Hairstory colorist Julia Elena has something to teach us about education: Take matters into your own hands.
Hairdressers have mixed feelings about beauty school. It’s a necessary step to acquiring a license to practice, and some students have a clear vision for their future, the drive to get there, and the patience to sweep salon floors along the way. Others admit they enrolled because it’s cheaper than “real” college, or they hear it’s a quick and easy path to cash (it’s not). Some go to the cheapest place they can find because they know it is only about the license, or passing tests about rules of hygiene and handling sharp objects without maiming someone.
Most hairdressers are in it to be creative – and to make a living, not a killing. The program that Julia enrolled in isn’t cheap, but it is relatively quick: $21,000 buys tuition, books and supplies; room and board is $8400 more – for 29 weeks, or $1000 a week. 74% of students who attend borrow to pay for it; typical graduates earn minimum wage, or a mere $13,554 per year after leaving (this is posted on their website as required by law). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a hairdresser in the US is just over $25,000, although six figures is possible for those with the right combination of ambition, smarts, talent – and the ability to live where clients pay top dollar.
Julia, who was just featured by Refinery29 as one “NYC Colorist Who will Change Your Hair Forever,” was disengaged at school, and feeling too familiar at home with dreams that seemed out of reach. She remembers sobbing in her mother Ruth’s Louisiana kitchen and wailing, “All I want is to be surrounded by creative people and do good work!” With Ruth’s blessing, Julia bought a one-way ticket to New York with aspirations of doing editorial hairdressing. She registered with L’Atelier, artist representatives, and was eventually booked to assist one of her heroes, Julien D’Ys – only to be told 10 minutes later that she wouldn’t be needed after all. She suspects to this day that her starstruck enthusiasm with the booker was a red flag.
Disappointed but undeterred, Instagram led Julia to Hairstory Studio. She sent us a link to her portfolio and asked if she could just come and observe. Before she was formally offered an apprenticeship with Roxie Darling, she would hang out in the color studio, “with a notebook and pen by my side.” Initially, she remembers, “I asked so many questions whether they annoyed Roxie or not.” In Louisiana, “They don’t do color like Roxie does, and I’d never heard it talked about in such a way. I’d never seen something so natural look so beautiful. I wanted to do that.” So writing everything down became even more important. “Julien D’Ys published a book that takes you behind the scenes of his work,” she says. “He inspired me to keep my own diary.”
Roxie introduced Julia to the work of scientist and color guru Johannes Itten. A quote of his spoke to her: “If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in color, then un-knowledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in color out of your un-knowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge.” Julia follows her intuition, “but I also doubt it, so I have to have knowledge. I wrote down that quote to remind myself.”
Julia also learned the fundamentals of color theory that any artist requires, but for some reason isn’t included in cosmetology curricula. All of it went straight into the journal. “I wrote what I was learning about primary, secondary, tertiary colors, and the color wheel. It made so much sense to me because I also paint,” she adds. “It’s the same thing!”
“I’m always inspired by something,” Julia exclaims. It could be fabric, a place in nature, or a painting like those by a favorite artist, Donna Huanca. “I’ve been attracted lately by very washed-out, textural colors, interesting browns, blacks, and colors you can’t quite put your finger on, neutrals that are changeable depending on context – or who is looking at them; we see color subjectively, and that’s fascinating to me.”
Volume 1 contains a photo of the first person whose hair she painted, a single process. “It was scary – it still is scary sometimes, she admits. “Even though it was simply brown, I wanted it to be special.” Over time Julia abandoned polaroid photos and started using more polished images that are truer to color.
Book 2 begins with a mantra she wrote to remind herself why she does what she does: One of my purposes in life is to make women feel as beautiful as they are on the inside. All women have the freedom to do that, and it is a privilege to have this gift to share. “Many women don’t get to express themselves,” she says. “That is still happening in the world, even here in the US, which is unfortunate. Women don’t do certain things because of they’re afraid of what people might think. I want to be there for them.”
A third volume is in progress. “I think keeping journals is something that one should continue; it makes the work more special.” Julia records details about each client beside their color formula. “If they’re a new client, I write down specific things I hear in conversation that I like.”
So far, many of Julia’s clients aren’t following trends, and, “doing whatever the hell they want to do, like going dark in summer.” Many have experienced radical shifts in their lives this year, and her theory is, “Because all of these changes can’t be controlled, people are following their own desires.”
Looking forward, Julia wants to “do amazing work and meet all kinds of people. I look forward to growing with Hairstory, and on my own – traveling at some point – but always continuing to learn.”
Immerse yourself in Julia’s work at julzelena.com.