. I hadn’t been drawing or writing and young in the city working as much as I did was difficult at time. I wanted to try everything. My curiosity of this city was endless. I partied so much. I thought I knew everything when I knew some things- mostly because I followed my heart. I thought I was bigger and ballsier than I was, but you know, I am eternally grateful for the younger me, without that, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
When I moved to New York everything happened so fast. It happened in a beautiful and scary way, but any fear I had became fuel.
When I left NYC, I went on a road trip with a photographer friend of mine so we could work on our art. We posted on Myspace, at that time, that we were traveling and would go wherever people would pay us to cut their hair or take their photo. This trip was so incredible that we both didn’t know if we wanted to go back. We ended up running out of money and ditched the car at her sister’s in Asheville NC, and bought one way tickets to LA where we knew one person from Myspace. We both had never been to LA before, so we said, let’s do this. This new friend was a photographer who was staying on the couch at a photo studio in DTLA in 2008 called Box Eight. It was super sketchy at this time downtown but I loved it. While staying there, I got my hands on every person’s head I could. I said, “Just let me cut your hair so I can show you what you need. I’ll do it for free.”
One haircut led to more haircuts, and by nature of being around the photo studio, I was being hired to style hair for photoshoots. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I could imagine what I wanted to see, so I tried it: new things, new hairstyles, everyday.
A month in I saved up enough to put down on a sublet in Silverlake and I just ended up staying. I’ve been here for ten years now going back and forth to NYC working on commercials, fashion editorial and advertising with amazing photographers, like Guy Aroch, Hedi Slimane and David Simms. Over time living in LA, I’ve been working more the last few years as a celebrity hairstylist and men’s groomer and have found it to be a perfect mix with having my own private hair studio.
Risks & Self Doubt
I have had moments of self doubt, everyone does. And I have seen losses, but do my best to not harp on them. When I was twenty- five, I opened a salon in downtown LA called Cabin 207. I had been living in this beautiful building in the bank district of DTLA and while I wanted to open up a 1 chair hair and art studio, I didn’t have the money to do it. So, loving the barter system ( as a lot of hairstylists do!), I did an Indigogo campaign and the pay back to the financiers was haircuts and art.
My clients ended up funding it and I raised $16,000. I was completely amazed. Friends from all places came together and helped me do the construction for the studio and we finished it in six days. My friends that do hair ended up coming to me and saying they would work for me if I put in extra chairs and I was like, “well…why not? looks like I’m opening up a salon.” It was kind of an accident. So, I put in three chairs. It was a huge learning curve for me, and even more so when I teamed up with an amazing rare book dealer from NYC and added in a bookstore to the equation.
The biggest challenge was when I took some time off and went down to Central America to go meet my now boyfriend just after the one year anniversary of the shop. It was my first trip since opening the salon and I got a call from my assistant that we had received a letter from our building to vacate the premises and restore the property in ten days or else we were going to be sued.
Long story short, it turned out that our landlord was a crook and had a history of doing this sort of thing to tenants. Signing over business licenses, live/work leases that seem simple, when in reality there was a line in the contract that said I was giving him permission to do this. In the end, we settled on an agreement and we moved out.
It was so hard to say goodbye to something that I didn’t want to give up. I had created this beautiful space with these other amazing hair stylists and then all of a sudden we had to close it down. To have this happen after receiving all the support from my clients through Indiegogo made me feel like I was letting everyone down- most importantly myself.
My relationship with my boyfriend came right at the time that this happened. Being with him was the easiest, truest thing amidst losing a business which seemingly was trying to rock my trust: trust in myself, in other people, and in what I’m doing. He taught me to ask the how’s and the why’s, which was something I wasn’t asking myself before because I was always asking why not.
I had self doubts just like anyone would have after you go through something like that, like – “What the heck am I doing?” “Why would I keep trying to open up a salon if it’s not working?” – but it was working. It just wasn’t working there, and I didn’t want to give up.
After that, I decided to do a pop up shop in Venice called, Cabin West, again a 3 chair salon and homewares and book store. This ran for just under a year when my sublet was done and I was looking for a new place permanently.
Amidst looking for a new storefront, my new home found me. The store owner from Tumbleweed and Dandelion on Abbot Kinney in Venice reached out to me on Facebook, saying she loved my shop and wanted to know if I would come rent her back bungalow.
And I thought, yes, absolutely, yes.
Now, I’m about to open the most beautiful idyllic salon hideaway to be able to do really good hair out of and it all makes sense that the other things didn’t work out. I’ve fine tuned what Cabin is to me, and it now lives as a private studio with 2 chairs, some beautiful retail and what I need to do really good hair.
My secret to good hair is to eat really well and manage stress. I feel like I can give you the best haircut and it will last you months, which is also my second secret, but if you are not doing what you should be doing from the inside out then your hair is not going to show it.
It’s so important to find time to do these things, and give your mind and body what it is missing. I, personally, find that animal fats and hydrolyzed collagen help support my skin, hair and nails. And also trying as much as you can to eat anti-inflammatory food.
I think a lot of my love for natural living came from how I grew up, but I really started putting it into practice in my mid 20’s when I moved to Venice.
In regards to hair products, I have been using so many products to alter hair as an art form – thinking, how can I use a product to create a shape, to build something that is not there – and for as much as I loved natural, it wasn’t something that could achieve what I was doing for my career.
You need chemical products to create wild shapes, but for everyday living, you don’t need that. With the way people are formulating now and bridging the world of natural and chemical products, there are more non toxic lines coming out that allow you to treat your hair without synthetics, while still delivering the efficacy of a high performance styling line. You need something that is going to help your whole being, and the health of your hair, which is why I’m so excited to be working with Shelby from Playa. Her products are beautifully designed, from the formulation to the packaging. She’s really worked hard to create the most beautiful non toxic line that I believe will change the market.
When I wake up, as much as I can, I meditate, do a little writing, go surfing or do one of my boyfriends classes where he incorporate tai chi, meditation and functional movements. His business, Home Holistic LA @homeholisticla, involves 1 on 1 coaching for postural correction, and nutrition and lifestyle coaching.
Read more about Kristen’s newly launched salon, Cabin, and the exclusive haircare line, Playa, in this article, “These Two Women Are Bringing You Effortless, Sexy Beach Hair (No Curling Iron Needed.)”
-as told to BOND EN AVANT, edited for length & flow; intro written by Amy Chang, founder + editor; photographed by Amy Chang