In Search of an Affordable Hairstylist

Must understand Asian hair.

Photo credit: kaleido-dp, CC0 Public Domain.

Whenever I move to a new location in NYC—whether to a new apartment or a new job—my first order of business post-move is always to take a lay of the land. I like to find where my closest bank is, what grocery options I have, where to find the best takeout, and which drugstore has the largest selection at the lowest prices. I have always taken comfort in locating the stores and services I might need; it gives me a sense of what my routine might be and which resources will be readily available. Still, although I can easily locate the CityMD closest to my apartment or pinpoint the cheapest sandwich place near my office, one thing has always eluded me: finding a good hairstylist.

When I lived in Hawaii as a kid, haircuts were a family affair. I would tag along with my mom or grandma when they visited their stylists, whose mall salons appeared upscale to my young eyes. Not long before we moved, we started seeing a family friend who would welcome us into her chair, one by one, and we would emerge as a family, freshly groomed and ready for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t until my family moved to Georgia that I realized that finding a good haircut wasn’t as easy as following mom to the mall or phoning a family friend. The first haircut I got was at a strip mall that my mom found, and the woman, unfamiliar with the thickness of Asian hair, gave me a blunt cut that hung heavy and flatteringly at my shoulders.

After a couple of years of living in Georgia and a few more mediocre trims, my mom found James. He had chased her down at the mall, hoping she could be his hair model and help him get hired at the salon. The next thing we knew, he became the new family stylist. Even after I went to college, I would come home hoping to go to James, who had since moved from the mall to another salon about a half hour from our house. His schedule was often packed, but it was always worth the last-minute drive to get a careful, artful haircut from a friendly face.

James was quiet when he cut my hair, concentrating on every snip, often taking an extra ten minutes to maneuver every strand of hair into the right place. He worked swiftly, assuredly, but even then he would often take over an hour, losing time in his determination to get everything perfect. The last couple of visits, he only charged me $30, and I felt perfectly comfortable giving him a an almost equal tip.

In San Jose, I loved Victoria for different reasons. I had walked into the mall salon after a long shift at my retail job, and Victoria was the stylist they assigned to me. She was chatty and hilarious, like a gossipy older sister. Living in San Jose was the farthest I had ever been from my immediate family, and she was inviting and easy to talk to. She would often ask me, “Are you going out tonight?” Even when I would tell her I was going back to my dorm to watch reality TV in my PJs, she would curl my hair anyway, complimenting me the whole time.

When I got the news that I was admitted as a transfer student to NYU, one of the first things I did was book a hair appointment. Listening as I talked a mile a minute, she nodded along as I rattled off the pros and cons of uprooting my life again and spending a fortune to go to such an expensive school. I emerged from the salon with new bangs and the reassurance that change can be a good thing. (I also only had to pay, like, $35 for the haircut with my 20 percent mall discount.)

Since moving to New York, however, I’ve found it almost impossible to find a good hairstylist. When I first moved to the city, one of my NYU roommates suggested Annie, who worked at a swanky place on the Upper East Side. I always thought it was weird that I had to ring a bell and wait to be let inside the building, though I guess it made sense considering the number of high-end jewelry stores on the block. Annie gave me a solid haircut; I never regretted going to her, but I never needed her to do anything more than trim and freshen my layers. I paid $125 for this trim and refresh, which meant I was only able to visit Annie maybe every seven months.

To help bridge the gap between cuts, I sometimes asked my roommate to cut my bangs. She had done it for another friend of ours, so I assumed she knew what she was doing, but one day she revealed to me that she was always surprised I allowed her to cut my hair, considering she had no experience. It was then that I realized that saving money for almost a year for a single haircut while letting your roommate play with your hair for free was probably not a good beauty regimen.

Since then, I have shelled out money—albeit in smaller increments—for trial-and-error haircuts. There was the one time I was lazy and went to the salon in the lobby of my Chinatown dorm room and got a horrible haircut that the stylist only gave me after insisting that I pick a photo out of an Asian hair magazine so he knew what I wanted instead of just letting me explain it. When I went to the receptionist to shell out $65 for my mangled look, he sweetly complimented me and I just wilted with embarrassment.

For a while, I was going to Aveda on the UWS almost solely because it was within two blocks of my apartment. Sometimes it was a little awkward to turn down the hand or neck massages that they offered while I waited after getting shampooed, but tea and water were free and the price for a lower-level stylist was around $50. On one visit, they even offered to do a complementary makeup touch-up because they weren’t busy.

Eventually I moved to Brooklyn and it no longer made sense to go all the way uptown after work for a haircut. Besides, the revolving door of stylists meant it was hard to get a consistent cut and the prices seemed to be creeping up every time I went.

Lately, I’ve been sampling salons through Gilt City vouchers, trying out fancy places for much cheaper than the list price. Through Gilt City, $125–200 cuts are reduced to $45–85 cuts, made even cheaper if I can get an extra 20 percent off code. The haircuts have been good, though not necessarily great, and I’ve started to realize that being comfortable in the environment of the salon is almost as important as the cut itself. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable the one time I got my hair cut in an ultra-hip establishment where all the women rocked shaved heads and all the men had Adam Levine hair, and my stylist kept checking himself out in the mirror in between snips.

While I save money for quality stylists through flash sale vouchers, it’s hard to be a repeat customer when I can’t afford a full price cut. Recently, I found a wonderful stylist—but I’m still not at a place where I can shell out $125 for that kind of haircut with any kind of frequency. I’ll continue to be on the hunt, though, trying to find an affordable salon that employs a talented stylist whose company I enjoy and whom I trust to listen to what I want, interpret that with their skill set, and make me look good.

Luckily, hair is ever-growing and ever-changing. Even the worst cuts even out in the end, as do my finances after I shell out too much money for someone to style my tresses. Still, I hope to build a relationship with a stylist who will be a good match, both financially and creatively. When you move around a lot, it always takes effort to establish yourself in your new environment. Finding a good stylist, I’ve found, is no different.

Kimberly Lew learned, through the course of writing this article, that she has had surprising luck finding good hairstylists in shopping malls.

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