How One Hair Salon Is Getting Back to Neon-Colored Business

Shell Vega of Urban Hair weighs her options

Shell Vega of Urban Hair (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For most of us, the days in quarantine are running together. But for Shellie Vega and her clients, time is measured differently – not in hours, but in inches.

And the inches grow quickly. After only a couple weeks, mousy brown or dull black hairs at the top of the head peek out from a soft pink pastel or lush blue-purple hairstyle. After two months of shuttered salons, the roots are as loud as the bright color itself.

So when Urban Hair, where Vega works, reopened on May 12, clients were eager to have their temperatures taken, to wait in their cars while stylists sanitized chair covers, to wear thick capes over their clothing, to fill out consent forms and attempt labored conversation through a mask. Owner Bryan Piper said that despite a wave of nervy last-minute cancellations, the salon was busy all week.

Vega's clients were especially excited to see her. Before the pandemic, Vega had never been away from the salon for more than a couple weeks, and her distinctive jewel-toned looks have earned her 26.8K Instagram followers. Although some Urban Hair stylists have chosen not to return to work yet, the nine-months-pregnant Vega was there with shears in hand.

"I was like, 'I need to get in there, even just to see a few people,'" Vega said, only two work days before beginning maternity leave.

Hair salons across Texas got a jolt when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that permitted them to reopen on May 8, over a week ahead of previous expectations. This sent salons scrambling to implement the necessary sanitation precautions in order to reopen.

Piper felt Abbott's timing was hasty, and disliked the state's loose regulations on masks. He based his safety protocols on other states' guidelines, consulting with stylists from New York City. Yes, all clients are required to wear masks; Piper keeps a box of disposable ones on hand. "It was a little nerve-racking," Piper said of the reopening. "But we have to stick our feet in the water at some point, you know?"

Three days before Urban Hair reopened, Piper invited four longtime clients with "immune sensitivity issues" to the salon to check their comfort level with the procedures. He then reopened Urban Hair on May 12, with five of the salon's seven stylists working.

Vega said the reopened salon's atmosphere was a bit eerie. Piper mourned the loss of "chaos." Before the pandemic, stylists would often work with two clients at once, and booked guests would bring their friends in to hang in the waiting area. "We're a hair salon, not a spa, so I like the energy to be a little upbeat," Piper said. "Being on the quieter side is hard to get used to. But, you know, understandable."

Despite subdued energy, the salon's reopening was a mood-booster to many. After botched at-home haircuts, Piper said it was a relief for many to get a professional solution. (Although sales of box dye, a DIY solution which Vega scoffs at, have risen, she hasn't seen any of her clients attempt at-home fixes yet.) "Your hair is a crown, and if your hair looks good, then you feel good," Piper said. "I think people realize that."

Vega certainly does. On a recent Instagram post of her with cotton-candy pink and lemony-gold hair, she announced, "Finally got a chance to brighten up my hairs before my baby girl arrives, I feel alive again!!"

Piper saw this feeling as part of the mission of the salon, which used the hashtags #ClientsAreEssential and #StylistsAreEssential to announce its reopening. He hopes that people will come out of the pandemic with a greater respect for the beauty industry.

"It's been really nice to know that the hair industry got such a buzz during all of this, because there's a lot of people out there that just think this industry ... is easy," Piper said. "It's a necessity out there."

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Shellie Vega, Urban Hair, Bryan Piper, COVID-19, hair salons

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