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When Larisa met Sophia

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Age: 28
Larisa Love Salon, Radio City, Los Angeles (Est. 2017)

Known for her epic transformation videos featuring crystalline colour melts, self-taught California colourist Larisa Love’s career has blossomed in the last five years. A veritable Instagram sensation, with her before and after videos garnering thousands of likes and reposts, she is currently an ambassador for international trade show brand Cosmoprof and colour juggernaut JOICO. When not in her Studio City salon, she hosts educational seminars across the globe, and has even launched her own line of colourist aprons.

Age: 30
Not Another Salon, Brick Lane, London UK (Est. 2016)

Reigning Most Wanted Colour Expert Sophia is undoubtedly an innovator within the industry, and has made it her mission to completely change the way we look at colour. Known for her own signature yellow locks, her salon delivers seamless balayage and creative colours, offering everything from look-twice subtle hues to rainbows waves. Passionate about providing education for future talent, Sophia also teaches at her Not Another Academy, which provides training in advanced colouring techniques and revolutionising salon culture.

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Earlier this summer, Creative HEAD pulled some strings and brought two of the biggest names in colour together for the very first time. Over a Mad Hatter’s-style afternoon tea at The Sanderson hotel in London, the UK’s multi-#MWIT champion Sophia Hilton and US phenomenon Larisa Love chatted for hours about staffing, social media, psychology, set-backs and much, much more. Here, we kick things off with their discussion about…

SH: How’s it been being away from the salon?

LL: It’s so weird, but I have the most amazing manager. I travel a lot, too. I probably spend half my time travelling and half in the salon.

SH: How many staff have you got?

LL: I have four stylists, two guest artists that come and go, and then a manager and an assistant. What about you?

SH: 17.

LL: Holy crap!

SH: In like the smallest space you could imagine too. We don’t have (individual) chairs – I have 12 stations and I have a colour development room, which takes four. There’s a lot of rotation! But my staff are also educators because we’re an education team.

I found it limiting to be a one-man-band, education-wise, so I’ve been training them up. Some of them now are starting to do a day as an educator and fewer days on the floor. I’ve got a couple of them graduating so I’ve looked at expansion, and I just don’t want to do it, but I’m also like: “What am I going to do?”

The fact that a lot of them want to be teachers means that I can offer the stuff I normally do to them and pull them away from the salon that way, freeing up an extra chair. And it’s fun for them as they get to do more fun things and have more opportunities.

LL: Yeah, I guess they get to travel.

SH: I mean, essentially it’s about growing the academy to pull them off the salon floor, which they obviously like!

LL: It’s nice to do half and half too – to be in the salon, but doing something else that’s a little bit different yet still hair related.

SH: I’m definitely over-staffed right now, but when good people come along…

LL: Did you hire all of (your current staff) at the same time?

SH: No. There was a salon down the road and two people just came to me from there. They were really, really good, so I just thought: “You know what? You never know who’s going to leave. You never know what’s going to happen.”

LL: Yeah, you honestly never know. The most faithful people can have an opportunity come along and then either move on or change their mind.

SH:  It’s also worked in my favour. For example, I’ve got a job in Australia later on in the year, but it might end up being a month away. Plus, November’s my busiest month and the girl I want to take with me is one of my highest earners, so it’s a lot to take away from the salon. But if I’ve got other staff to take those clients, then I don’t really mind pulling her off the floor. But if there’s nowhere for those clients to go, then it’s a huge loss.

The expression in the UK is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ – without the back-up, I’d be taking money from here only to put it back in there – you’re actually just moving funds in terms of loss and gains around and not making any ground. Business-wise, you’ve got to be able to fill the seats when you take people out.

LL: I make it work because I have an amazing manager so I can completely trust him with my money and the logistics of the business, making sure everything runs smoothly. And then when I have clients that want to come to me, and I obviously can’t take them because I’m not there, I just give them to my artists. Some of them are like “No, I just want you!”. But it works. And my team is small, so it’s nice, it never gets too crazy. And they’re all chair renters. I don’t know how it works here, do you work on commission?

SH:  It’s commission but people are employed. So you only have chair renters?

LL: Yes, but they’re also sort-of employed. When I first opened up everyone was on commission. And then they changed the laws in California, where my salon is, so it’s impossible for you to have a commissioned salon. There are so many different laws, licenses and permits required in California! The law used to be that you hit commission or you would hit hourly, but most people would hit commission and that’s what they would take home. Now, the new law is that you have to pay them both, but you have to pay them double minimum wage, which is $24 an hour, plus commission.

SH:  So you can just lower the commission…

LL: Yeah but who is going to want to work as hard for 20% commission?

SH: We actually have both systems in the UK, so it’s quite common that someone would get an hourly rate, plus commission. So for example, we’re straight commission because it’s really simple for the stylists to understand, but in many salons – especially the big chains – you have a monthly wage and then you would earn 10% commission on top. Essentially, it’s supposed to equate to similar take home.

LL:  But the thing is that –

SH:  It’s hard for stylists to get their head around that.

LL: Exactly! And they’ll be like “Why am I working so hard and I’m only getting this percentage?” Even though they’re still getting paid hourly.

SH:  That’s why I never liked it. Some stylists will say “But she earns 50%”, and I’m like yeah, but you get a monthly wage too.

LL: Exactly. So I figured it would just be easier if I just put everyone on chair rental. It’s also easier because you don’t have to make as much anymore, but it’s so much more stress-free because now they’re self-employed, they come and go as I’m not in charge of their bookings.

They know the hours and the days that we work, and they’re the only hours that they can come in. It’s so much easier on me as well because I don’t have to fill their books – they’re in charge of filling their own – but if I have a client who can’t afford me or if I’m out of town then I can give them that client. It sucks because I don’t make anything out of it, but at the end of the day I didn’t open a salon to make money.

People might think you earn a lot of money for opening your own salon but it’s kind of a joke because you don’t. I just wanted to create an environment that I wanted to work in, and I wanted to work with people whose ideal environment is just the same. So it’s been great, it’s been so much more stress-free for me, and I don’t feel like I have to babysit them.

SH:  That would never be an option for me really, chair rental. It happens loads here and it’s really good because of the benefits which you’ve mentioned. But, for me, it wouldn’t work because I develop those individuals. They’re my responsibility  – I help to grow their careers, help grow their skillset – so I want control of them in that sense. I want to say what they do and when they do it! It’s less of an artistic space, my salon, like you have where everyone is sort of collaborating. It’s more like “Here’s my vision, this is what I’m doing. Fall in line or don’t be there.”

That’s actually the argument that happens a lot in the UK –  what you can tell staff to do and what you can’t. For example, if someone comes into my salon and I don’t like the way they’re dressed I want to tell them straightaway “You need to sort that out” because presentation is super important.

LL: Absolutely.

SH:  But I have no legal rights to say that if they are self-employed.

LL:  No. And I don’t.

SH:  So that’s the sort of thing that gets really heavy. And I need to be able to say “Get some make-up on.”

LL:  Yeah. But you know what… even though I’m not allowed to say it, I still do! We don’t have a dress code because I want stylists to come in and be authentic as themselves, but obviously don’t come in in your PJs, with wet hair, with no make-up on.

They know that – that’s just common sense – and if they did turn up like that, I would still say something because I am the owner and the look and presentation, like you said, is so extremely important. If you’re not taking care of yourself then the clients are gonna be like: “Well if you don’t care about yourself, are you gonna care about MY hair?” So the people that I hire, they know better.

SH:  Yeah, absolutely. Thinking about it, I have one person who is self-employed. From a legal stand-point, he has to be because he has an alternative income as a session stylist. From a legal perspective, someone is truly self-employed in this country if they are earning income elsewhere, and they also have to not have specific hours and stuff like that, so I couldn’t set that person’s hours. He’s good though, he falls in line.

LL: And that’s the thing, you have to find those people that do fall in line. There are people who want to work in my salon but I look at their work and assess or know they just don’t fit in. And with my team, I feel like we’re all so different but we all really mesh well together. You have to find those right people that will still fit under your brand, and what you’ve created. I’m not going to just hire any random person.

SH:  For me, it’s all about being able to say “So you’re coming in at 9am tomorrow because we have a training session.”

LL: Ha! In my salon we have classes too – I like to book classes all the time for education. I tell them, “Obviously it’s up to you to come”, but it’s more like “You’d better come!”

SH:  Yeah!

LL:  They know, they know better!

SH:  Actually it’s really funny, because I’ve had a new team member come over from Ireland. He was a stylist and he stepped down to be an assistant with me for a year. I was having my hair shampooed by him and I said to him “Are you coming to L’Oréal Colour Trophy?” and he said: “I don’t think I am.” And I said “That’s an interesting decision…”

[Both laugh]

LL: That’s a great way of saying that!

SH:  Never mind that you’ve moved to the UK to better your career, taken a step down, are brand new here…!

LL:  What did he say?

SH:  He just went quiet. And then I saw him there a couple of weeks later. I’m not usually that passive-aggressive!

LL:  Good boy, good boy.

Creative HEAD: What would you have done if you hadn’t have chosen hairdressing?

LL: You know, if I hadn’t got into hairdressing, I’d have been poor and homeless! No, I’m kidding, I know exactly what I would have done. I love interior design, and I actually designed my entire salon myself. I found it a really exciting project. It was a salon beforehand called Red Salon and everything was red. But it looked cheap, so I demolished the whole thing and started from scratch. It’s a two storey salon and I completely styled it myself after I found an amazing contractor. One thing I love is a brick wall – every studio I’ve worked at had a brick wall.

SH:  Same! I have one at home. They’re so overdone now but I still love it.

LL:  Yeah, I still love them. It cost me $15,000 because they had to build it up bit by bit. It’s real brick and it took them two weeks because I have high vaulted ceilings. But I love it and it’s completely my aesthetic – everything in my salon is custom-made, real wood. It was expensive but worth it and really fun.

Funding was supposed to be $100,000… it ended up being $200,000! People always ask me for that one piece of advice for when you’re opening up a salon – double. your. budget. I hate owing money so I saved up, and it was either buy a house or a salon. I got almost all the way through buying a house before I realised actually, I want the salon more. It was expensive but worth it – because now the salon actually looks how I want it to and represents me. If you’re gonna go all-in then don’t cheap out on anything, get it exactly as you want it.

SH: Ha, I did mine too… but for really cheap! It’s falling apart a bit now. It’s like a project from Blue Peter, making things out of toilet rolls! My husband’s a builder, so that helped. We managed to turn over the whole salon in a month, 1000 sq ft – floors, ceiling, lighting, all the fittings.

I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t done this though. I love hairdressing, but it’s also not the be-all and end-all for me. I like applying myself to something and doing it really well, and hairdressing is just something I chose to do. That’s what makes me tick; I want to work hard and create something. I think I was going to end up owing my own business because I’m from a family of business owners. Not a particularly academic family or wealthy family, but sort of ‘market stall men who did a bit better’ – I mean, we’re not on the Stock Exchange, we’re not that kind of family! I grew up with that mentality though.

Part two: Choose colour >