City Paper is not for tourists
Pierre Meyer Attia loves his Jilbere de Paris hot-air brush.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
The Jilbere sits in a metal train case on a glass table inside of Attia Art & Coiffure, the salon that Attia runs in Friendship Heights. Sure, there are more conventional tools in Attia’s arsenal: thinning shears, straightening irons, and the like. The Jilbere, though, is special.
The tool looks like a cross between a curling iron and brush—it’s shaped like an average curl maker, but with plastic bristles inserted into its barrel. The hybrid apparatus dries and styles hair at the same time.
“It is fab-u-lous,” Attia says, in his thick French accent.
When Attia uses the device on a client’s hair, he clutches it in his right hand, leaving the left one free to smooth down fly-aways. He rotates his wrist and lets the wand do its work. If he starts talking, or is otherwise distracted, he waves the Jilbere in the air to punctuate his thoughts, leaving it to whir in the ear of the customer he’s styling.
Among the frequently Jilbered is Ellie Boettinger-Heasley, a Silver Spring art researcher who comes to Attia’s Wisconsin Avenue salon to have her color touched up. Once her roasted-chestnut hue has set, the hair is washed and then trimmed into shape. Next come the scissors, blow-dryer, and brush. After those implements have completed the tasks required of them, out comes the Jilbere.
The instrument can be used to curl hair under or flip it up, depending on Attia’s agenda.
In Boettinger-Heasley’s case, it goes under. The result is hair that falls just at her chin and swings from side to side when she turns her head.
As Boettinger-Heasley is leaving, Attia’s next client walks in—her hair is shoulder-length and wavy. After mentioning that he’d like to change her brassy color at some point, they exchange a few pleasantries, in French, and Attia begins to work.
“Each one I cut differently!” he says proudly as he begins to snip.
But as he works, the woman’s mane begins to take on a familiar shape. He carves an inverted V into the hair around the nape of her neck. He then divides the wet hair into sections and cuts them to just about where her neck and head meet. The penultimate step involves taking a few swipes at the cut with a blow-dryer.
And the Jilbere once again rears its spiked black head. There’s not much suspense at this point. Attia and his trusty tool finish the cut with a couple of drags that force the tip of each strand of hair to face the neck, rather than the shoulder. By the time the customer is admiring herself in Attia’s mirror, she has almost an exact replica of the hairdo that the woman before her received—a modified version of the cut that has come to represent typical, conservative Washington style: the bob.
“It’s not Vidal Sassoon—it’s Pierre!” the stylist says, attempting to distance himself from the father of the modern bob, while brushing clippings from the woman’s shoulders with a fluffy purple brush.
Armed with his indispensable Jilbere, Attia spurns the current dictums of avant-garde hairstyling in the District. Although the 65-year-old stylist considers his establishment on par with the most upscale salons in the city—and charges his clients accordingly—he sniffs at all things au courant. Attia doesn’t serve alcohol, dress all in black, or even expect tips from the 1,400 women that he estimates make up his client base.
Attia insists that his approach to coiffure is neither formulaic nor outdated, but, rather, tailored to the individual needs of his clientele. “I look at the face shape, the eyes, the smile, the profile—all of these things,” he says. Of course, he does have some constraints. “I have lawyers, judges, prosecutors, scientists—I can’t give them a punk look, or a New York Village look, or a Victoria’s Secret look,” he explains.
But with the help of his Jilbere and his conservative tastes, he can certainly send them home wearing a classic Washington look: the bob. “There are no old haircuts,” Attia says. “It is what suits you.”
Attia has something of a self-serving view of his place in the D.C. hairstyling scene. The priciest salons regularly botch hair jobs, he says. And when they do, the casualties come to him—sometimes crying and always feeling cheated and disappointed. “We all mess up,” Attia says of the city’s upscale salons. “But when they mess up, [their clients] all come to my place.”
He estimates that between 80 percent and 98 percent of his customers come to him when their tresses are in distress. “Most clients are corrections,” he says. “The guy overbleaches them, turns them green, purple—I bring the hair to natural.” The artist says that his reputation for cleaning up the disasters of fellow stylists subjects him to resentment and envy from his peers. “They call me the hair doctor—with irony,” he says.
Attia’s role as the appellate court of underperforming stylists is tough to confirm: His competitors, of course, won’t concede the point. However, his salon does exude a traditionalism that’s bound to soothe customers horrified by the ’dos they received elsewhere. Like the bobs that Attia shapes, the decor’s highlights and curls bespeak familiarity and caution.
Everything here is done up in a sort of French Baroque—cornflower-blue and white walls, narrow-plank wooden flooring, and large mirrors with ornate gold frames. There is a bookshelf that holds a porcelain doll dressed as a can-can girl, two French dictionaries, and a book of impressionist art.
“My concept is art and fashion,” Attia says of the decor. “We have only here art and fashion [pictures], no hairdos from hair salons—Vidal Sassoon, Paul Mitchell.”
And in this den of antiquity, what better style to push than the bob?
The bob as we know it first came to prominence in the late ’70s and hit its stride in the ’80s—the most oft-seen form is only a distant relative of the sassy ’20s flapper bob. The term itself is more or less a catchall for any chin-skimming, single-length cut. In fact, Dennis Roche, of the hip Roche salons, says that the term itself is inaccurate.
“A ‘bob’ is a nonterm,” Roche says. “A bob just refers to an even length of hair. There was a time in my history, and I’ve been around for 31 years, when everyone was doing a bob. It was called a ‘Linda Evans.’ Before that it was referred to as a ‘pageboy,’ and then it was becoming the ‘new bob.’ But ‘a bob’ is just an English term for ‘a haircut.’”
Nomenclature quibbles aside, Roche knows exactly the image the term “bob” conjures up: an intense, harried professional woman with midlength, blunt-cut hair, walking to work in Reeboks.
“It’s a pretty conservative haircut,” Roche says. “I think, 15 years ago, Washington was what could be referred to as conservative—it’s become more fashionable. Women never used to wear slacks to work—now everyone wears slacks.”
Fashionable or not, someone has to cater to the ladies who think that their bobs are quite fetching, thank you very much. Clients show Attia their appreciation by dropping between $150 and $300 per visit, on average. Between his salon tickets and income from rental property, Attia is able to afford luxury digs, a Jaguar, and a work uniform of colorful dress shirts and casual slacks that rarely appear in the same combination twice.
In sum, it’s a bunch of sensibilities that would get Attia bounced out of the city’s most innovative hair joints.
At Wisconsin Avenue’s O salon, in the center of Georgetown’s shopping district, the look, from the shop itself to the diverse, black-clad staff, is sleek. Sleek as in the daughter of the Spanish ambassador, who has a hip-huggers-only rack in her walk-in closet. Need more proof of the salon’s chic quotient? Check out the accolades printed in magazines such as Allure and Washingtonian that are framed and hung on the exposed brick wall.
Surely the clientele here would sooner be shorn than submit to Attia’s Jilbere. Co-owner Robert Novel says that he considers his salon to be one of the more conservative businesses on the high end of the salon spectrum, but his clients avoid the bob as if it were a bowl cut.
“One of the first comments we hear is, ‘Anything but a bob,’” Novel says. “They come in, and they’re cutting their hair off, but they want ‘anything but a bob.’”
The bob also gets the brush-off at Andre Chreky, the salon and spa, located downtown in a historic K Street town house. Owners Andre and Serena Chreky say that the Washington beauty scene is much changed since they first opened, seven years ago. When asked what single look prevents D.C. from projecting a less stuffy fashion profile, Serena replies without hesitation: “the bob.”
The Chrekys won’t patently refuse a bob to the women who request it. They’ll just try to gently move them into a more updated look, taking into consideration their likes and dislikes. Andre says that clients tend to trust him to make them look contemporary and fresh.
“People say they want ‘what looks good on me’—that’s all,” he says. “They [say they] want to look pretty, sharp—and then we take over.”
“Washington women are savvy,” Serena says. “We have clients that say they were going to New York to get cut and color, and they’re so happy to find this place.’’
“Now we have people who fly from New York here to get their haircut,” adds Andre. “They know we’re up to date.”
When Joan Jordan first came to see Attia, over 10 years ago, she was looking to be restored to her normal blond, bobbed self. The retired interior decorator from Fairfax County learned of Attia from a woman she worked for whose hairstyle she had always admired. She decided to try him out after an unsatisfying experience at Georgette Klinger.
“I had gone to Klinger—they convinced me I should have darker hair, and I didn’t like it,” she says, “I’ve never had dark hair—I just didn’t like it. And I didn’t trust them [enough] to go back.”
Jordan allows that the stylist at Klinger explained what he wanted to do before he applied the color, and she allowed him to go forward with his vision. But after taking the leap, she promptly jumped back to her old style. “The one thing you have no control over when you go to the hairdresser is your hair,” she says.
At the end of her appointment with Attia, Jordan has an expertly colored, smooth, shiny bob. Attia dyed her hair in three steps and the result is a natural-looking light blond that complements her skin tone. The style is attractive on Jordan—she looks youthful and refreshed. She is happy with the outcome and treasures a stylist who appreciates her interest in a classic look.
“For my daughter’s wedding, I told Pierre a year beforehand—‘Don’t try anything new,’” she says.
Even trendsetting hairdressers admit that everyone has a few clients who always want the same thing and refuse all suggestions—Roche calls them his “bread-and-butter” clients. But transitioning one’s customers into new looks is part of a stylist’s duty, especially in a high-priced salon where women expect, and are paying for, not just a haircut, but image consulting.
“If you’re on top of your game, you’re showing women how to make themselves more contemporary,” Roche says. “If you’re not doing that, if you’re just doing bob haircuts, something is wrong with you—not your clients.”
Attia agrees. Despite the procession of bobs that files out of his shop, he protests that he doesn’t churn out a line of Washingtonian clones. He is an excellent colorist; he mixes formulas from memory; he spends much time fretting over the health of his clients’ hair, rather than just its appearance; and he doesn’t style just midlength hair. Plenty of long and short styles are refined by the scissors he wields.
“Me, I never can do twice the same thing,” he says. “Haircutting, highlight—it’s always different. But when I finish, it is natural, soft. I don’t follow a pattern. I work under impulse. My clientele is used to this.
“The things I do with hair have not been done yet—and what I do, it depends on the client,” Attia continues. “A high stylist should be able to do anything demanded—but I can tell what is perfect for you and what is not for you.”
Attia’s conceptions about Washington style and fashion have deep roots. A Frenchman born in Algeria who has lived in the Washington area since 1967, Attia came to the States intending to work as a “master jeweler”—the chosen trade of several generations of Attia men. But when the company that employed him started “paying me with a rubber band,” as he puts it, he decided to become a stylist. Attia maintains that the two fields are very similar. “A woman, she is like a diamond,” he says. “She have many facets.”
After completing beauty school, Attia says, he plied his trade under the eye of salon owners who considered him nothing more than a gem jockey. He finally opened a salon of his own in Rockville, in 1972, and another one in Bethesda, in 1980. He closed that salon in 1994, planning to go into business with a friend, but the partnership fell through. Attia then rented a chair in another salon until 1996, when he got a divorce and moved to France for a brief period. “I was burned out,” he says.
Attia returned to D.C. and opened Attia Art & Coiffure in 1998. These days, he takes things much more slowly than he did when working for others. He says that seeing four to eight clients each day constitutes a comfortable and profitable pace. He would rather perform focused work on a handful of women than whip through a dozen.
And so Attia’s place often takes on the feel of a lazy French cafe. When the salon is empty, Attia sits behind his massive wood desk and watches people pass. Many of the fashions he spies through the establishment’s glass front door displease him.
“It’s all pants!” he says one afternoon while snacking on a tuna fish sandwich and inspecting the ladies who walk by. “Where are the legs? Why do you dress like a man? The pope doesn’t let you wear pants in the Vatican!”
That may sound like the gripe of an old-timer, but Attia hints that he’s younger than he appears. “I think my parents maybe make a mistake and put ’39 instead of ’49 on the birth certificate. It could be?” he says. At 65, 55, or whatever, Attia does seem to hate most advances in fashion.
“I see women passing, I say, ‘Jesus, man,’” Attia says, still chewing and staring. “The plastic shoes, the bad purse—that is Washington.”
Just as he scorns Payless kicks and canvas tote bags in the fashion industry, he resents the intrusion of modernity in his own line of work. “In my time, stylists were married men with kids,” he says. “Today, it’s girls with girls, boys with boys. If you sit in the chair of a woman, she’s jealous of you, will screw up your hair. The man who is cutting your hair wants to be more beautiful than you!”
Not even loyal clients are spared the ’50s mindset. On a hot April day, Attia has a youngish Asian woman seated in his chair. He combs her hair and describes it as “Oriental, very coarse.”
“Oriental hair is stubborn,” he says. “I guess it takes a French person to understand the Oriental hair, eh?” He laughs loudly and pokes his charge in the shoulder with the comb to see if she is amused.
The woman will identify herself only as a former client of Jacques Dessange, the exclusive French day spa nearby. She first came to the salon after receiving an unsatisfactory cut at Dessange and an unflattering dye job at the branch of PR @ Partners just across the street. “They cut it in layers and didn’t ask,” she says. “And then the color was wrong—it was getting lighter and lighter.”
“She is a gorgeous lady,” Attia says.
Attia was asked to take on the work of two salons by chance; the woman wandered into the shop in search of shampoo and spotted a friend getting her hair done. She booked an initial appointment that ended up being a four-hour correction. “It’s funny, because Pierre has this little salon between Jacques Dessange and Elizabeth Arden—these two huge names,” she says.
The artist and his client exchange small talk as he goes to work on her, but they are interrupted by two women who walk in from the street wanting manicures.
“No, we don’t do,” Attia says. “But go down about three block—you will see a Pro Nail,” he instructs. “There are four or five Chinese in there that will do,” he says.
As the ladies turn to leave, Attia cheerfully adds: “I have nothing against Chinese! You go there, they will do your nail with chopsticks!” He laughs heartily at his own joke and, again, taps his client with the “Oriental” hair to see if she enjoyed the bit of humor. She didn’t.
“It is a joke!” Attia says, giving her a half-hug.
“I know it’s a joke, Pierre,” she replies.
The stylist, not easily silenced, decides it’s best to tone down the banter as he finishes off the job. By the time her “coarse” hair has been transformed into a chin-length bob—no layers, no too-light color—it seems all is forgotten.
“She look beautiful,” Attia says.
“That’s why I come to Pierre—he’s very gracious,” she says.
The offensive sense of humor is just another thing that distinguishes Attia from the competition. Lacking the cachet or expanded services of salons like Molécule Salon, or ILO, or Celadon, his salon occupies the market niche best described as offering old-fashioned work and old-fashioned views.
“If you joke, they remember you—they come back,” Attia later explains.
Attia makes a sole concession to modern-day styling—his storefront. Viewed from the street, the salon’s façade belies its vintage interior and owner alike. Attia claims to hate fashion photography, but black-and-white shots of young, pouty hair models stare seductively at the al fresco diners at the Chadwicks restaurant across the street.
Beneath the shots is clear plastic shelving displaying hair products from the most exclusive lines. When a hot sun beats down on the bottles and tubes of potion and threatens to cause their delicate ingredients to separate, Attia lowers sleek black shades to protect his huge array of shampoos, conditioners, gels, thickeners, waxes, “crèmes,” and the like.
The front window seems to prompt passers-by to step inside the shop. But just in case someone is walking too quickly to admire the immaculate assortment of product—which rivals that of any upscale salon in terms of variety—there is a double-sided sign advertising an endless 20 percent–off sale that sits right in the middle of the sidewalk. Written in hairdresser shorthand, it reads:
Commuters and shoppers migrating to and from the nearby Neiman Marcus often stop in to buy Nexxus Humectress or KMS Flat Out shampoo. Attia is always pleased to offer advice, especially concerning the René Furterer line—he has specialized training in its use. He carries the full complement of products and will give anyone who will listen a detailed lesson in their proper application. If she’s friendly enough, or laughs at his jokes, or speaks French, he may suggest that she come in for an appointment—or at least a consultation.
The contemporary outer shell of Attia Art & Coiffure is one of the factors that first prompted stylist Julia Romanoff to drop in. Romanoff has worked in some of the most well-known salons in the city—branches of both PR @ Partners and Roche. In May, while in the neighborhood looking for work, Romanoff spotted Attia Art & Coiffure and decided to inquire within. “I had seen the salon before, but I hadn’t heard of it,” she says.
After a brief meeting, a résumé-vetting, and a highlighting demonstration performed on a model, Romanoff convinced Attia to bring her aboard. She was fresh off a trial period at a salon in Montgomery County, where, at the end of her test, the owner declined to retain her, intimating that she was too old. Attia, who says he himself has been turned away from salons because of his age, decided that Romanoff, who is in her mid-40s, might be a good fit for his spot.
“Pierre gave me a chance,” Romanoff says. She is the only hair stylist to ever work in the salon, aside from Attia and one other independent stylist who shares space in the facility.
There was a manicurist, once upon a time—until recently, her dusty bin of O.P.I. nail lacquers sat in the back of the salon alongside neglected hair-removal supplies. But there hasn’t been another person working at Attia’s for quite some time, and never has a third stylist been allowed to touch blade to hair at the shop.
Romanoff brings not only hairstyling know-how, but expertise in areas of leg waxing, fingernail filing, and make-up application, as well. Since she has come aboard, Attia no longer has to turn away the people who drop in looking for eyebrow shaping, toenail painting, and other hallmarks of a full-service, upscale salon that Attia’s peers added to their menus long ago.
Like Attia, Romanoff laments that things “used to be classier” in the Washington hair business. Her idea of a simpler time, however, is a couple of decades ahead of Attia’s. To judge from her work, her notion of classic involves such things as long layers and chunky highlights, rather than the throwback bob.
During a quiet May afternoon at the shop, Romanoff is dragging a straightening iron through the tresses of one of her clients—a pretty young woman with bright blond hair. Attia doesn’t have another client for about an hour or so. He takes advantage of the respite to give a short dissertation on the usefulness of the tool that is every bob’s best friend—his Jilbere hot-air brush.
Attia favors the 1-and-a-half-inch model—which is fortunate; the three-quarter-inch model has been discontinued. He points out that the tool has two voltage settings, so that it can be used “anywhere in the world.”
Merely talking up the Jilbere doesn’t do it justice—Attia wants to give a quick demonstration in hot-air-brush technology. But he lacks a client at the moment who can submit her head to a “Jilbering,” for instructional purposes. Attia looks to Romanoff for permission to perform on her client.
“May I?” Attia asks, ready to plug the Jilbere up and get to bumping the woman’s ends.
“No, thank you,” Romanoff politely declines. Attia stares at her and then decides that she just doesn’t want him running his fingers, or his electric brush, through her client’s hair.
“Oh, then you can…#?” Attia says, offering Romanoff the apparatus.
“No, thank you,” she repeats, refusing the magic curling powers of the bristled wand.
They are silent for a moment, and then Romanoff says, “She wants it just to hang straight, just like this.” The woman’s poker-straight locks get a final once-over before Romanoff gives her the universal cosmetologist’s signal that a hair appointment is over—a gentle tap on the shoulder.
“Oh,” Attia says. He twists the cord of the apparatus around its black-and-white body and places it back in its proper place, in the metal case next to a glass “Barbicide” tube filled with blue liquid, combs, and brushes. As the woman goes through the motions of shaking off, admiring her ’do, and going to the desk to pay Romanoff, Attia studies her long, straight, layered coif intently.
Finally, before she walks out the door, he calls after her. “You look lovely!” he says. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery and Ben Claassen III.