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I Spent All Day Eavesdropping at Drybar. Here’s What I Learned.

Why blowouts are such a big business in Washington.
I Spent All Day Eavesdropping at Drybar. Here’s What I Learned.

“No cuts. No color. Just blowouts.” It’s the maxim chalked on the Rococo-esque blackboard at the entrance to Drybar, and it reminds me of the David Letterman bit in which he walks into a store called Just Shades and asks, “But seriously, what can you get besides just shades here?”

Blowouts are all Drybar does, and they’re so popular that on this summer Saturday, all of the chairs in the Georgetown outpost are occupied by 8 a.m., including the ones in the reception area where women wait their turn while thumbing through back issues of In Touch or texting on their iPhones. Above them hangs a chandelier made of hair dryers, bundled and dangling upside down from their cords.

According to a maniacally cheerful video on the company’s YouTube page, Drybar came to be after West Coast hairstylist Alli Webb began a one-person side business that provided in-home blowouts to women around LA. She quickly had more clients than she could handle, and after securing a loan from her brother—a former Yahoo executive who is now Drybar’s executive board chair—Webb opened her first store in Brentwood, California, in 2010.

Today, with more than 40 locations across the US—including one in Bethesda and two set to open this fall in Dupont Circle and Penn Quarter—plus a projected $70-million revenue in 2015, Drybar is the front-runner in a booming industry that includes local outfits such as Blowout Bar and Blowdry Taxi.

But while other fashion trends come and go, the blowout boom has a dimension that may prove stickier. “When you start having your hair blown out, it’s really hard to go back to doing it on your own,” says Valerie Monroe, beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine.

Drybar is the great equalizer—a place where, for $40 a pop, local news anchors, K Street attorneys, stay-at-home moms, and tweens can come together and, in 45 minutes, leave looking like they’re about to hit the catwalk instead of Wisconsin Avenue.

Ever since this Drybar opened in my neighborhood in 2012, I’d been curious to know what went on inside, so I decided to spend a Saturday there, chronicling the comings and goings at just one chair. Here’s a sample of who bellied up to the styling bar—from first to last call.

8:15 a.m. Claire Steinbeck, 29, Alexandria

Claire Steinbeck, the first client of the day. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

The experience always begins with a consultation at the bar. Steinbeck, a preschool teacher at Garfield Elementary in Southeast DC, flips through a “lookbook” to decide on one of seven styles, all named after cocktails—from the “sleek and smooth” Manhattan to the “messy, beachy” Mai Tai to the Southern Comfort, whose ingredients are “big hair” and “lots of volume.” Her bachelorette party is later today, and Steinbeck, who has curly brown hair that hangs to the middle of her back, would like her blowout to last till tomorrow, when her mother and grandmother are flying in from Florida for her bridal shower.

Stylist Jamila Johnson suggests the staying power of the Cosmo, which the bar menu describes as “lots of loose curls.” Johnson then escorts her past a wall hung with black-and-white glamour shots of Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly to the washroom, where Steinbeck has her hair cleaned and wrapped in a bun, which is covered by a white hand towel that makes all the women who return from the sinks look slightly Amish.

“School just got out yesterday,” says Steinbeck, who normally wears her hair in a ponytail when dealing with her three-year-old pupils. “I feel like it’s time to get pampered.”

Johnson starts with the sides, moves to the top, blow-drying that section into loopy curls and pinning them to the top of Steinbeck’s head, and then finishes in the back. With her yellow apron worn like a tool belt and the tail end of a mermaid tattoo poking out from a slit in her skirt, Johnson is in constant motion, working a brush, plugging in a curling iron—which, like all the other tools, is in Drybar’s signature buttercup color—and bouncing to the music filling every corner of the salon.

By the time Johnson is done, Steinbeck’s curls are tamed and almost smooth, like ribbons of fettuccine. Clients don’t sit facing mirrors—instead of watching their transformation from wet to fabulously dry, they can watch a flat-screen playing chick flicks like Bridesmaids, which have subtitles. With the mirror behind her, Johnson spins the chair around for the final reveal. After a few adjustments and doses of hair spray, Steinbeck, perfectly coiffed, shyly regards herself in the mirror.

“I wanted to feel pretty today,” she says, gently touching a curl. Worried how she’ll feel tomorrow for her bridal shower, Johnson gives her an extra spritz.

9:00 a.m. Payal Herendeen, 33, Falls Church

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

“Drybar for me is super-relaxing,” says Herendeen. She’s about to take her four-month-old daughter on a plane for the first time—which she says is “super-intense.” They’re flying to her brother-in-law’s wedding in San Diego: “I just saw that there’s a Drybar 20 minutes away from where the wedding is.”

A blowout junkie, Herendeen buys “bartabs,” three-, six-, or 12-packs of blowouts. (A six-pack, for example, costs $225, a $15 savings.) There’s also a Barfly Membership that, for $75 a month, includes two blowouts monthly and a free birthday blowout. Herendeen admits she contemplated coming in right before she gave birth but, due to doctor’s orders to rest, never made it.

She eschews the lookbook, instead scrolling through her phone and showing hairstylist Tamia Wiltse a photo of her younger sister, who, sporting the same thick head of glossy black hair, looks like her twin. But with her long bangs feathered to the side and waves spilling over her shoulders, Herendeen’s sister looks like the “after” to her “before.”

As Herendeen sits and texts, Wiltse repeats the same choreography, drying sections, looping them at the crown, and eventually unwinding the sections as if letting out the string on a kite. Fully immersed in her work, Wiltse doesn’t speak except to ask Herendeen which side she parts her hair on.

When it’s time to look in the mirror, Herendeen fusses with her bangs and asks Wiltse to straighten them a bit more with a flatiron.

“Am I relaxed?” Herendeen asks reflectively. “I think so.”

9:55 a.m. Sarah Reback, 21, Foggy Bottom

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

By midmorning, Drybar has become a clown car—women exploding out of the sink room and clogging the main artery of the salon, Kate Spade wallets and Louis Vuitton Speedys vying for bar space. Reback, an incoming senior at George Washington University with cascading blond hair, always gets the same blowout, a Manhattan with a twist (sleek and smooth but with a bit of a curl at the end) no matter where she’s going or what she’s doing. Today she’s heading to the beach.

“I’ll probably tan for a little bit,” Reback says. But she won’t go in the water—there’s a big party that night in Rehoboth. Because she’s on a student budget, she can afford to come to Drybar only once a month. Sometimes she’ll come in with a group of friends (“just two or three because we don’t want to overwhelm them”) on a Thursday, “so it lasts until Sunday.”

Reback reads a dog-eared copy of Glamour. On the cover is Kim Kardashian, who, with her long, loose curls—which look suspiciously like Drybar’s Cosmo style—seems to be the company’s patron saint of blowouts. Wiltse keeps her silent vigil, flatironing to the beat of the Black Eyed Peas. Down the line of chairs—eight in all—a little girl gets her hair blown out, a practice referred to in Drybar parlance as the Shirley Temple (and priced at $28 for girls age ten and under) while her father takes pictures.

11:00 a.m. Mary Bennett, 72, Georgetown

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

“You know what I hate about this place?” announces Bennett, a retired leasing agent. “No alcohol license.”

While other Drybars offer complimentary mimosas, the Georgetown location doesn’t. Bennett, whose short, ear-length hair bucks the trend here, comes in once a week: “If I get it done on Saturday, it will last until Wednesday.” Bennett has been her husband’s caregiver since he fell ill, “so it’s extra-helpful to not have to worry about my hair.” She doesn’t bother with the bar menu. “Serena and I figured it out,” she says of her regular stylist, Serena Anthony. “I can’t do without Serena.”

Together they’ve settled on the perfect combination of product and technique. Drybar has its own merchandise line (also sold at Sephora), and Anthony lines up a row of Money Maker Flexible Hold Hairspray, Texas Tea Volumizing Hair Spray, and Southern Belle Volumizing Mousse, then begins dousing Bennett’s wet hair with all three before drying it with a fat, round brush. “It’s like glue,” marvels Bennett.

Before she heads home to her husband, she embraces Anthony until they’re cheek to cheek. “If I ever go missing,” Bennett says she tells friends, “just check Drybar if you want to find me.”

11:45 a.m. Amy Moore, 27, Alexandria

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Moore, a graphic designer, usually does her own shoulder-length-plus, toffee-colored tresses, but because she’s going to a friend’s wedding later today, she felt like treating herself. Besides, the aftermath of her last visit was pretty ego-boosting: “I got hit on more than I usually do.”

She asks stylist Anndromitta Johnson for the Cosmo because it has the most curls. “Anything you want I can do,” says Johnson, who has her long braids tied in a topknot and wears animal-print flatforms. “We are day-makers,” says Johnson. “When you get your hair blown out here, you feel like a totally different woman.”

The transformation, though, is without stress. Whereas a bad haircut or dye job can send a customer home in tears, a Cosmo gone wrong, if it occurs, is easily fixed.

“I want one of you in my house,” Moore tells Johnson.

These days, a Washington woman may have a Johnson around—with more stylists offering mobile services, women can schedule an at-home blowout when the need strikes. Others trek to a salon several times a week, never washing or drying their hair at home.

“I joke that my bathtub has no shampoo or conditioner,” says Jocelyn Greenan, a Bethesda stay-at-home mom, socialite, and self-proclaimed beauty junkie. “I don’t know how to do my own hair anymore.” Greenan goes to both the Bethesda and Georgetown locations and likes that a blowout at Drybar is young and fun: “When you leave, you look like all the candids in People magazine.”

12:30 p.m. Manuela Bayón, 19, DC

Manuela Bayón asked stylist Myisha Stevens for “length, not volume,” to enjoy her long locks before entering the Naval Academy, when some 20 inches would be lopped off. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

“I want length, not volume,” says Bayón so quietly it’s hard to hear her above the din of the pounding music and whirring dryers. It’s the last hair-rah for Bayón, who is entering the Naval Academy in a few weeks and will lose about 20 inches off her Victorian-length, fawn-colored locks.

Tonight is her sister’s quinceañera celebration in Friendship Heights, but at 1 o’clock the party has already started at Drybar. With every passing hour, the stylists seem to loosen up, dancing around and cracking jokes. (“What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear.”) If possible, the music has gotten even louder.

After the blowout, pint-size stylist Myisha Stevens takes sections of Bayón’s hair and sweeps a flatiron down them as if she’s ironing a table runner, standing back from the chair several feet when she gets to the ends. When she begins her plebe summer at the Naval Academy, Bayón’s hair won’t be allowed to touch her collar, but for now it hangs like a flag in all its glory, all the way past her shirttails.

1:30 to 4:00 p.m.

Rebecca Cooper wanted “beachy” waves for a wedding. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

As the afternoon rolls along, the customers change but the performance stays the same, from consultation to final chair spin. There’s a woman with handfuls upon handfuls of blond hair who drove straight in from Manhattan for a Cosmo-Tai (lots of messy, loose, “beachy” curls) before going to a 5 pm wedding. There’s a woman celebrating her 24th birthday later at Oyamel who sits down and says, “The bigger the better.” There’s a woman from San Francisco who’s in town for her engagement party. And there’s a mother of two-year-old twins who enters looking like a gym rat in her workout gear and exits looking like a young Ann-Margret.

So many long-haired women are coming and going, getting Cosmo’d and Mai Tai’d, that pretty soon all I see is one giant collective head. Not surprisingly, the only guys I see wear a look of pure befuddlement as they pace the floor waiting for their wives or daughters.

The stylists come and go, too. From Leiyanna Holston—the “shop educator” who spends about a week with every new hire, training each in the Drybar way (all stylists are licensed cosmetologists)—to Freddie Bond, one of three male stylists there on this Saturday, who comes from a hair dynasty: His father was a barber, and both his mother and his maternal grandmother were hairdressers.

According to Tara Temple, Drybar’s marketing manager, stylists are paid hourly; the average for stylists is about $10 an hour. When you factor in tips and commission from product sales, most Drybar stylists make more than $20 an hour.

By 4 o’clock, the skies have turned dark and customers leave with complimentary “rain blows” umbrellas, although as the rain starts, some may opt to preserve their dos in Drybar’s $16 terry-cloth-lined shower caps. One woman in leggings and towering shoes has wrapped her blow-dried head in what looks like a pillowcase and paces around reception like a jittery thoroughbred.

4:15 p.m. Alka Pateriya, 40, Glover Park

“My laziness abounds,” said Alka Pateriya, who visits Drybar at least once a week. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

“My laziness abounds,” says Pateriya, who works for the educational start-up Tripod and estimates she’s here taming her thick, ink-black hair at least once a week. Tonight she’s hosting a cocktail party in her home. “Before Drybar,” Pateriya says, “my hair didn’t look good.”

Stylist Cory Thomas, whose topknot bun makes him at least seven feet tall, gives her an “off the books” blowout, a “straight-up but with volume” look that’s not represented by a cocktail-inspired photo. “Maybe I should name my own blowout,” Pateriya says. “I do like bourbon.”

As she sits chatting with Thomas, she notices the movie playing on the screen in front of her. “Is this that Sandra Bullock movie?” she asks no one in particular. “In all the times I’ve been here, I’ve never seen the whole movie.” As she gathers her things, Pateriya slips Thomas a $20.

7:15 p.m. Kim Gerland, 23, Glover Park

Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Gerland is the last person to take a seat. (The 9:15 will cancel due to torrential rain.) With pin-straight hair to begin with, she asks Bria Blake for the Cosmo, which proves to be the most popular request of the day. Gerland is preparing her hair for its big night—she’s hosting a birthday party for a friend in the chair next to her. Gerland figures 30 people will gather in her apartment before they head to Georgetown’s Chinese Disco around 11.

An ICU nurse at Children’s National, Gerland needlepoints to relax and doesn’t seem too concerned about the rain falling in sheets outside. “They gave me an umbrella,” she says nonchalantly. “Besides,” she adds as Blake further shields her head with a can of hair spray called the Sheriff, “I’m pretty low-maintenance.”

Contributing editor Cathy Alter can be reached at cathy@cathyalter.com.

This article appears in our September 2015 of Washingtonian.

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