Hair Stylist Alan Gold: ‘The Industry Is 40% Emotion, 60% Talent’

Alan Gold’s brush with hair styling has its roots back in his teens, when he enrolled in a summer school program at the Philadelphia College of Art. There, for two consecutive summers, he began to develop the artistic skills that would make him one of the industry’s most successful hair colorists and cutters.   

As an undergraduate at Penn State, he majored in international relations and political science, with plans to launch a career in law or business. After one year at UCLA law school, however, he returned to Philadelphia for family reasons. While waiting to decide his next move, he took a job cutting hair at a local salon, liked it, and went to night beauty school to learn advanced techniques in coloring and cutting.

Gold worked at two different salons before opening his own place in 1983 called Gold Works. In 1989, he moved to his current location in Philadelphia where his celebrity clients included Joan Collins and Farah Fawcett, among others. Eventually he decided to focus less on running a beauty business and more on his commercials, editorial fashion shoots, clients and runway shows. He is now creative director for the Alan Gold Group in the same salon space as before. Because he no longer owns it, he has more time to travel around the country, from New York to Los Angeles, and abroad, working the runway shows in Paris as well as luxury wedding destinations like Curacao. His clients include such top models as Christy Turlington, Amber Valetta and Maggie Reiser.

Gold talked with Knowledge@Wharton High School about his career path, how best to fulfill customers’ wish lists, what it takes to do runway shows, and why he has been so successful in an ultra competitive industry. 

Below is an edited version of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Thank you so much for being here, Alan. I will jump right in. Why did you decide to get started in the salon business?

Alan Gold: I got into the salon business out of necessity. It was a great way [to make money] when I had family responsibilities. But it was a big change from being on a track to go to law school.

KWHS: So when you entered [this field], it was a necessity. But did you grow to find a passion for the business?

Gold: I did. When I was a kid, I used to sculpt and paint as a hobby, and at the age of 14, I went to the Philadelphia College of Art in a summer program. I was the only 14-year-old. I found myself in a situation where I could turn a hobby into a profession. Cutting hair, coloring hair, is just another layer of sculpting and painting. It’s another medium.

KWHS: So Haig & Co. is your salon? It says on your website that it “caters to high profile clients, as well as the everyday girl.” I was wondering how you balance serving those two interests. How do you make sure your high profile clients stay happy? How do you make sure your everyday girl doesn’t feel like she’s left out?

Gold:  [My clients are both] women and men. Everybody comes in with a common denominator, and that is a need. As a good stylist, you have to listen to what that need is. If you fulfill that need, the client comes back and you become credible. And then you have repeat business. So everybody, whether you are working, high profile, celebutante – all come with a need. Being a good stylist is about translating that need to be fashionable and to fulfill [clients’] wish lists, realistic or unrealistic as it may be sometimes.

KWHS: So is that unrealistic wish list sometimes the toughest part of the business? Or is there something else that’s even harder?

Gold: It’s about communicating to the client what can be attained in that visit. Is it multiple visits? Is there something we’re going to work towards? And how to translate what will suit them best. People wish for many things, but as a good stylist, you have to know how to explain what is best for the individual. Is it really going to fulfill their needs?

KWHS: So as a hair stylist, you set some trends, but you also follow some trends, depending on what the customer wants. Is it a push strategy or a pull strategy? Are you telling people what they want or giving them what they want?

Gold: I’m educating people as to what they need. Because the media really tells people what they need. For me, I want to follow and lead via what I get from the media – social media — and translate this to the client. So it’s about having some savoir faire, translating that and making [clients] aware of what they should think. Somebody comes in and says to you, “I want this.” You listen and you listen. And really that’s not what they want. Then you have to explain to them what will give them what they want and why. They may not always understand, but you have to help them understand and take them on the path and the processes to get there.

KWHS: Do you own the salon?

Gold: I do not. I am the creative director there. It’s a salon that I built. That was my salon. At the time I opened, we were under-capitalized. It closed. I came back to work there. It allows me to work there and to do editorial work outside of the salon – doing fashion, photo, commercials, runway. It’s a nice mix of many things.

KWHS: So how does the salon business differ from the runway, from the more high fashion business?

Gold: Some of the pre-work for a runway show [includes] rehearsals. The end result is that the photograph for the designer will be [his] ad that is seen by millions and millions of people all over the world. And that look has to translate and be part of a full package – color and cut and silhouette. Does it create the vibe that the designer wants to convey? So my job is to be a translator. Sometimes I feel like I’m at the United Nations because you’re translating in many languages, and everybody has to understand it. So the picture on the runway has to communicate that.

In a salon, the client has to leave and be able to have that feeling for a whole month. It’s not a one-time picture. If it’s a one-time picture, that client is not going to come back. You have to let them leave. And that’s how our industry has changed. People used to come to salons far more frequently. Now, once a month – a lot of big work. They lead their busy lives. Everybody’s working, whether they have to or they don’t – men, women – everybody’s doing something. So you have to give them something that’s going to live more than one visit.

KWHS:  Fashion designers are very concerned with how creative the look is. But at the same time, there’s a business [interest] behind it, right?

Gold: My job is to work with an artistic director to fulfill what the needs of that particular job are. So having to please any factors, which are the bankers and the money people, that’s not my job. [My job] is to make the designer and the artistic director happy, and to try to translate what they’re telling me they want. Again, it’s about need. Am I fulfilling their need? Their wish list? And is it translating to runway? And to their vision? Everybody has a vision. If you’re a designer and you have a concept for an entire show, or you are an individual and you come and sit in the chair – it’s all about somebody’s vision. About themselves, their collection, their focus.

KWHS: So when someone sits down at the salon and gets their hair cut, what else do you do to extend that customer life time value? What else do you do to make sure they want to come back?

Gold:  Well, the one thing is, you look at the entire person. Oftentimes I make them stand up. Because I have to look at the whole package. You can’t put a head on a body that doesn’t match. You also have to ask some questions. Ask about their ability to care [for their new look] after they leave. What are their intentions or not, as the case may be? Some people want wash and wear. Some people want to be ready for their close-up. And then you have to support their visit with some take-home products. I’m not a product pusher. The products I seek and use will give a result, not something that is delivered by a manufacturer. In the industry when I started, it was told to me, “You’re going to use this kind of product.” It was always to be “new and improved.” Over the many years of being in the business, I’ve learned to dissect what will get a result. And that’s what I recommend for the client. Not one brand for everybody. Doesn’t work. So it’s to cherry pick what’s going to support their visit. It lends more credibility to when that client goes home.

KWHS: I need to be going to your salon. Because I feel like I’m always being pushed products I never end up using.

Gold: I’m not about product pushing. Growing up as a kid, every laundry detergent was always “new and improved.” They just changed it to “newer, whiter, bigger, sudsier.” At the end, it wasn’t any different. So now I look to lead in finding products that establish credibility. That’s what I use.

KWHS: Do you think the entire industry is moving that way? Do you see any long-range trends for the industry or how it’s changing?

Gold: People used to iconize people in history. Then in movies. I grew up in a generation of music: That defined my generation. Now it’s social media. So it’s using social media and keeping a pulse on it. And that is what defines my industry. It’s going in that direction. People want more about core content and longevity than the bling. The bling – everybody knows what they see on a red carpet is borrowed. But if you took it all off, does that person still look good? So that is what’s driving the wish list of clients.

KWHS: Is there a particular hair cut that’s really popular right now? A Jennifer Aniston maybe? That was from years ago.

Gold: There are many, many hair cuts. But it’s always about translating what is the vibe. More than a single hair cut, it’s about a vibe. There’s an overall look. There’s a freeness to it. Is it flattering? And does it bring out the best for that client? There’s nothing worse than back in the day when … some 200 pound woman [wanted] a Dorothy Hamill hair cut…. That’s not something I will do. My thing is, is can you translate it to the individual in your chair? Is it color? Is it cut? Is it care that’s going to give them the most to look and feel their best? If somebody comes in with a picture and says, “I want this.” I – not often – have said to clients, “I’m not the one for you. This is not what I do. I can’t stand behind it. I don’t believe it.”

KWHS: Do you think that’s the mark of quality? Being able to turn away business?

Gold: I think you have to be nice to people. And I think just giving somebody always what they want isn’t the answer. You have to educate them. It’s about integrity for your client and for you. It’s the same with products. Just because a manufacturer says, “This is our new thing,” if it’s not going to fit, not going to work, you have to be able to stand back and not be locked in and hand cuffed to a product.

KWHS: With social media, how exactly do you incorporate that into keeping a pulse on industry trends?

Gold:  I can pull trends out and [ask questions like], what is the direction here? What’s happening? And how is this going to translate into the salon? What are clients going to come in with? What’s the vibe of a collection, a designer’s collection? What are we trying to achieve here? Is it art inspired? Is it politically inspired? Is it rock? Is it hard? What is the vibe? And in watching and being part of social media – I mean, that’s how we all communicate on a day-to-day basis — you’re no longer locked into the bricks and mortar of a retail situation. So it’s out there and you have to be able to extrapolate that. That’s what I’m always watching. So it is music, it is art, it is entertainment, it is fashion. It’s all in one. It’s food, it’s travel. And I get to partake in all those nice things. So I like to be able to take those pieces, bring them in and translate them to the client, be it in the salon or the runway.

KWHS: Since you’re really successful now in this business, can you tell us how a young person might get into it?

Gold: The one thing I realized a long time ago is that we are all only as good as our last hair cut or hair color. You have to be passionate and believe in it. If you just want to execute the most perfect hair cut in the world or perfect hair color, then you are a technician. You might be a very good technician. I’m not just a technician. I’ve learned my technicals. But I am passionate about it. And I still get excited about it today. Whatever I go to do, when I come into work I am excited to be there. Even if it’s the same client I’ve seen for 30 years, even if it’s another runway show that I’ve done before for somebody. You have to have some juice in your veins to make it work. If not, you’re just a human clip. You’re just standing there going through the motions. So if [young people] want to pursue it as art and work hard – for hard work there’s always a good reward. I still start at seven in the morning. Our days are long. Sometimes we do seven days a week. But I still love it. I love it in the salon. If it’s in the studio, if it means traveling, I get excited. And you have to stay excited.

KWHS: Would you recommend that any young person take the law detour that you took?

Gold: If that’s what excites them. What pushes your buttons? I didn’t have my buttons pushed until I got into this. I was totally geared for something else and all juiced up to do that. But this started to fill a need. And then I found that my hobby became a profession. Lucky for me, I had something else in my file.

KWHS: Do you think your law background helped you at all?

Gold:  I think it helps me to communicate. I think all the college and all of the different things help me communicate. It kept me interested in art and culture. To be able to go work in Paris and speak the language is a great thing. Not because I’m French.

KWHS: I would be lost in Paris.

Gold: C’est tres facile. It’s very easy. They’re very nice. But, you know, you have to be excited. I still am excited. When a new product comes out, I’m excited about that. Why is it working? Is it going to give me the result? Can I bring this to my people? You have to care about what you do. You have to be engaged in whatever it is you do. My industry is 40% emotion, 60% talent…. There are good technicians; they’re not passionate. They’re not emotional. They don’t care. They might be great, but they just go through the motions. So for somebody who wants to get into it and give 100%, that’s the way to go.

KWHS: Are there any interesting fashion shows that you worked with? Or a high profile client you really enjoyed working with?

Gold:  I loved working with Christian Lacroix in Paris. It was at a time when fashion was at its extreme. There were no limits. Luxe and excess were the top of the food chain. It was limitless imagination. Now fashion shows are more marketable. They’re far more streamlined. A lot of them have been edited down so that they don’t show every season because of the cost factors. They are horrific. There are unions involved, all kinds of things. So to produce a 45-minute show could be a million dollars – music, camera, technicians, models. Designers don’t always have an extra mil floating around. But I do love the art of it. And I like the ability to experiment and to draw out what is happening in the media and connect it to beauty.

KWHS: So if you could say in one sentence why you’ve been successful, what your key to success has been – what would you say it is?

Gold: Passion, looking for a great finish line.

KWHS: Thank you so much for being here, Alan.

Gold: Thank you for having me.

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