In the mid 1960s, young Liverpudlian John Davis sat thoughtfully weighing his career options. He couldn’t sing and couldn’t play guitar, both of which would seriously hamper his dream to travel the world as a creative type. The solution was obvious: he’d become a hairdresser instead. “It was creative, it was a great way to meet people and there would be travel – it was purely practical on my part,” he says. Davis promptly enrolled in a five-year apprenticeship with Vidal Sassoon and fell deeply in love with all things cheveux.
Back then, there wasn’t a lot of choice in premium products. Shampoos and crème rinses mostly came in bulk and often-gunky hairspray rounded out the three pillars of most brands. But the opportunity to change things came by way of a ticket to Vancouver in the 1970s, where Davis would meet his future wife, Lotte, and eventually launch AG Hair.
Fast-forward to today. AG hair is now Canada’s largest independent producer of high-end hair products. In addition to its non-profit charity, One Girl Can, the couple’s empire spans 75 products (including a 98-per-cent plant-based Natural line) available in 14,000 salons in more than 10 countries around the world, thanks to its ethical approach to crafting premium products – no parabens, gluten or testing on animals – in a swish new 70,000-square-foot facility in Coquitlam, B.C. “No one used to think of shampoo as a luxury; it was just a way of cleaning hair,” says Davis, explaining the brand’s growth. Part of AG’s success, though, can be traced back to one early, key moment: when Davis saw a 50-pound bag of salt being dumped into a wholesale batch of ingredients. He suddenly realized the source of the contact dermatitis he’d endured as a hairdresser: “Most shampoos contain sodium chloride as a thickening agent,” he says. “It’s drying on the hair, but imagine if you’re washing someone’s hair up to 12 times a day with your hands immersed in it.” None of AG’s products would ever feature salt again.
Today’s rise in readily accessible premium hair care is thanks to this cross-pollination with the skin-care industry, or a “skinification” trend. “Traditionally, hair has always been viewed as a commodity product, which caused clients to not prioritize ‘investing’ in the category,” says Jane Nugent, vice-president of merchandising for Sephora in Canada. “Clients are now viewing their hair and scalp as an extension of their skin, which is driving them to take more notice of the products they use.” Consumers are looking for precisely the same outcome for the skin on top of their heads: well-being, anti-aging and efficacious ingredients. Now, most of Sephora’s top selling hair products are solution-based precisely similar to the skin-care category.
Davis attributes some of the shift in hair-care perception to the foodie movement too. "We’re all more aware of what goes in our body ingredients-wise and what goes on our body now.” Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that many new luxury hair products are designed for the refrigerator. Biolages’s Raw Recover Shampoo looks and acts more like a smoothie in a bottle with yucca and goji berry fruit extract rich in polyphenols and 20 amino acids that work to condition stressed, damaged hair. Oprah facialist Jennifer Brodeur of Montreal-based JB Skin Guru opted for edible white peony root, a hero product that now forms the basis of her skin-care line, which includes a new Peoni shampoo bar that features vegetable oil and olive oil. Instagram-savvy celebrity stylist Jen Atkin’s Ouai line, launched its Super Dry Shampoo in September. It incorporates volcanic minerals and rice starch to soak up hair oil. “Consumers are much more knowledgeable about ingredients and brands now that they live on social media,” Atkin says. “If you’re going to spend on skin care, you can’t skimp on hair care.”
One of premium hair care’s early adopters was Oribe Canales, a Cuban-born American hairstylist credited for JLo’s luscious locks and the runway looks of a cabal of 1980s supermodels. When Canales launched his eponymous brand in 2008, he was one of the first to reimagine hair care as a beauty category. The salon-grade line is now widely available in more than 40 countries around the world at high-end retailers but, “it’s really about the technology and efficacy of the ingredients,” says Christopher Novak, vice-president of beauty at Holt Renfrew, which carries Oribe. “It’s not enough to have an established brand. The products also need to work…since customers not only want great skin, but healthy hair as well.”
No brand captures the luxury zeitgeist better than Balmain Hair Couture, which rolled out in Canada in 2018. Hair has been in the fashion brand’s DNA since the 1970s, when Pierre Balmain first rocked the catwalk with models in hairpieces. While most brands end up licensing their name out, the House of Balmain remains inexorably tied to its beauty line, now run by the second generation of Balmain’s original wig maker. Hair designs and trends are developed by Nabil Harlow of New York and Paris, who works in tandem with Olivier Rousteing, head designer at Balmain Paris.
Produced in Scandinavia under the European Union’s rigorous Nordic White Swan standards (a sustainability ecolabel that bans more than 1,700 ingredients, while Canada bans just 500), the range features two main ingredients: silk protein and natural argan oil elixir from the Balmain Hair farm in Morocco (along with a host of vitamins, minerals and omega fatty acids). In one year, sales have skyrocketed, but not at the expense of quality and authenticity: product educators, such as Jaclynn Lewis from Regina’s Salon Haze, head to the Balmain flagship salon in Paris each season to learn how to recreate the brand’s runway hairstyles. She also uses its Argan Moisturizing Elixir, a hair oil made with natural ingredients, as a skin cream. “Every product is meant to be layered and mixed,” she says. “When you’re working backstage, you don’t have sinks, so hair has to be reset with existing products; as such, everything in the line is simple, has a purpose and can all be ‘coutured’ together.” It’s the luxury of pure simplicity.
Luxury hair-care products, once exclusively available at salons, are becoming easier to shop
Banish brassiness with this hair mask that contains shea butter and Abyssinian oil, an anti-inflammatory, omega-fatty acid-rich skin-conditioning oil.
AG Hair Sterling Silver Mask, $26 through aghair.com.
Spray Chanel’s mist directly on your hair or brush to scent your curls with the sunny, floral notes of the iconic perfume.
Gabrielle Hair Mist, $67 at Chanel (chanel.com)
Argan elixir and silk protein form the backbone of this gentle hair-colour line that won’t damage strands.
Balmain Hair Couleurs Couture Colour Spa Treatment, price on request through balmainhair.com.
Oribe’s scalp spray is designed to create thicker, more robust strands by creating healthier skin on your head.
Oribe Serene Scalp Thickening Treatment spray, $91, and Serene Scalp Exfoliating Scrub, $62 at Holt Renfrew (holtrenfrew.com).