The next time you’re at the Kennedy Center or Cafe Milano or your favorite charity gala, cast an eye on the A-list ladies milling about.
Notice their designer frocks, their to-die-for shoes, their immaculate makeup. Pay particular attention to their hair. Gorgeous, right? Now look again. (Don’t get caught staring!) Do some of the tresses strike you as a little too gorgeous—a touch thicker, longer, more luxuriant than seems plausible on women not named Kardashian? Check out that grande dame sipping Veuve over by the dessert table: She can’t be a day under 70 but has the mane of a 25-year-old. What in the name of Vidal Sassoon is going on? Moroccan oil treatments? Dietary supplements? Gene therapy?
Maybe. The more likely explanation, though, is that you’ve stumbled upon members of a semi-secret Washington society helmed by a 45-year-old Frenchman named Christophe Jouenne. The tribe comprises a bevy of Jouenne’s besties, mostly women, who swoon over the follicular miracles he performs at Georgetown’s Salon Leau. They are a rarefied breed—the faces that populate society pages and gossip columns: Dianne Bruce, Kristin Cecchi, Mae Grennan, Jocelyn Greenan, Holly Morris, Susanna Quinn, Mirella Levinas, Micky Farivar, Amy Baier . . . .
Jouenne ministers to World Bank executives, diplomats’ wives, media personalities, the spouses of top administration officials. For close to a decade, he handled members of the Saudi royal family. White House gate-crasher Michaele Salahi also enlisted his services, until a dispute over a $4,000 unpaid bill prompted Jouenne to sue.
Of course, Washington has its share of power stylists. So what makes Jouenne so alluring? Cuts, colors, smoothing treatments—he handles all the basics. His specialty, though—the art that has seduced this town’s rich and beautiful—is the meticulous application of high-end, impossible-to-detect hair extensions.
That’s right, extensions. Hollywood has long relied on them for that extra swish of glamour. Now it seems a certain set of Washington women have developed their own obsession with supplemental strands. And Jouenne is the man they see. “If I get a blowout anywhere else around the country, people say they are the best extensions they have ever seen,” says a local philanthropist who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. Another unnamed client (this one in the media) declares, “He does hair extensions for pretty much every woman who can afford him.”
This is a crucial distinction. Jouenne’s genius does not come cheap. His extension prices start at $1,100 and rise swiftly, to $2,000 . . . $4,000 . . . $6,000. And he’s always booked. Maybe he can take you on short notice for a basic cut, but extensions require a few hours, and his regulars know to book well in advance. Also, don’t bother trying to jump the queue with the Beltway name-dropping game. Odds are the client you’re looking to bump is as posh as you—probably posher.
Which goes a long way to explain how the luxurious off-duty life of Christophe Jouenne—complete with world travel and a horse-country weekend retreat—has come to resemble that of his upper-crust customers.
For the longest time, Jocelyn Greenan thought her “charity friends” just had really great genes.
“I was dopey,” says the fortysomething stay-at-home mom whose Bethesda house contains, among other treasures, the world’s largest private collection of antique dog collars. “I grew up on a farm. I was like, ‘What? Everybody’s hair here is so beautiful!’ ” After discovering that their hair was a matter of nurture, not nature, Greenan, too, sought out Jouenne. Her caramel-colored locks now get adorned with extensions (long layers, chest length) every four months. “At any point, if you ask me, I can tell you exactly when I’m going,” she says. “I am counting the days.”
Stephanie Bates met Jouenne 12 years ago at the Middleburg Hunt ball. The 47-year-old flirted for a bit with Jouenne’s cuts and color, then went all in with extensions (“nipple-length,” as Jouenne likes to say). “Some people have heroin addictions,” says Bates, who lives in Upperville and owns Stella & Bean Monograms. “I have hair-extension addictions.” Now so does her mother. And her husband, kind of.
“One time, I was desperate,” Bates explains. “I was going away, flying to Newport to meet my girlfriend’s yacht, and I wanted to get my hair done before I went out on a boat for a week and a half. But Christophe was sick.” A friend suggested that Bates try a stylist in McLean. “I told my husband, and he was like, ‘Absolutely not!’ ” Only Jouenne was good enough for his wife.
There are plenty of Jouenne groupies who’ll talk about what a great stylist he is, but not everyone will cop to indulging in his specialty. The out and proud are exceptions—such as Kristin Cecchi, a consultant with NOVA Bancard, who’ll admit she got them for her wedding to developer John Cecchi (whose father, Giuseppe, built the Watergate back in the day), or Holly Morris, a Fox 5 anchor who got herself a set before jetting off to Los Angeles to cover the American Idol finals.
Most of Jouenne’s clients do not primp and tell. It’s like Fight Club or Botox—or, as one CEO puts it, “moms who take their kids’ Ritalin.”
“I think he does most of his extensions on Monday, when the salon is closed,” says Dianne Bruce, a fixture on Washington’s philanthropic and social scene. Bruce says she’s too impatient for extensions but tries to sneak a peek whenever she overlaps with a client who gets them. “I’m always like”—Bruce narrows her eyes as if spying on someone sitting beside her—“ ‘Do I know her?’ ”
The reasons for their secrecy are what you might expect: Nobody wants to be considered vain or frivolous, or invite general judginess. But join the club and it won’t take you long to start recognizing other members. “Women over 35 simply don’t have long, thick hair—except maybe Maria Shriver,” says the CEO. “You really don’t realize how many people have them,” says the philanthropist.
Hair extensions come from human or synthetic sources, depending on how much you pay. They vary wildly in quality and method of attachment, which can include clips, weaving, sewing, micro-linking (don’t ask), hot gluing, and cold fusion. Jouenne uses only Great Lengths, which originates in India and which he calls “the Rolls-Royce of hair.”
The extensions arrive at Salon Leau in ponytail-like bundles that Jouenne separates into tiny sections. His application of choice is cold fusion, which involves using an ultrasonic wand to clamp the faux onto the real. Ultrasonic vibrations soften the bonding material at the tip of the strands so they adhere. It’s painstaking work: “You take a little piece of hair and bond it a quarter inch from the roots. You bond it, fold it, flatten it, fold it, flatten it.” He muses, “I think you need to be a bit OCD to do it well.”
Certainly, you need stamina. One bundle takes about an hour to attach; most people require multiples. “I never put in less than two—ever,” says Jouenne. The day of our first meeting, he had just finished with the rare male client, who needed seven bundles and 4½ hours in the chair. “I put about 400 pieces on,” Jouenne says. “He had a big head.”
At $550 a bundle, it’s a commitment. At least one woman pays partially in cash, to hide the true cost of her habit from her husband. Another client created a special “extensions account,” into which he sets aside a portion of each paycheck. Bates, who gets four bundles every three or so months, estimates she spends upward of $8,000 a year. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” she says. But no way she’s giving them up—or risking a lesser stylist. Poorly done extensions, all of the women emphasize, are like a botched facelift: a little scary and glaringly obvious. Just Google “bad hair extensions” for a freak show of how wrong things can go.
Tan, fit, and bantam, Jouenne has a large horse tattoo down his right side and a bright-blue “evil eye” at the nape of his neck, to protect him from bad luck and envious gossips.
The sides of his dark-blond hair are cropped close, the top swept up and over. His signature color is orange, and the light of his life is his Cavapoo named Piper, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel/poodle mix.
Jouenne grew up affluent in the medieval French town of Honfleur. His father was successful in construction and wanted Christophe to become an architect. Instead, he dropped out of college at age 20, married his high-school sweetheart, and moved to Paris to be a hairdresser. His parents “flipped out”—especially Jouenne père: “My father thought that I would be poor forever.”
Compared with his sheltered youth, Paris salon life was another world. Suddenly there were all these men paying him lots of attention. “I guess they thought I was cute or fresh meat,” he laughs. Still, it took him a while to figure out he was gay. “My wife had to go away and visit her grandparents or something. One of my clients said, ‘Oh, if you’re by yourself this weekend, why don’t we go out for drinks?’ They took me to a gay bar, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it!’ ” (Today, his clients say, you need a flow chart to keep up with his love life.)
Jouenne split with his wife, and three years later he answered an ad from an American salon looking for French stylists. He spoke no English. Jouenne worked with the company for several years downtown and in Georgetown, then moved up Wisconsin Avenue to Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door, where his extension obsession began.
A couple of clients had expressed a desire for fuller hair, so Jouenne enrolled in a class Great Lengths was sponsoring in New York. He loved the creativity that cutting extensions demands as well as “the very tedious technique.” Since 2006, he’s been tucked into the upstairs of Salon Leau. His Cavapoo goes to work with him. He plans to work another ten, maybe 15 years, then retire to somewhere fabulous, probably Palm Springs.
But then, Jouenne’s pre-retired life is pretty fabulous already.
He travels extensively, often with clients, to enclaves such as Aspen, Jackson Hole, and Saint Barts. And that doesn’t include all the places they fly him for work—Spain, Palm Beach, Martha’s Vineyard. The Saudi royals dispatched Jouenne to the Middle East for family weddings more than a half dozen times.
“I’ve been everywhere,” Jouenne says late one afternoon as we sip Champagne at Georgetown’s Peacock Cafe. If only his late father could see him now.
Jouenne spends weeknights at his Arlington condo, with its concrete floors, low-slung furniture, and striking photography, including glamour shots of him as horse hobbyist. (Naturally, the Miami designer of the space is a longtime client.) But he also keeps a weekend place, called Piper’s Run, near Middleburg. The cottage is pure English hunt club, with tweedy, traditional furnishings, a towering stone outdoor fireplace, and horsey trappings, including a trio of luxury saddles custom-made in Biarritz. Jouenne stables his two horses, Metaphor and the now-retired Lancelot, at a nearby farm. “My hair supports his horse,” says Bates, joking but not really. “I put his horse in shoes.”
Far too early on the first Sunday in June, I trekked out to Virginia to watch Jouenne ride Metaphor, a 15-year-old thoroughbred/Percheron cross, in the Middleburg Horse Trials. My instructions were to look for a trailer with custom orange detailing hooked up to a sand-colored Range Rover. There, three of his friends were sitting around in orange Tommy Bahama camping chairs, watching Christophe prep Metaphor for the first event.
Looking straight out of a Town & Country spread—tan jodhpurs, orange clogs, perfect hair—Jouenne was visibly nervous. He’d been riding since childhood but didn’t take up eventing with Metaphor until 2009. (With Lancelot, he stuck to fox-hunting.) Jouenne trains with a dressage coach on weekends, but many of the riders that morning were pros. “I’m a good rider for a weekend rider,” he says. “But I’m still a weekend rider.”
Jouenne, however, isn’t one to let competitive angst spoil a party—and pretty much every weekend at the fields with him is a party: “I always have Champagne in the car!”
Among the stream of celebrants who dropped by for bubbly were two clients: Lee Ann Anderson, a securities attorney who particularly appreciated Christophe’s friendship when she was slogging through her divorce, and Peggy Hudson, a lobbyist who became close with Jouenne during his fox-hunting days. Also on the scene was Hudson’s husband, Bill, the former CEO of a trade association. The Hudsons and Jouenne had just returned from a ten-day jaunt to Cuba.
About a decade ago, Jouenne cut his work week to four days. He now spends Saturday through Monday at Piper’s Run. At least that’s the plan—Jouenne is often in the salon on Mondays, squeezing in another very grateful client or two. Still, he’s adamant that life is about more than one’s job.
“I always knew you have to work to become somebody, to be able to get the lifestyle you want,” he says. “But when you’re compensated—why keep working so hard? That’s what you do when you’re in your twenties and thirties. After a while, you need to stop!”
In a town awash with the tightly wound, Jouenne’s joie de vivre strikes his clients as near miraculous. “He finds balance,” says Amy Baier, a prolific fundraiser for children’s health causes and wife of Fox News anchor Bret Baier. “It’s the epitome of what we all want in life. Every time I go there, I think, What have I done wrong with my life?”
In his salon, Jouenne isn’t always so easygoing.
He doesn’t hesitate to say when he thinks a woman needs to go darker, lighter, shorter, fuller. He also steers clients away from what he considers inappropriate trends. “Back when ombré was really popular, I was talking to him,” recalls Kristin Cecchi. “He was like, ‘No, Kristin. That’s not a great idea. You’re married with kids.’ ”
Jouenne does not deal well with clients who micromanage, arriving with instructions on how to mix their color or trim their bangs. Dianne Bruce grimaces to recall her mistake in referring some of her more controlling friends. “He told me, ‘Don’t send me anyone like that again!’ ” And for God’s sake, be on time. “A late client will not get her hair done,” Jouenne says. “If it’s just for color, I’ll have my assistant apply it. But then I’m not going to be nice to you. I’m going to let you know it’s wrong.”
Among those he has turned away: Fox’s Baier. “My husband is always so busy with work,” says Amy Baier. “He was 15 minutes late once, and Christophe said, ‘Sorry, I can’t see you.’ ” Jouenne “fired” the wife of a prominent diplomat for perpetual tardiness. They remain, however, “dear friends.”
The stylist uses that term to describe pretty much all his clients. They go drinking with him and tell him all their secrets, invite him to their parties, take him wedding-dress shopping, and celebrate the holidays together. “He’s part of the family,” says Micky Farivar, a McLean stay-at-home mom whose husband co-owns Peacock Cafe, a Jouenne haunt. “He’s my gusband—my gay husband.”
In 2007, art collector Mirella Levinas was diagnosed with cancer. “Every Friday evening after work, Christophe would come over to my house, wash my hair, and blow-dry it,” she texted me from Nantucket. “He just knew how important it had been for me to have my hair looking good and figured it would make me feel better. . . . He never mentioned it . . . as something extra-sweet and nice and special that he was doing. He just did it.”
“He comes over and lays out at my house all the time,” says Stephanie Bates. “I have this Hugh Hefner–type pool. He’ll come over and hang out all day and drink Champagne. He used to do my hair at my house, but if I give him too much Champagne, he cuts my hair too short!”
At some point, I decided (in the name of journalism) that I needed extensions. I plunked myself down in Jouenne’s salon chair one afternoon as he waved two blond bundles at me. “Meet your new hair!” he exclaimed. Then he went to work. Clamp, fold, flatten. Clamp, fold, flatten—the man labored for hours. All the while, he kept me entertained with tales of family (his mother was visiting from France), travel (his Aruba trip had been amazing), and romance (his clients are not exaggerating about the men).
The result? Pretty amazing. My chin-length bob didn’t wind up longer than usual. (That would have required way more bundles than my editors would spring for.) But it was noticeably thicker and swingier and just plain better. Even my seventh-grade son was impressed. The next evening, I went out with a few girlfriends. As we settled in, one of them looked me over and asked, “What have you done to your hair? It looks great.” But she couldn’t put her finger on what was different.
Now I get why people keep it a secret: all those minefields involving age or decadence or gender politics! But I blabbed anyway. After all, what’s the fun of having a glam new BFF if you’re not going to gush about him?
Washington writer Michelle Cottle (@mcottle on Twitter) has contributed to the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, and National Journal.
This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.