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January 10, 2011

Julien Farel, Cult Hairstylist

Danielle Levitt

The cult of the celebrity hairstylist, Madison Avenue–style.

For me, it’s not about zee money. It’s about changing zee mood. I have women who say to me, Joolian, change my mood. In French we say, ‘Recoiffe-moi le moral.’”

He approaches the snowy-haired baroness armed with a pair of shears, erect and focused like a matador, his eyes the color of cognac, his blow-dryer tucked into his crotch. He wears custom-made slim white shirts, bespoke suits by Nedo Bellucci Napoli and soft leather shoes.

Julien Farel’s Madison Avenue salon is buzzing: social swans, mannequins, millionaires, blow-dryers whirring, blades snip, snip, snipping and the sweet scent of sandalwood mixed with hair conditioner.

“He’s a wonderful stylist,” says the baroness as Farel carefully winds a section of hair under a fat round brush. “I’m very fond of him.” Her name is Suzanne von Liebig, and her late husband made a fortune in vascular surgery research. An arts patron and a philanthropist, she flew Farel for lunch one day to Bermuda on her private jet with bottles of Dom Perignon. A mere bagatelle.

“You know,” he says, rubbing the baroness’s shoulders. “It’s $650. If they hand me the blow-dryer, it’s another $250. But I’m only at $900....My goal is $1,000. Maybe next year.”

In this uncertain world of bankruptcies, bailouts and buyouts, who better to shore up a fragile ego than a certified celebrity coiffeur and confidant who understands what the rich and mighty already know: If you can’t afford it, so much the better.

“Cheaper than a surgeon,” says Farel. “And it makes you feel good right away.”

At $900 for a cut and blow-dry, is his the most expensive salon in New York?

“I try,” he laughs.

Julien Farel is the Hermès of hair with an impressive list of clients: Ivanka Trump, Richard Gere, Catherine Deneuve, a host of Tisches and Bushes, the late Natasha Richardson, Carl Bernstein, Salma Hayek, Kate Moss, Kate Beckinsale and Rafael Nadal, whose hair he cut during last year’s US Open, causing quite a stir and a scramble for hair clippings as souvenirs, according to a piece in the New York Post.

“I met Julien a couple of years ago, by chance,” says Nadal. “I got to New York and needed a haircut to be ready for the Open. He did a fantastic job. Now every year I go to his salon to get ready for the tournament. He’s the one who came up with the idea of shortening my hair. I love it.”

Farel’s signature is seamless, architectural precision, making every hair bond to another; once it starts to grow out, the locks grow symmetrically. He understands texture, the shape of a face, the chin, the nose. His emphasis is on making each cut the most perfect accessory. “I had the vision,” he says, “and I applied it to the technique. At this price, you have to be good.”

His clients come to him not only for the look he creates, but for the VIP private rooms and attention to service not likely found at the fromage-y Hair Cuttery. And now his empire is expanding, with a second Manhattan salon at the recently opened five-star Setai Fifth Avenue; it’s part of the hotel’s Auriga spa, which spans the entire fourth floor at more than 11,500 square feet and features a rejuvenating Ice Cave and an Aqua Grotto. Next up: a line of hair products developed in Italy that promises to regrow dead hair follicles. “People tell me, ‘I can’t grow my hair’…I love taking bad hair, short hair, disgusting hair, and making it sexy! Glamorous! Fluffy!”

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At 42, Farel looks like a young Truffaut, and he cannot, of course, escape the Shampoo comparisons. Warren Beatty played Beverly Hills hairdresser George Roundy in the 1975 movie satire, and Farel welcomes the similarities: “I have a motorcycle and everything!” Like Beatty and his clients in the film, Farel embraces the flirtatious, smoochy-smoochy, darling-you’re-still-wet philosophy. But Beatty’s sexual prowess and naïveté are a far cry from the hardworking Farel, who is rarely off the clock yet recently completed his second New York City marathon. He has spent the last 25 years building his ever-growing business (a sister salon at the Capella Pedregal hotel in Cabo San Lucas opened in November 2009) without any financial backing, though with plenty of backbreaking support from Suelyn, his gorgeous blonde wife and the mother of his two daughters, Chloé and Manon.

The Farels are both armed with a keen mind, a bullish work ethic, driving discipline and meticulous attention to detail. During a tour of the new Setai salon, Suelyn expertly explained the details of the dark wooden panels, terrazzo tile walls, range of services and unique features like the plunge pool in the men-only spa area.

Julien can often be found working until ten at night, and he still makes house calls (including a recent $3,800 cut for a Saudi royal staying at the St. Regis). One night a week, he teaches classes in the Madison Avenue salon until near midnight with partners Elvin Arvelo and color director Peter Oon, who charges $445 and up for highlights.

“He’s a true perfectionist,” says client Sari Clymas, sitting in a white gown under a whirring hair dryer. “Every little detail. He doesn’t miss anything.”

Clymas, formerly a realtor with the Trump Organization, first went to Farel nearly 18 years ago, when he was a young stylist doing 37 cuts a day at the Frédéric Fekkai salon, located in Bergdorf Goodman back then. “I went three times a week. I had to look perfect. He was always the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave at night. I don’t know anybody who works harder.”

Montfaucon-en-Velay is a tiny town (population: 1,100) southwest of Lyon where Farel was born. The area is home to fine French textiles. “My grandparents worked in the flea markets, selling fabrics,” he says. “We’d been in the business for generations. My father sold house linen throughout the country.” But the boy wasn’t interested in the family business. He wanted a bigger life. “I was supposed to work with him. But when my parents divorced, I was too young. And I refused to go to soccer training. Instead, I went skiing. My father was mad.” One day, while in the Alps, he told his father he wanted “to do hair.”

“‘Why hair?’ he asked. I paused; ‘I don’t really know.’ I think it was the beauty, the women.” Shortly afterward, Farel went to beauty school and was recruited by Jacques Dessange. “I worked with him for ten years. Lyon, Paris, Manhattan. He sent me to New York in 1992 to open his school on Park Avenue. I was only supposed to be here for a year. I told my family, ‘I’m going to learn English. I’ll be back.’” He laughs softly. “The school was good. But you know what was great? The young women, coming from all over the country. I was working seven days, and I was single.”

He then moved to Fekkai’s salon at Bergdorf’s, where, one day, a young woman was getting highlights from colorist Peter Oon (now Farel’s partner). The woman was the lovely Suelyn Bogdanoff. She was introduced to Farel and found they shared the same favorite book, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

“That’s how we connected,” he recalls. “I believe in the laws of attraction. I believe you attract what you are.” Suelyn went home that night and wrote a note: “I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.” The two started dating, but Suelyn wouldn’t let Farel touch her hair. They married in October 2004 at the Rothschild villa in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and honeymooned in Bali, where she lost her virginity, coif-wise. “He took off four inches,” she sighs.

Farel left Fekkai and went out on his own in December 2001. He packed his scissors, brushes and dryers into a suitcase and made house calls for clients while looking for his own space.

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He rented two chairs at The Pierre hotel, and word spread. He soon found a home at 605 Madison Avenue and eventually took over three floors. The first two are feng shui–approved spaces devoted to hair, coloring, manicures, private rooms for Egyptian waxing. They do wedding tryouts, tweezing, electrolysis, Brazilians and bikinis, extensions, Japanese hair straightening and enriched “hair shakes” for $150. The top floor is a private workout room, JF Gymnastique. For the past three years, he has installed a Style Suite at the US Open, doing hair and makeup for the athletes.

In the annals of celebrity stylists, Farel is no different than Kenneth in the ’60s. Fekkai, who attained star status a decade ago, sold his own business to Procter & Gamble. His salons are ubiquitous and his products are now sold at Target. Building a brand, a loyal following, creating buzz and zee love requires more than luck, and Farel, who sees about 20 clients on a good day, attributes it to “the way I set up my business. I can always take someone. It could be a magazine or a superstar, or it could be a friend or a real client. I put more into quality than quantity.”

“His salon exemplifies the exceptional service, attentiveness and professionalism every woman looks for,” says Ivanka Trump. “Julien is not only an amazing stylist, he’s an amazing friend.”

“He has something that goes beyond cutting hair,” says Doug Teitelbaum, a hedge-fund manager and a codirector of Bay Harbour. “He personalizes everyone’s experience. And he’s done it completely on his own.” Teitelbaum first met Farel when the stylist was looking for his own space; a deal with Barneys had fallen through. “It’s about going to a place that looks out for the customer,” says Teitelbaum. “He fits you in in a bind.”

And the price?

“I think the word for the perfect haircut is ‘investment,’” says 36-year-old Roopal Patel, senior market editor of women’s accessories at Neiman Marcus. She is getting a fringe of bangs. Bangs, Farel says, is the trend.

While the price of an average haircut in America is $45, Farel aims for four figures. The underlying philosophy is not unlike the Russian oligarch who spies his friend on the street one day and says, “I like your tie. How much did it cost?”

The friend replies, “Five thousand dollars.”

“Oh, too bad,” the first man says. “You could have gotten it across the street for ten thousand.”

The original Julien Farel Salon is located at 605 Madison Avenue; the latest is in the Setai Fifth Avenue, at 400 Fifth Avenue. For a haircut and blow-dry with Mr. Farel, the price starts at $900. For a Farel-approved senior stylist, it’s $205. To make an appointment, go to julienfarel.com.