Everyone’s relationship with their own hair is unique. It fluctuates day to day, season by season; sometimes it’s the last thing you care about, and others it’s an impossibly objective measure of your self worth. When you need a fix, and the idea of strolling into a salon that feels like a daytime nightclub-slash-vanity hospital feels too intimidating to bear—well, who are you going to call?
With her sunny yet matter-of-fact demeanour, Brittney Banks is the antidote. Part colour theory whiz, part therapist, she’s built a career out of genuinely connecting with her clients: a principle of hairdressing that can often be overlooked in lieu of “the craft.” Contrary to the blinding white and thumping music of typical salon fare, her space has an invitingly rustic vibe. Upon walking in, you’re greeted by a marble top bar that could easily moonlight the salon for a myriad of other party options. (She does have a liquor license.) How does a woman uproot her life in Prince Edward Island to become a stylist to the stars? Read on to find out.
How long have you been doing hair for?
I went to hair school when I was 20. I’m 30 now; it’s been nine or ten years.
I started off in salons. I’ve only worked in two salons here. I started off as freelance for hair extensions and styling. Then I started doing movies. I made a point to stay in the same salon because I didn’t want to confuse my clients. I find that in this industry, everyone’s constantly jumping around and changing salons, and going to the next best thing thinking they’ll get more clients. But in my opinion, it’s not worth it. It’s better to just stay in one spot because I knew one day I’d want to open my own salon.
It seems as though people tend to bounce from place to place in the service industry. Like restaurants, for example.
It’s funny you mention that, because I’ve always either served, bartended, did bottle service wherever I went—whether it was PEI, or New Brunswick, or Toronto. It was really tough, because I was a hairdresser and still working in the restaurant industry.
You could work a bartending shift for ten, thirteen hours. Hairdressing’s the exact same way. The two industries are so similar—not just in the way you deal with people, but the physical toll it takes on you. You’re always on your feet, you’re always chatting with people—all the while providing a service, whether it’s hair, or drinks, or food. I think that’s why my customer service is good, and I’m so grateful for my experience in it.
“You could work a bartending shift for ten, thirteen hours. Hairdressing’s the exact same way. The two industries are so similar—not just in the way you deal with people, but the physical toll it takes on you.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your clientele? Who do you tend to attract?
Because I’m a blonde specialist, I do attract a lot of women who want to be blonde. I’ve been lucky enough to tap into the hockey wives; a few from the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. The Raptors, as well. They’re all really sweet, having moved here from wherever. Moving here’s really overwhelming for them because they’re living in hotels, with their husbands who are constantly on the road. They’re in this city by themselves, knowing no one. It’s really nice to take them on because I’m meeting people from all over the world.
I’m also fortunate to have ties to agencies, so I have a lot of actors and models coming in. They’re more of a challenge, because when they do movies or [shows] that are more long-term, they have to maintain their look. They also have to look very similar to their original headshots. Being a brunette or a blonde can make a world of difference in auditions. You have to stay consistent. Working on movies was tough; there would be reshoots of scenes that were shot months ago, and I’d have to cut or colour hair in ways that didn’t look processed. That was a challenge, because I’m so used to embracing fun changes.
I need a challenge. I’ve been doing hair for nine years, and I haven’t gotten bored of it yet, but jobs like that are just different enough from my day to day to keep me excited.
Doing someone else’s hair is a pretty intimate thing. People tend to open up in ways they wouldn’t with anyone else. How do you build that connection?
I think that being personable and outgoing are important skills for this industry. You should never become a hairstylist unless you have those things. There are people who don’t really talk to their clients, but it doesn’t make for a good atmosphere. And when some women spend a ton of time in the salon, depending on what they’re getting done, that’s important.
Recognizing who your audience is is a huge skill as well. You don’t want to play super loud music when you’ve got a client in her fifties coming in for a touch-up, for example. But if your girlfriends are coming in, and getting blowouts with a glass of wine, that’s different.
Have you seen a correlation between what people want out of their hair and who they are as people?
Not exactly, but here’s something that happens a lot: I had a girl come in a few days ago for a colour correction. At the beginning of her appointment, I could tell she was unhappy with her appearance. It needed a ton of help. And depending on the experience they’ve had with other salons, they’re usually already nervous. You’re hoping the person you picked is going to fix it and do a good job. Plus, it’s expensive. It’s a gamble.
We start talking. Along the way, I’m having clients come in, and as her hair is finishing up, they’re all remarking on how amazing it looks. She’s thrilled. After finishing up, she goes to the boutique upstairs and tries some things on; she buys a new necklace. She goes home, takes some selfies, and tags me in them. Compared to the person she was coming into the salon five, six hours ago, her whole attitude changed. She’d gone from an orangey-red to this bright, silvery blonde with a lavender-chrome root.
That’s one of my favourite parts of the job: doing something that could transform people into having that kind of happiness. It makes me feel really good, it makes my business look really good. It’s also knowing that I had accomplished something that she was really nervous about. And now she can trust me. Trust is a big thing in hair, because if you’re getting a bad vibe from your hairstylist, it may not be because they’re bad at their job—but because they’re making you feel uncomfortable. They can be amazing at what they do, but if you don’t feel that connection with them, you wouldn’t go back. The customer should always be happy in what they’re getting, and if they’re not, they will leave.
“Trust is a big thing in hair, because if you’re getting a bad vibe from your hairstylist, it may not be because they’re bad at their job—but because they’re making you feel uncomfortable.”
How do you build that trust?
That’s why it’s important to stay on top of the trends. I find that in the industry, there are a lot of stylists who don’t and just try to wing it. Education in the hair world is very expensive and I understand that people can’t always afford it, but if you can, it’s the smartest thing to do. It’s what helps you explain why certain ideas might not work for your client’s hair type or current cut, for example. You have to make them feel comfortable—not that their ideal is inappropriate, but find a way to compromise. You want to be realistic about expectations, instead of just leaving it open for your client’s interpretation. Otherwise they might think you don’t know what you’re doing. When a balayage or ombre trend comes out, or a technical texturized lob, and you can’t do what your favourite customer is asking of you, what’re you going to do?
“You want to be realistic about expectations, instead of just leaving it open for your client’s interpretation. Otherwise they might think you don’t know what you’re doing.”
What’s your vision for your space?
I knew I didn’t want to open a space unless it was going to be very, very different. It took me a little over a year with three real estate agents to find this space. I know there are a ton of spaces for lease right now—you can tell, walking down Queen Street—but none that I saw had any real character to them. So when I saw this space, I wanted to take it despite it being a total shambles.
To be honest, it was a lot of work. Because of the high ceilings and exposed brick, there was a very masculine vibe to the space that I wanted to neutralize. Not by too much though, because I have male clients. A lot of guys in general feel like they can only walk into a barbershop, because they can feel intimidated.
Despite the work it took, I love the space. I love the beams, the fact that I can rent out the space upstairs for pop-ups.
There’s a very inclusive vibe to what you’re doing with the flexibility of the space, like involving local businesses who your clients may be interested in. How do you choose who to work with?
Finding people you want to work with is the toughest part of being a business owner. When it comes to stylists, I’ve been very picky. I’m easy to get along with and I’ll never be a hard-ass boss, but I really want people to be here because they want to be here. It’s a shame, because there’s a ton of stylists in the industry, but few take the time to make a connection with their clients. And because they didn’t do that, the whole city is saturated with stylists who don’t have a proper clientele or following. This block alone has four salons on it, and not to mention how many beauty bars there are now.
The beauty industry is incredibly saturated, and that’s why it’s so important to value your clients, and make sure they’re happy. Because they can always go elsewhere.
“The beauty industry is incredibly saturated, and that’s why it’s so important to value your clients, and make sure they’re happy. Because they can always go elsewhere.”
How has the intersection of social media with the beauty industry affected your work?
It absolutely has. Things like Pinterest and Instagram are amazing in a lot of ways, but also bad in others. People would come in with Photoshopped, digitalized picture from a photo shoot, and it’s so unrealistic and distant from what their hair is in the first place. That’s a challenge because you have to feel your client out and explain to them in a professional way. It’s one thing to say something’s not going to work, but it’s another to also explain why in terms your client can understand. Some people are under the impression that their idea for their own hair was bad, when the truth could be the stylist didn’t have the education to explain why it couldn’t work.
Going to hair school nine years ago wasn’t enough; it’s never going to be enough. I always want to keep learning, because if I don’t, I’m going to be the stylist who just does the same foils on my clients every day, the same toner… and I’ll get bored of my job. And that’ll be such a shame. This industry is so exciting, and taking challenges on is a good thing. If you don’t, you’re going to get stuck in a rut and become discouraged. Learn how to do things, and be really great at them.
“Taking challenges on is a good thing. If you don’t, you’re going to get stuck in a rut and become discouraged. Learn how to do things, and be really great at them.”