Turning Heads (but Don’t Call It a Perm)
By HILARY HOWARD
Published: February 2, 2011
TO get waves in her naturally straight hair, Kristi Koren, 36, used to dampen it, twist it in dozens of curlicues and then sleep on it. But after seeing Anne Hathaway’s effortlessly voluptuous locks in “Love and Other Drugs,” Ms. Koren, a mother of one 13-month-old and an entrepreneur in Raleigh, N.C., began wondering if there were a less time-consuming and a less uncomfortable way of creating long, flowing curls. As a child of the 1980s, it didn’t take her long to come up with the obvious (and yet terrifying) answer: a perm.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
“I was worried when I first had the idea,” she said, “but I saw so many magazines with celebrities and these ‘natural’ waves,” she said.
The Olsen twins, Gisele Bündchen, Drew Barrymore and Kate Hudson are among those who have been photographed in recent years with a coif variously described as bohemian beach waves, bed head, second-day hair, “hangover” hair or simply “undone.”
Since Ms. Koren visits New York regularly on business, she thought she’d try a perm at the esteemed Oscar Blandi salon on Madison Avenue. Ms. Koren spoke with Mairead Gallagher, the salon’s resident expert in the process (Ms. Gallagher reports that her business has quintupled over the past year thanks to clients seeking the undone look). “I had several phone conversations with her beforehand because I was so nervous,” Ms. Koren said. Ms. Gallagher assured her prospective client that she would not exit the chair looking like Dee Snider from Twisted Sister. After days of deliberation, Ms. Koren told Ms. Gallagher, “Let’s do it!”
After a two-hour, $400 appointment, Ms. Koren emerged from the salon with natural-looking waves bouncing down her back. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to admit to friends and family in North Carolina that she’d had a perm. “I didn’t even tell my sister,” she said. “I just told her it’s the modern way of doing waves.”
Elaine Lamarre, 27, an executive assistant and fashion designer in New York, sees no stigma in the terminology. As Memorial Day approached last year, Ms. Lamarre decided to perm her hair with the stylist Suren Terzian at Rodney Cutler. “I wanted to have nice beachy, wavy summer hair,” she said. “I have always had extremely straight hair — even with a curling iron it’s difficult to curl it.”
The perm worked as planned. “I had mermaid hair the rest of the summer,” Ms. Lamarre said. “Strangers would compliment me on it when I was out and about. I’d say: ‘Isn’t it great? I permed it!’ And they’d be like, ‘No way!’ ”
When Ms. Lamarre cut her hair short in the fall, she once again experimented with perming the top of her hair for texture and body, and has been happy with the results. “I say bring the perm back,” she said enthusiastically. “It is good!”
Ms. Lamarre might be so bullish on perms because, when she came of age circa 1999, super-straight hair, as worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, was in vogue, the flatiron having at least temporarily superseded the crimper. “One of the biggest reasons this trend has not become infectious on Main Street is the word ‘perm’ brings back hideous memories from the ’80s,” Mr. Terzian said. “A new coined phrase wouldn’t hurt.” (Rodney Cutler salons refer to the service, which starts at $150, as a “body wave.”) Mr. Terzian added that those who want the “undone” look regularly would be better off giving their hair such a “wave,” as opposed to using curling irons every day. “Curling irons apply more direct heat, and using them on a daily basis would produce more damage,” he said.
Ms. Gallagher concurs. “Now perms are so much gentler,” she said. The perming process has not changed demonstrably from 25 years ago (rods, chemicals running coolly and perhaps with a slight sting around one’s cotton-wrapped head, a little sitting in a shower cap and a lot of rinsing over a sink). But now stylists are paying more attention to timing (generally less), rod size (larger) and customized chemical combinations. For example, someone with highlighted hair might receive a treatment with very little ammonium thioglycolate, the active ingredient that renders hair mutable, which would be left in the hair for no more than 10 minutes. This is arguably peanuts compared with some formaldehyde-tinged straightening processes (cough, cough), like the much-maligned Brazilian or Keratin treatments, which can take hours and have raised health concerns.
“A perm can control curly hair, too,” Ms. Gallagher pointed out.
And yet not all salons and stylists are enamored of the perm. “We try to minimize products with too many chemicals whenever possible,” said Roy Teeluck, who owns a salon on East 57th Street. “As for getting that loose, beachy bohemian look, there are options,” he said, invoking the curling iron and styling products like L’Oréal Professional Texture Expert Liss Ardent thermal reconstructing crème for fine hair (about $24 for 4.2 ounces). “If the cosmetics companies would create a less toxic perm, I would like to re-educate my stylists to use them, as I think this look is here to stay.”
Joey Argeras, an editorial stylist for Bumble and bumble, where more than 50 percent of blowout requests at its Bloomingdale’s StylingBar and Shop are for hair with some texture, is also somewhat perm-averse. “Good product and styling technique can totally deliver perfectly undone hair,” Ms. Argeras said. For example, Bumble’s new Bb.texture hair (un)dressing crème, developed specifically to achieve the rippled, rumpled look, will be available online next month ($26 for 5 ounces).
But Ms. Gallagher believes firmly that the perm is back. “The idea of standing and taking 20 minutes to blow-dry and style your hair in the morning can definitely be eliminated with this,” she said, adding that the effects can last up to five months. “I believe that a lot of women want and need this. They’re just afraid of the ’80s thing. They’re afraid of the word ‘perm.’ ”