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Making the Cut: Two Days in Biba Hair Academy

April 24, 2013



   I walk down the short hallway and two flights of stairs to the Swanston Street salon of Biba Hairdressing Academy. A blonde in bubblegum-pink skinny jeans is wiping the mirrors, while a slim young man with a jet-black asymmetrical haircut whisks hair out from under the chairs with a hairdryer. Décor is industrial, with corrugated-iron partitions dividing demonstration room, shampooing/colour-mixing area and hairdressing stations.    

   This is where students, carefully supervised by teachers, practice on customers paying $25 a cut. Teacher Andy Ketteridge presides over the front desk, answering the phone and monitoring the arrival times of students trickling downstairs to sign in. ‘Danni,’ he says, ‘You’re on time, well done!’

   ‘I try,’ says Danni, a girl in a butterfly-print T-shirt. ‘Look, I got another tattoo!’ She lifts the hem of her T-shirt to reveal a swarm of butterflies adorning her torso.
‘Hurts on the ribs, doesn’t it?’ says Andy.
‘Yeah,’ says Danni, ‘but I didn’t cry.’

Salon founder Paul Divitaris

Salon founder Paul Divitaris

      Founded in 1975 by Paul Divitaris, the Biba brand comprises eleven salons and two hairdressing academies. Apprentices begin their training in a Fitzroy teaching salon before graduating to the one in Swanston Street. While students work at their own pace, most will spend about four months in each location. Most progress from working on mannequins to cutting real people’s hair a few weeks into training. Many also work on Saturdays, either in a Biba salon or through referral to other salons around Melbourne.

   Some are as young as fifteen, dividing their time between apprenticeships with high school. Others are juggling work and study with family commitments. ‘The first week, I wanted to cry.’ says student Elisa Chunahin (29), who has a three-year-old son. ‘You get a brush and you think “Oh my God, what am I doing?” You have to practice a lot. I go home … you have to clean up after [her son], you have to make dinner for everybody…’

Student Elisa Chunahin, hard at work.

Student Elisa Chunahin, hard at work.

  At ten ‘o clock Paul Divitaris and teacher Lyndal Salmon hold a meeting and demonstration. They begin with a monthly raffle draw; every time a student sells a treatment or a retail product, they go in the running for prizes like styling products or a new hairdryer.

   ‘Everybody needs a colour,’ says the ebullient Divitaris, who studied under Vidal Sassoon and then pioneered his innovative techniques in Australia. ‘Very few people are happy with their natural colour. Maybe a couple of highlights, they’ll feel better. You sell happiness to the client.’ 

   It’s not all about profit though. ‘We need to train students because [promotion] is such a large part of working in a salon now, we need to make it second nature to just ask,’ Lyndal tells me later. ‘Paul would rather that someone have a colour for ten dollars rather than not have colour. A lot of times I’m barely even sure he does scratch even on the colour, because he loves people to have colour.’

   To begin the demonstration, Lyndal consults with volunteer Bertha Wu. ‘I don’t really know what I want,’ she says, half to Lyndal and half over her shoulder to the class. ‘I just want to get up and – ‘
‘And look good,’ Lyndal finishes. She turns to the class. ‘When a client says “do whatever”, it absolutely does not mean do whatever.’

Teacher Lyndal Salmon demonstrates a haircut on client Bertha Wu

Teacher Lyndal Salmon demonstrates a haircut on client Bertha Wu

   In consultation, a hairdresser asks the client to describe their desired result, interprets what the answer means in terms of technique, judges whether the hairstyle will suit the client’s face shape, hair type and condition and, based on their outfit and body language, assesses whether the hairstyle will suit the client’s personality and lifestyle. That’s a lot of information to glean in three to five minutes.

  Meanwhile the other room has filled up with customers. Hairdryers roar, washing machines rumble and Australian Crawl jangles through the speakers. Andy stands in the corner surveying the room, then picks up a broom and pushes it across the floor. All day teachers muck in alongside students; sweeping, making coffees and mixing colours.
‘As much as we’re their teachers, they’ve got to understand that life’s going to be easier for them in a salon if they’re working in a team rather than trying to do absolutely everything by themselves,’ he says. He notices some spilled powder on a countertop and summons a student. ‘What happened here, Tori?’

Teacher Andy Ketteridge helps a student mix colour.

Teacher Andy Ketteridge helps a student mix colour.

   Most haircuts take place with a minimum of chitchat. Clients flip through magazines or read Dostoyevski; one girl plays her GameBoy.
‘We try to get the students not to talk about themselves,’ says Lyndal. ‘We say “talk about their hair,” what shampoos you’re using at home, and try and keep it like taxi drivers, don’t talk about religion, things like that, I think that’s the safest. But when I cut hair I’m silent.’

   Diipti Firnstone is reading Marie Claire. She has long black hair with a thick fringe, bright red lips and matching nails. Her rockabilly look doesn’t fit my image of her profession – opera singer.
‘I’m not technically allowed to have a fringe,’ she admits. ‘You’re meant to be able to see [the performer’s] forehead, because that’s one of the most expressive parts of your body. I figure they can put me in a wig.’

   As the last few customers pay up and straggle out, Biba teachers and hairdressers begin to arrive for the evening’s barbering demonstration. Students are invited to attend, and many of them do. It’s an indication of their commitment since the demo doesn’t wind up till 8pm, and many of them will be here tomorrow at 9:30 to start all over again.

Student Rhia with client Diipti Firnstone

Student Rhia with client Diipti Firnstone



   At Biba Academy in Fitzroy, I collect my kit from operations manager Mirella. Biba keeps spare kits for prospective students to try their hand at hairdressing before committing to the course. Today this will be me.

   Mirella takes me to a classroom on the second floor of the converted Victorian building, a bewildering split-level maze of rooms made even more disorienting by multiple mirrors. She introduces me to teacher Harry Hajilassis, who welcomes me and leaves me to set up. I unpack my black nylon case: one plastic mannequin head, one clamp, three different hairbrushes, one comb, one hairdryer and eight section clips. 

  The students are all busy with their own projects. When I start brushing my mannequin’s brown hair, I quickly deduce from its oily texture that the hair is not synthetic but human, attached to a rubber cap pulled tight over the head. Its split ends and grey hairs contrast disturbingly with the bland plastic Barbie face.

   Where does this hair come from, I ask Harry when he returns. ‘The stories I’ve been told, are um, donated or prison system or some religion, they go through a certain ritual. I imagine some of that’s true.’ He sets up my mannequin head on the clamp and shows me how to section-off hair. Then he demonstrates the correct way to hold a comb: horizontal to prevent scratching the scalp, elbows extended ‘like wings’ to keep them level. He parts the hair into two even sections with one sweep. I try it and predictably separate the hair into a jagged, uneven parting. I try again. And again. I keep trying until it’s time for the demonstration.    Today it’s a ‘Princess Bride’ look. The model is Olivia, a student with a sweet, dimpled face.

   ‘I’ve done fifteen years of bridal, and I never had a Bridezilla until my last one,’ Harry says, as he teases Olivia’s hair. ‘But then I took control of the situation. Once you show fear or confusion, they’ll sense it straight away. We’re an ancient piece of machinery; we use our instinct without even realising. We actually send that off to our clients and we’re acting most of the time.’

   As he uses hairspray Harry holds his hand over Olivia’s forehead to protect her skin. ‘My skin gets shiny as … That’s enough hairspray. You don’t lacquer it on like you’re spraying a car with paint.’
One hour later, Olivia’s head is a tower of fat curls. To me it looks impressive but a bit absurd, like a profiterole wedding cake. But everyone applauds, and then it’s lunchtime.

Harry Hajilassis demonstrates a 'Princess Bride' look on student Olivia.

Harry Hajilassis demonstrates a ‘Princess Bride’ look on student Olivia.

The break-room is deserted. Where is everyone? Smoking, to judge from the level of chatter in the alley outside. Two girls in the hallway talk scalp conditions as they wait for the microwave: ‘Unless it’s a weeping wound you just have to mask those feelings and keep going.’

   In the afternoon Harry shows me how to do a fishtail braid, flicking sections back and forth with his dextrous fingers. I’m all thumbs, and keep ending up with four sections instead of three. I’m very glad I’m not a fifteen-year-old whose livelihood depends on mastering this.

   I make it to the end of a plait. ‘Good. Do it again,’ directs Harry. I can’t. He suggests an easier twist braid to try. 

   ‘Holy shit, you’ve done it!’ he exclaims when he checks on my next effort. I’m overcome with a sense of achievement.  I could never do this for a living, but at least I’m not completely hopeless. At the end of the day I leave with aching feet, knees and back, and a much deeper respect for the profession of hairdressing.

Biba_Plaits 2

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