Speakeasy of Hair

Photography: Emily Wraith

To get to the salon with no name, you have to travel to Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. First you need to find the ramshackle house with the paint-peeled door tucked behind the dollar store on Queen Street West. You will then open a yellow wooden gate, head down the path to the backyard and go through another gate that reads “POSITIVELY NO TRESPASSING”. From there, you must enter an unmarked door at the rear of the house, head up a dim staircase, and find the inside door marked “Jeremy Laing” (the local fashion designer who owns the studio and now rents out the space.) I know all of this not because I read about it somewhere, but because I was sent the instructional video in an email. Perhaps it’s the lack of a moniker, a website or even a dedicated Instagram account, that has resulted in this secret atelier going virtually unnoticed for the past year. But it’s surprising still, because a handful of Toronto’s top hair talent are privately carrying out their craft inside.

The after-hours of hair salons or some kind of slow salon movement? I’m not immediately sure. The space is occupied by one Justin Rousseau, a cutter and colourist who once worked on Project Runway Canada, though there’s no evidence of that sort of extra-ness around here. On the walls are his paintings—minimalist, modernist portraits that favour vibrancy over realism. There are but a few black leatherette salon chairs in the front room, one sink and a couple of mirrors. There are no tills, no celebrity rags, no shelves runneth over with products. Just beyond lies a round dining room table, a dark grey tufted sofa, a tartan upholstered chair, a majestic fireplace and a small beige dog. The ceilings are high, the floors are perfectly worn wood and natural light pours in from massive windows. To the right is a modest kitchen, pots clean yet exposed. We are in the great room, and Justin’s bedroom looks out from a lofted level above. We are in his home, where he eats, where he sleeps, where he bathes in a Victorian bathtub, and where he does hair, along with a few friends.

Stylist Anna Barseghian

One of those friends is Anna Barseghian, whom I met in a past life while producing a cover shoot with Canadian model Herieth Paul (the hairstylist has also styled 60-something-year-old model Maye Musk and Meghan Markle, pre-royalty). Along with Matthew Collins (resident hair expert on CTV’s The Social); Bree Collins (often called upon during Toronto International Film Festival season); and Shawna Lane (who’s styled Jessi Cruickshank’s loose waves), the group is what you might call defectors.

Where at previous salons, they’d be expected to work on 12-15 clients in a day, they now limit their appointments to four or five. They set their own hours, working around editorial shoot days or children’s appointments, largely booking clients themselves over Instagram DMs, texts or emails. They are their own agents, working in cash (or e-Transfers, it is 2018), proof that there’s something roguishly VIP going on here, harkening back to the days when the acclaimed Vancouver-born hairstylist Harry Josh would snip the locks of downtown models in his New York kitchen before striking the big-time post-Gisele Bundchen fame. And they are enjoying the simple life.

“You start doing something for the passion of it and then you get lost in sort of a conveyor belt of heads in front of you,” shares Rousseau. “That’s one thing I appreciate, I like the connection I have with my clients. It’s like a visit, and I don’t feel the rush or the pressure.” For the client, that sort of relaxed approach might allow for an 11 pm haircut, in a pinch, over a tumbler of whiskey. It also includes the stylist’s undivided attention. “Overall you just become a better artist because you feel well-balanced,” says Barseghian, who charges a fair $100 for a haircut.

Private works by resident colourist Justin Rousseau

Sure, the limited availability means you may need to book well in advance (Barseghian is currently booking a month out while the wait for Rousseau is closer to four months), but between services, these particular hair pros are out there sharpening their skills on the cutting edge of the latest fashion magazine shoots. They also devote their time to a joint venture called The Good Ones Academy, where the group educates up-and-coming talents on technical skills and perhaps more importantly, how to develop what the fashion industry labels “a good eye”. Rather than focusing on products and how to earn maximum money for a salon, the group is about teaching the all-important art of aesthetic: separating chic hair from the cheeseball, the fugly from the fucking awesome.

In the age of Instagram, it’s never been more apparent who has taste and who doesn’t, which is why clients have followed these individuals willingly. For Rousseau, they chase his killer blonding skills. For Barseghian, it’s her life-lifting cuts. “I have these ladies who come and they get undercuts done, and they wear it like, you don’t see it, it’s not aggressive, it’s still soft,” she says, noting the razored strip’s adaptability on women of every age. “It’s all about where you put it. Just a little bit of an accent, something that, when you tie up your hair, you’re like “Ooh! I feel a little bit of fun right now!” No hard sales, no rules hair—like any really cool club, all you have to do is get inside.