‘The salon as we know it is over,’ says Irish hairdresser to the stars

Irish hairdresser to Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Liza Minnelli closes exclusive NYC salon

The doors of the John Barrett Salon – the high-end, full-service beauty destination created by the Limerick-born hairdresser John Barrett, which has occupied the penthouse floor of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan for more than two decades – have closed for the last time.

To some, it was the end of an era for a particular breed of New York women, christened Bergdorf Blondes in the Plum Sykes novel of the same name, from 2004. The title was a nod to the tribe's preferred hair colour as well as to their favourite hangout, Barrett's salon, where the sparkling wine, gossip and high jinks flowed as easily as the shampoo and conditioner.

Barrett, who opened the salon in 1996, was born in Ardagh, Co Limerick, the fifth in a family of 10. After moving to London with his family as a teenager, he relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, meeting and befriending actors and fashion editors. After a spell back in London, he moved to the United States permanently in the early 1990s, after winning a green card in the American government’s annual lottery.

It somehow felt like home and like a really great cocktail party. You never knew who was going to be in the chair next to you

On any given day at his salon, you might spot Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton or Liza Minnelli, who were all regulars. His clients have also included Bette Midler, Juliette Binoche, Liam Neeson and Neeson's late wife, Natasha Richardson. Barrett also worked on Friends, cutting the hair of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow. It all meant his salon "was a bit of a scene", says Sykes, who now lives in Britain.


Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town & Country, once watched Minnelli sing Happy Birthday to Barrett. “It somehow felt like home and like a really great cocktail party,” Volandes says. “You never knew who was going to be in the chair next to you.”

Making sure the wrong people didn't end up in the next chair was a normal, and crucial, part of salon business. "There's always the situation where you have to keep the first and the second wife from seeing each other," says Barrett, who also recalls the day when he had to separate two best friends who were fighting and another day when he had to make sure Clinton and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News didn't cross paths.

“We tended to wall off Secretary Clinton,” says Barrett, who explains that although he didn’t have a private room – “all the wrong people want to be in it” – he did have room-dividing screens that his staff could put up for extra privacy. His staff also knew not to book certain clients at the same time, and they kept others at opposite ends of the space. “I have a woman at the front of the salon who is basically like a maitre d’,” Barrett says. “She knows who’s who.”

And that’s the tame stuff. There was the well-dressed client who would come in two or three times a week for a blow-dry ($85, or about €75, and up) and then run out of the salon without paying. One day Bergdorf security stopped her. Instead of having her arrested, Barrett came up with a simple solution: put her credit card on file. “I thought she would be too embarrassed to come back, but she was back the next day,” he says.

Jennifer Costa, a senior colourist with the salon, was once called out to the Mercer Hotel, in SoHo, to colour the hair of a celebrity. Costa found herself alone with the woman, whom she describes as "not being in her right mind", not to mention totally unclothed. They ended up working on the bed, where Costa struggled to do the colour and highlights.

“She couldn’t sit still,” Costa says. “I had hair colour all over.” When the celebrity requested that she join her in the shower so she could rinse out the colour, Costa drew the line. “The colour was fine,” she said. “I was a wreck.”

Presumably the juicy tales will continue to pile up at Barrett's new salon, on the mezzanine floor of the tower at 432 Park Avenue. The space will house a library filled with books available for purchase, and a retail section will be stocked with make-up kits from Trinny London and skincare products from Nannette de Gaspé, a Canadian beauty line, among other items.

“I think the salon as we know it is over,” Barrett says. “The New York woman of today doesn’t want to spend her whole day in a store. She is multitasking. I’m creating an environment where you come in and there are things to stimulate you while you are getting your hair coloured.”

You can also eat. Barrett has arranged for Bouchon Bakery, of Thomas Keller’s restaurant group, to supply salads and other light fare. There will also be turmeric ginger tea, blended fresh for each client, as well as the cappuccinos the salon is already known for, now offered with almond or cashew milk.

Perhaps the most bizarre story Barrett tells is of the well-dressed customer who had a penchant for urinating in the wastebaskets of the salon's changing rooms

This isn't Barrett's first attempt at reinventing the salon experience. "John was one of the innovators of the full-service salon," says Sarah Brown, a writer, brand consultant and former beauty director of Vogue. Of course, adding extra services, like brow grooming, manicures and makeup, also added to clients' bills. (Manicures cost $45 – about €40 – or more; brow shaping will add another $75, or €67.)

For Barrett, the reasoning was simple. “If you had a great hairdo and your brows were not right and the make-up was not right, then what good was it?” he says.

So Judy Taylor learned the first time she met Barrett. "He said, 'Darling, don't you want to be glamorous?' " Taylor, a senior vice-president for corporate communications and philanthropy at the Equinox high-end gym chain, was whisked to a chair, where Barrett told the colourist to make her a blonde. "And then he said, 'Do something with those eyebrows,' " Taylor recalls.

Barrett, who still speaks with a strong Irish accent, is known for being affable and chatty. It’s a demeanour that can help when contending with eccentric demands, like the client who wanted to be carried to her car after her pedicure.

Yet Barrett’s tolerance for his clients’ antics extends only so far. Perhaps the most bizarre story he tells is of the customer – “a well-dressed, well-turned-out lady” – who had a penchant for urinating in the wastebaskets of the salon’s changing rooms.

“The housekeepers really hated her,” he says. “We finally had to tell her, ‘Look, you can’t do that.’ ” A manager started standing outside the door of the changing room and doing room checks after she exited, which solved the problem. “It was completely crazy.”

And just another day at the salon. – New York Times