Jo Hansford is a hairdressing icon. If you mocked up a film poster of her life it would feature 5 star ratings and quotes like “The First Lady of Colour” – Marie Claire and “The Best Tinter On The Planet” – American Vogue.
With a celebrity client list including Liz Hurley, Georgia Jagger, Erin O’Connor, Sienna Miller, Sophie Dahl, Claudia Winkleman and Angeline Jolie, Jo has long dominated her corner of the hairdressing world with no serious pretenders to her throne.
Years ago, I used to get my hair done at her old Mount Street salon and loved the fact that although it’s slap bang in the heart of London’s poshest area, it was completely welcoming and down to earth. I marvelled at the fact that you could order a freshly made sandwich while you had your roots done and plonk yourself down at a basin alongside someone you’d just watched on telly the night before, Nigella for instance.
Although Jo is frequently flown around the world to tend A-list barnets, her reputation and schedule necessitates that they more often than not, they come to her. It’s the kind of place where you’re likely to glance up and notice that the woman across from you having her foils done, flicking through OK! isn’t in fact your mum’s friend Irene but actually Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
After going blonde at the start of the year, my hair was damaged and starting to lose it’s original creamy tone. Although I revisited my local salon – the new colour failed to take because my hair had become non-responsive to the persistent chemical assault (and who can blame it?) This was then followed by an attempt at some natural remedies (desperately massaging avocado into my hair over the bath – messy!) I eventually decided it was time it was time to call in the big guns. I met with Jo’s crack squad of expert colourists Dominique and Taylor who diagnosed the problem (too many fine highlights over a dark base, leading to over-treated blocky looking colour) and came up with the solution.
Dominique decided to soften the base colour at the roots by lifting it up a shade which made me look like a natural blonde. She then added a few creamy highlights throughout the top section along with some reverse lights to break up the colour and give a more natural look. She said that this would mean less regular maintenance and help give the hair more of a rest so that it can improve the condition. Hurray! The colour looked so much more natural and subtle and the hair seems healthier already. I was transformed from yellowing Bo-Jo / Andy Warhol eccentric mop top to creamy, cool Hitchcock heroine in just a few hours. Result!
After the colour, stylist Scarlett trimmed my dry ends to help complete the new glossy, healthy look.
It did take quite a while to complete but I didn’t get bored. With a large supply of mags, delicious fresh juice and snacks AND space age driers which signal your drying time is up by blasting out an angelic style musical chorus, which makes you think a deity has suddenly entered the room, I would’ve been happy spending the whole day there.
Sadly no deities were in attendance. Nor celebs. None that I spotted anyway. The thing is you probably wouldn’t notice if they were. Being gowned and foiled is a great leveller and even though there is a largely affluent clientele and the occasional superstar, it’s never been an intimidating VIP area type affair. Like Mount Street before it, the swish new premises on South Audley St have a relaxed, egalitarian vibe. And this is undoubtedly due to Jo herself.
Hansford is the definition of self made. After leaving school in Middlesex (as soon as she could) she started out studying make up on a BBC apprenticeship scheme, but at 15 was too young to take up a position. Subsequent stints in London hair salons bored her until she discovered the colour room. She cut her teeth in a golden era of star hairdressers, learning her craft at Vidal Sassoon where she dyed David Hemming’s hair for the film ‘Blow Up.’ It doesn’t come more swinging Sixties than that.
By the 80’s / early 90’s Sassoon’s name had become a heritage brand and it was young guns like John Frieda, Nicky Clarke, Charles Worthington building TV careers and product ranges off the back of successful salons. Jo decided to open her own, with a team of just 8.
She had held back from opening her own salon for years, put off by the massive overheads, something which she maintains is prohibitive to a lot of female hairdressers. But after an ill-fated partnership with Daniel Galvin, Jo stepped out of the shadows of her male peers and firmly into the long overdue spotlight.
It wasn’t easy at first – 1993 was in the middle of recession. This, plus the fact that no woman had yet opened a name salon, led industry insiders to predict that she would last three months tops. Jo and her husband David mortgaged their house to finance it.
Like most start-ups it lost money in the first year but swiftly came into it’s own, flourishing where others stalled. With hindsight, specialising in colour could be seen as a shrewd business move. Like lipstick and nail polish in the cosmetic industry, colour is now deemed recession proof. People might cut back on blowdries and trims when they’re feeling the pinch but colour needs regular maintenance.
I wondered if this was what had enabled Jo to survive in such a competitive industry and she agreed that specialising in colour and colour correction set her apart from the others. She explained that colour was originally deemed an afterthought but by putting it front and centre and marketing herself as an expert, she was able to build a formidable reputation and make it a ‘destination salon.’
I was also interested to ask her how she thinks women’s experience in business has evolved since her launch two decades ago. “The perception of women [running their own business] has changed,” she conceded but added that there’s still “a lot more to be done to support women.”
She cites organisations such as EveryWoman as doing fantastic work but crucially also brought up the need for more government support for childcare which makes it easier for women to return to work. I guess it’s unsurprising that the cost and quality of childcare, an issue which concerns so many of us, is one which the employer of a largely female workforce and a working mum herself must be acutely aware.
But Jo also pinpoints the reason for her success on her “amazing, supportive” husband David, who sadly died in 2001. He clearly played an integral role in helping Jo balance career with family life as well as building one of beauty’s most prestigious brands.
These days Jo attends her regular clients part of the week and her daughter Joanna (trained both on the shop floor and business school) has taken over day to day management. You get the impression that the business has a family ethos as it’s heart and the friendly, close-knit atmosphere which results from that puts clients at ease.
It’s remarkable that twenty years on, in an industry swayed by trends and flavours of the month, Jo Hansford is still the kind of salon where you can relax in the knowledge that you will walk out looking a hell of a lot better than when you went in. Guaranteed.
And kudos to Jo, one of an elite group of women working into their sixties, who can still rightly claim to be the best in her field.