Frédéric Fekkai, French hair empire genius talks risk taking and how to maintain curiosity in life. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Over several decades, Frédéric Fekkai has built a hair empire with a best-selling haircare line carried at Sephora and other prime beauty retailers. But cutting hair wasn’t always a clear-cut path for the handsome Frenchman. Rather, he jump-started his career from taking risk after risk—in his words, it’s because he stayed curious after all these years. Here’s his story:
I’m from Aix-en-Provence in France. It was a lovely childhood in the sense that it was one of the most amazing environments: the nature, the beauty, the architecture. All of this was incredible. It’s a place where beauty is all around you and people took care of themselves. They feel good and look good.
But when it came to hair, I had a late start. I wanted to be an artist but my dad didn’t want me to go to art school. So I went to law school. I got bored after two and a half years and I was lucky enough to meet a fantastic hair stylist on a photo shoot. Actually, I was on the photo shoot because I needed to make money on the side then and I was modeling. I was so lucky she introduced me to this world. She let me work with her and train under her, and from there I gave a shot at this career.
It wasn’t an easy decision to quit law school. It’s an unfortunate story. My parents were really mad. I didn’t talk to my dad for a number of years. I just had to go on with my life.
Frédéric Fekkai got into the hair business late in life, but always wanted to be an artist. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
So I was in Paris, training in the daytime and then in the evening, I would go to classes. Luckily, I didn’t have to do all the classes because I had a great education already from law school and could complete the classes faster than anyone. I was there for about a year and a half.
One day, the woman I was training under said to me, “You like this so much, you should go to some of the top salons in Paris and see if you can be part of their team.” Actually, as it happened, I was doing a fashion show when a hair stylist came up to me and said, “We like your work and we’d like you come and do a test for our team.” So I did, and they liked what I did and they hired me. That’s when I joined Jacques Dessange and they were the ones to bring me to New York.
Why NYC? Because I was always curious. If you ask me what my greatest attribute is, it is that I’m very curious—in a good way. I love to discover things and meet people to explore, to learn, to travel. New York for me was a dream. I’d always heard about it and I had never been before. There I was, a 21-year-old and just starting to discover it.
It was love at first sight. I came in November—it was 1982— and at the time, the weather was unbelievable; it was an Indian summer. Then I started to work, and I realized I was a little bit the attraction because I had such poor English! But really the salon, it was a wonderful experience. We had such incredible customers.
One of my friends was represented by Bryan Bantry, an agent, at the time. He represented photographers like Patrick Demarchelier and other makeup artists and stylists. My friend asked if I could come and work on a shoot and of course I said, “Yes, with pleasure.” It all happened so quickly after that. I started working with Bill King and Arthur Elgort and Demarchelier and Steven Meisel—it was wonderful to work with all this incredible talent.
Fekkai found himself lucky to be connected, doing the hair of huge talent. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
I must thank God for this because I had a great breakout. I was doing a lot of editorials and my name was published a lot. And then I was lucky to start doing celebrities in addition to models. I was often on the red carpet at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. For five years in a row, I did actresses that won Oscars. It was Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, all these actresses. It was great! I also did Michael Douglas. For me, celebrities are wonderful to work with. I’ve never had a bad experience.
Celebrities are very important for many reasons. Working on a celebrity is a great way to showcase a hairstyle, especially when it’s a makeover. When you give actresses a new look, you make a lot of waves in the press. I kept the hair on Meryl Streep very short once and that made the covers of many magazines. I was also doing Jessica Lange’s hair and Kelly McGillis, who was in Top Gun.
All this time, I still did my work in the salon. In 1989, I left Jacques Dessange and started my first salon out of Bergdorf Goodman. The location was fantastic. I was very eager and excited. There was no salon that had the kind of customer experience we had then. Remember, there were no cell phones then; we put a landline in on every station, so the customer could be in touch with work or home. And nobody had personal computers. So I put one in in the waiting lounge – it was this big terminal. Nobody used it because no one knew what to do! Only a few women, like Barbara Walters and Tina Brown knew what it was for. Back then, it was really only for mail. There was no surfing the net.
With a salon, you can showcase the brand in an amazing way. You build trust with your customer and you make them feel good. When we opened, it was an era where the woman was either very dressed up or very athletic. There was nothing in between. What I did was introduce a sophistication but in a casual way. I call it “casual chic.” It was a great haircut that’s feminine, not harsh. Before me, the trend was very much the Vidal Sassoon type: very hard edges and a more graphic look. So I cut more soft layers around the face; it’s about being feminine and wearable—wash and wear. We also introduced Balayage color, which nobody did then. It was more natural and more sexy. That’s what got us great attention.
Fekkai first started his own salon out of Bergdorf Goodman. Photo Courtesy of Instagram
In ’95, I started with my first product. Well, actually there were two products: one is a technician shampoo for color-treated hair and the second was an apple cider cleansing rinse. The next step now is to grow organically at all the salon locations we are in and develop new technology for new product. I’m looking towards Western Europe and China.
I don’t do editorial work so much anymore. I’m spending my time with the brand itself and I try to be involved in product development. I’m based in NYC, but I love to go out to our farm in Millbrook. I used to be in the Hamptons before, which was wonderful, but I couldn’t spend any time to think or rest or be inspired by anything. There’s too much to do in the Hamptons. Being on the farm, there’s no noise. You spend time with your loved ones and animals. I love animals. I have horses, donkeys and dogs. We even have wild bears that visit us.
Once in awhile, I do wonder what would have happened if I had just stayed in law school. Would I be a lawyer or one of those finance people I see in Manhattan on the streets? Or would I have been a businessman? Well, I have a business now, but one thing I knew then was that I was not meant to be sitting in an office.