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Louis Licari: The NY ‘King Of Color’ Reveals His American Dream

October 12th 2017
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New York’s King of Color Louis Licari started his career as a painter and waiter. Now he’s the go-to name for celebrities such as Sofia Coppola and Grace Coddington. Here, he shares with FAB his wisdom on success in the salon business.

FAB: How did you begin your career in New York?

Louis Licari: I moved to New York as a struggling artist. I was married. I had no money. I had no choice. I didn’t want to be a college professor – I wanted something more exciting. A friend of mine was a hairdresser and worked on shoots. He became a photographer himself. I didn’t want to be a photographer either and I didn’t want to be a waiter forever. I needed to start climbing the ladder. I worked with him as a way out of my situation at the age of 20.

I colored all the Ford models at the time and one of them was seeing Robert de Niro. I colored him gray for the movie “Once Upon A Time In America”. He was known as the King of the Kings. That’s when I started working with every famous movie star and model. My career took off in a way I never expected it would. Now I work with Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, on movie sets and shoots.

Louis Licari
Credit: Louis Licari

FAB: Did you have a particular interest in hair as a young man?

L.L.: I grew up painting. I was so horrible as a hairdresser I could never do a blow-dry – it looked like a cake that didn’t rise. But they felt that I had a work ethic and offered me a gig as a shampoo person. I was so desperate I took it anyway. It was a blessing in disguise because I never knew there was a thing called a colorist. Since the age of seven, eight I knew about colors because I painted. I knew how to mix them. I knew I could succeed if I learned the medium of hair color. My boss was really tough, old fashioned. One day his assistant left so I begged him to give me the position. Luckily enough he said yes and I learned from someone who was very good. I learned solidly the basics, which allowed me later on to develop more flair. I loved it, but it was a technical class. One day a top model was late and my boss refused to color her hair. He said she could have his assistant and to our surprise she said yes. That was in the early 1980s. Within three months a magazine did a story on us and from then on everything blew up.

FAB: Why was hair color a good fit for you?

L.L.: I enjoyed hair color because I felt comfortable and then I started pushing my comfort zone and stayed more current. I could never work in an office or in a structured environment, that’s not my temperament. And I just feel good doing this. First of all there’s not a lot of jobs where people are so happy with your work. Everyday I walk out feeling that I make people happy and there’s nothing better than that. It also taught me to not be shy. When I first moved to New York I was so incredibly shy that if you asked me to do an interview I was too shy to do it. I gained a confidence that I never had.

FAB: According to you, how is hair color essential to beauty?

L.L.: With hair color you can reshape the person’s face, you can work with people’s complexions. You can erase wrinkles, you can do everything to make people prettier, you can emphasize eyes, get rid of a long or wide face. When you do a single process you can work on light and dark tones. And as hair color truly became a fashion accessory it became more fun – you can create looks. I was lucky to be the guy who did Linda Evangelista. She changed her hair color four times, from blonde to brunette to redhead. I did her natural hair color with highlights. No top model before that would ever color her hair. Before there was so much red tape that it was almost impossible to make that happen with leading models. All of a sudden I got to color a lot of models. Then I slowly got into television and now I have over 25 years at the “Today Show” on NBC in America, where I am a contributing editor. That’s how I became well-known.

FAB: Do you have time to paint?

L.L.: I work six days a week. I have no time to paint. I also have to deal with the business, but I was raised to be a painter so my business acumen is less than it should be. But since Rodney Cutler and I joined forces it works because he loves business. He does the industry side, I do the public side. He’s more of a businessman and I take care of the show – I go out, I draw attention, I know how to talk, I go to Asia to speak about color trends. But I don’t talk to hairdressers, more the executives about what’s next and what’s new.

FAB: Why do you think your color is completely unique?

L.L.: My color is unique because I look at you first. Your natural color, second. Then I look at your style and sensibility and I try to give you the look that you want and that works for you. I think most of the time hair colorists see the client and do the same formula over and over again. I think every touch up should have a small change so that the color constantly evolves. As the beginning I was too shy to do that but as I evolved I became more confident. You have to see how open the client is, and move at their pace. Sometimes I do colors that I don’t especially like, but you can always talk to the client and show them other options.

FAB: How do you remain inspired?

L.L.: I always look at everything around me. I never disregard anything; there’s always something you can take from the things you see. I have no interest in doing hair show hair color, but at the same time as my mind has expanded I have opened up to almost anything. I’m a sponge. I look at people on the streets, I look at everything. My good friend Marc Jacobs walks on the streets looking at how people put themselves together. Marc has always seen how everything influences everything else. Check every single fashion show you can get your hands on and what’s going on in the art scene. The one thing about hair color is that hair color is no longer just for women going grey but it’s to create a style, to enhance a person. Now if you have a good color you can wear a basic T-shirt and look like a million dollars. Find your look and also evolve. If you have the same look you had five years ago something is going desperately wrong. If you want to keep on peaking, you have to keep on evolving the way you think the way you are. If you ever stop, the end is near and I just won’t accept that.

Louis Licari, Rodney Cutler, Louis Licari
Louis Licari, Rodney Cutler, Louis Licari – Credit: Louis Licari

FAB: What is beauty?

L.L.: Someone who really has it together. Someone who is confident and nice. Confidence in one’s self is one of the more attractive qualities. Of course that goes with great hair, make-up that works for you and the right style. I always say, why have cake if you can’t eat it? I try to see the beauty in almost everything. I see what I like and I see what I don’t like. I always question myself on my reactions to what I see. When someone sits on my chair I take them from a diamond in the rough and find the X Factor and emphasize that.

FAB: Is it the same for men?

L.L.: With men it’s different. If they look like they’re trying at all, it’s almost unappealing. You can never look like you’re trying too hard. It’s unappealing to look like you spent an hour in front of the mirror. Every guy should look like they just got out of the shower. Of course it’s a fable, but that’s the idea.