He approaches a woman seated in his salon chair with his arms outstretched as if about to conduct a symphony.
“First, we are going to grow the hair,” says Nuri Yurt, the owner of Toka Salon. He waves his hands over her dampened salt-and-pepper locks. His fingers flick around the perimeter of her head, tousling here and fluffing there until he’s ready to deliver his verdict. “But we are not there yet.”
The woman in the chair doesn’t say a word. Why argue with a man who’s been a hairdresser since he was ten years old?
“I was a very hyper child,” says Yurt, 42, who grew up in Istanbul. “My family wanted to keep me busy.” So they sent him to be an apprentice at a salon in that city owned by a family friend.
His early training wasn’t as tough as it sounds. Boys such as Yurt grew up learning a trade, and those who didn’t go into carpentry or become electricians—two other common trades in Turkey—apprenticed in hair salons, where their training was an after-school activity. Tips—for sweeping the floor, for bringing tea, for hanging a jacket—were plentiful.
Yurt was taught how to wash, roll, blow-dry, color, and, finally, cut the famously thick hair of Turkish women.
Istanbul, says Yurt, is cosmopolitan and fashionable, and salons such as Toni & Guy not only have set up shop there; they’ve opened training academies. For every high-end salon charging $500 for highlights, another charges $5 for a blowout—meaning that women from all walks of life can make daily trips to the salon.
“In Turkey, hair is an art,” says Yurt. “Painters work on the paper; we work on the women.”
Yurt’s flagship salon is in Georgetown. He also has Toka salons in Alexandria (opening this month) and DC’s Penn Quarter as well as a Manhattan outpost on Madison Avenue—where his cuts cost $350 as opposed to the $125 and up he charges in Washington. He has handled the heads of the previous four First Ladies and cut the hair of the famous (Bo Derek) and infamous (Michaele Salahi has been a client for ten years). If you type “Who are some famous Turkish-Americans?” into WikiAnswers, just two names come up: cardiothoracic surgeon and Oprah-endorsed TV personality Mehmet Oz and Nuri Yurt.
But Yurt isn’t the only talented Turk in town. Especially in Georgetown, where there are so many Turkish salon owners and hairdressers, Wisconsin Avenue feels more like the Bosporus.
“This is our territory,” Yurt says. Half of the stylists he employs are Turkish. He has his own Turkish apprentice, a gorgeous young woman named Sezgi Acur who is currently mastering the blow-dry.
“Everyone wants to go into the business here because everyone here is making it,” says Yurt, who lives in Great Falls with his wife and son.