A Cut Above

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In her downtown salon, Janet St. Paul looks and acts the very opposite of her big-city reputation. Instead of Fifth Avenue chic, Austin’s most decorated stylist looks more Prospect Park casual in a pair of black jeans and a colorful blouse. Her hair is pulled back in a low bun, the kind you might don if you were going to paint your bedroom.

If you were expecting her to look like she’d stepped out of the pages of In Style or Town and Country, or any number of megawatt magazines she’s styled for in the past, you’d be mistaken. St. Paul’s current look is stylishly relaxed, freeing up her hands, which have a reputation all their own.

We’ll get to that later. Curled up on the couch holding a steaming cup of tea, I can’t help but wonder when the real Janet St. Paul—the one who “built” chairs from scratch at some of New York’s top salons—will unveil herself. The person in front of me has twice identified herself as “Janet,” but a few minutes after we shake hands I’m maybe 35 percent convinced I’m the butt of some sort of elaborate, identity thieving ruse.

For starters, this Janet St. Paul is way too soft-spoken, noting that she “gets nervous when she has to talk about herself.” That’s a curious admission for a woman who would go on to reference styling hair alongside Donatella Versace, all platinum-haired and pursed lipped, looking over her shoulder like fashion’s high priestess observing a ceremonial rite. And then there’s this Janet St. Paul’s gracious demeanor: suspiciously nice and normal, and a little too calm, as far as I’m concerned.

“I strive every day in my personal life to be as present as I possibly can,” she said, smiling, when I asked her about the stress of starting a new business venture in the midst of an economic downturn, granted one that has left Texas largely unscathed.

C’mon, lady! In my experience, exceptionally successful New Yorkers—those used to operating at the very top of their industry—have learned to distrust calm, to strenuously avoid it, replacing internal serenity with measured action. Social interactions are economical, even stiff, lacking the polite lubrication that the rest of us rely on to avoid unnecessary friction with bosses, underlings and strangers. But this woman is full of niceties that are clearly designed to put me at ease, like offering me a glass of water, complimenting my attire and listening attentively to my questions, her intimidating résumé disappearing behind a self-effacing smile.

And what about that résumé? If you’re a woman of certain means in Austin, one who can distinguish a good haircut from one that is runway-worthy, you’ve probably gotten wind of it by now. It started at age 20, when—after a year of cosmetology school in Baton Rouge—St. Paul left Louisiana for New York, where she began an apprenticeship at Frédéric Fekkai under the watchful eye of both Mark Garrison and Frédéric himself, an experience she compares to boot camp.

“I was doing what most hairstylists dream of doing,” she said, recalling long hours and little pay. “You’re not just a hairstylist. You’re constantly training, you’re constantly raising your own bar because everyone around you is doing the same.”

The original plan was to stay in New York for a year, but one year turned into 16. Two years after she started working at Fekkai, she was promoted to stylist, and several years after that, she was promoted to senior stylist, a title reserved for stylists imported, like truffles and expensive wine, from Paris. Eight years after she started at Fekkai, St. Paul left to become the assistant  style director with Butterfly Studio Salon, where she was responsible for determining the salon’s creative direction and implementing a rigorous staff education program. Over the years, she developed a reputation as one of the city’s top stylists, one who regularly contributed to New York Fashion Week couture shows with such designers as Ralph Lauren, Douglas Hannant, Reem Acra, Oscar de la Renta and Diane Von Furstenberg.

After carving out a career in New York, St. Paul began to tire of the daily bustle, whether it was late-night cab rides from work or the lack of quiet spaces in the city. She opted for a change of pace, settling in Austin with Tracy Smith, 42, her partner of nine years. It was the first time they’d decided to move somewhere based on quality of life instead of career, St. Paul said, but it wasn’t a decision they took lightly. After an initial visit, they went home and started researching whether St. Paul could successfully uproot her career and replant it in Texas. They wanted to know what made Austin a good city beyond ACL and mild winters. When they eventually visited, the city was in the midst of a rare deluge that lasted for days, but inclement weather quickly became an afterthought.

“People were so nice and friendly,” Smith recalled. “It was a very kind, gentle city. That’s what sold us.”

St. Paul opened Janet St. Paul Studio for Hair in October 2011 and enlisted the help of Shannon Briggs- Hack, another veteran New York stylist with a gilded résumé that she knew she could count on. “Shannon lived and worked in midtown Manhattan for 11 years, and she has incredible skill. To have that commonality and language right off the bat, plus the work ethic, is huge.” Instead of a viral marketing campaign, the pair decided to let their business grow organically, via word of mouth. So far, it’s working.

Which brings us to the present day, with St. Paul relaxing on the couch in her salon overlooking a still developing stretch of West Third Street, a wall of glassy new skyscrapers looming above. As the heart of new, urbanized Austin, it is perhaps the perfect location for St. Paul’s venture, which she plans to turn into a thriving top-market salon, the likes of which Austin has never seen. Talking about her plans seems to intensify her, gradually awakening the no-nonsense New Yorker I was looking for all along. Austin may represent a new, quieter chapter in St. Paul’s life, but her dedication to detail and technical know-how is firmly grounded in her Manhattan roots.

“To do the cover of a magazine is huge,” she said. “To work with talent like Bruce Weber is huge. That stuff doesn’t come along very often. What’s unique about that experience is that I want to take that knowledge and help train a team here in Austin.”

It’s easier said than done, but if anyone knows the formula behind growing a successful salon, it’s St. Paul. In a city replete with salons, her goal is to create one that moves her clients beyond the city’s offbeat style to a more modern look inspired by the fashion world. When asked to describe it, she said it’s a “complete look— editorial with edge.”

St. Paul’s goals aside, Smith claims her partner is not particularly competitive.

“If she gives 120 percent, she doesn’t worry about who’s doing what and whose fan pages are expanding,” she said. “She says: ‘if we pour our energy into our clients, it will come,’ but she doesn’t focus on it.”

Which brings me to my next question for St. Paul: If I’m forking over $150 for a haircut, what exactly am I paying for? On one hand, she said, you’re paying for the stylist’s experience and skill, which she described this way: “A lot of people don’t know this until they’ve actually experienced it, but the shape is in the cut, not the finish. A truly professional haircut is like a couture dress that’s hand sewn for you by a designer in Paris; there’s nothing like it. It’s like your fingerprint.”

And yet, St. Paul maintains there’s something else a client pays for when they seek out a top stylist at a luxury boutique. She refers to it as “little gifts” — not physical ones, but that something extra that separates St. Paul from her competition. I wanted to see her process in action, so I hung around the salon to watch her work.

On a weekday, the energy inside the studio falls somewhere between a therapist’s office and a cozy wine bar, with a subtle electronic beat pulsing in the background. With glasses of wine available on request and a cast of busy clients ready to let off some steam, the salon may, in fact, be a bit of both. “There’s something about sitting in front of a mirror for 45 minutes and transforming how you look, large or small, and coming out and going ‘damn, I look good!’” said St. Paul. “That process is therapeutic, and this place becomes a respite in the middle of people’s stressful day.”

She starts off her consultation by leafing through a few magazines until she and her client settle on a look. This process is more like a negotiation, with St. Paul offering feedback and advice. She believes that a good haircut starts by getting to know a client’s lifestyle. That means learning about everything from the client’s hair texture to the client’s hormonal state.

“Most women today approach haircuts by thinking:

‘How can I cover up what I don’t like?’” she said. “But really, what I want to teach them is to accentuate what you love, because then what you don’t like will fade away.”

St. Paul is friendly but focused, walking her clients through her vision by explaining it in methodical detail. Before she picks up a pair of scissors, she’s already rearranged her current client’s thick mane of sandy blond hair multiple times, sometimes separating a few strands at a time and holding them inches from her face.

For the next 40 minutes, St. Paul’s hands are a whirl of surgical movement. Sometimes one hand tugs while the other delicately parses. Other times, they work congruently, before she pauses, reevaluates and repeats the process several more times. At one point—I kid you not—a single pinky finger worked diligently on its own, like a tiny worm burrowing into a apple.

When St. Paul is in the zone, there is a rhythm to her work that recalls a master chef in her kitchen, operating in that hard-to-reach place between muscle memory and impromptu brilliance. She is both a craftsman and an artist. Only afterwards, as I sat in my car, did I realize she was carrying on a full-fledged conversation with her client, complete with casual banter and marriage advice, the entire time.

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