Gone are the intimidating gatekeepers to the companies you want to work for and people you want to work with. Proof is in Alex Brown’s pudding—the Chicago native moved to LA, and through a direct message to Jen Atkin’s assistant on Instagram was eventually able to snag an assisting job with the Mane Addicts/OUAI founder. Three years later and a roster full of high-profile clients, Brown closed the LA chapter, and started a new one when she moved back to Chicago to open her eponymous hair studio. Ahead, Brown tells us what Atkin taught her, what it’s really like being a salon owner, her favorite underrated hair hack and more.
Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography @toddrphoto
What is your very first memory of hair as a kid?
I was always very into doing my own hair and makeup as a kid, but when I was 13 my sister’s best friend went to beauty school and my mom let me be her guinea pig-coloring and cutting my hair all the time! I was always hanging out at the beauty school with her and loved every second of it. Many of my birthday parties growing up were also at the beauty school, getting our hair and makeup done!
Recall your earliest days of doing hair—what did that period of your life look like?
Throughout middle school I was always the one to do my friends for everything! Starting in 7th grade I was doing a lot of the seniors hair for prom, homecoming, and their senior graduation pics. Also, can’t forget occasionally cutting my dad’s hair in the kitchen (didn’t always end well 🙂 )!
How did you get your start in the industry?
I moved to Chicago from Minnesota (where I grew up) to attend beauty school, two months after graduating high school. After graduating beauty school, I landed a job at a high end salon in downtown Chicago that had a structured assistant training program where I was an assistant for three years and then finally a stylist for three years.
When and why did you decide to move from Chicago to LA?
Moving to LA was always a dream of mine since I was a kid! I can always remember telling my mom “I’m moving to LA!” when I was mad at her for not getting my way. I guess different shows on MTV put a picture in my head of what LA was like, and I knew it was where I had to be.
After working in the salon for six years I was only 24 years old and knew I needed to get out and experience more. I was craving more of a challenge and wanted to learn more than I had in the salon. I decided it was time to take everything I learned from assisting and styling in the salon and finally give LA a try.
What was one of your biggest career challenges and how did you overcome it?
One of my biggest career challenges was making the move to LA from Chicago with no job and not knowing anyone or anything about LA. I knew deep down that it would always work out because my parents raised me to have such a strong work ethic and I was very confident in knowing I would do whatever it takes to find a job, whether it was one I wanted or not. I would make it work.
Tell us about how you came to work with Jen Atkin.
Six months before making the move to LA, a few girls from the salon I was working at told me they were attending Jen Atkin’s class in Toronto. They begged me to go with, but I wasn’t sure it was something I could afford at the time. I thought long and hard about it, and decided that I was going to go, but for a bigger purpose…I was going to try to find a way to work for her, knowing I was moving to LA soon. At the class, I pulled Jen’s assistant aside during lunch break and asked how she got the job or if they had any positions available. The assistant couldn’t have been nicer and told me to email her when I moved to LA to see if there was anything available. About two months before moving to LA I emailed Jen’s assistant to ask if she had suggestions on places to live, etc -but mostly for her to remember who I was and that I was definitely moving to LA soon.
About five days after living in LA, I was in Fedex printing off resumes to bring to any and every salon in the area. While the resumes were printing, I was scrolling through Instagram and noticed Jen’s assistant commented on one of my pictures saying “Are you in LA yet, we need an assistant tomorrow.” I immediately ran out of Fedex crying with excitement and left the resumes printing! I knew because of the strict assisting experience I had already had, that this was going to be it. I assisted her the next day, and from that day on I was her assistant for almost three years! It was definitely a career-changing moment.
What do you think is the most underrated hair product?
Hair oil! Almost every single hair type benefits from a hair oil. My personal fav is the OUAI Hair Oil. I love to add a pump to the ends before a blow-dry, or coat the hair with it as a treatment overnight. There are so many ways we can all benefit from a good oil.
What do you think is the most underrated hair hack?
Air drying! I find that most of my clients who have the healthiest hair tell me they air dry. I have started to air dry my own hair more often even if its only 80% dry and then take my blowdryer and go over it with a brush to smooth. There are so many amazing products to put in your hair these days for air drying—OUAI Wave Spray or OUAI Air Dry Foam are 2 of my favs-they add texture, grit and volume to your natural texture without having to use heat.
When did you open the salon, and what was your vision for it (aesthetically and business wise?)
I opened my salon in September of 2017. I knew when moving back to Chicago from LA that I didn’t want to work in a typical salon environment. I wanted to work in a private space with only 1 chair and be able to make my own schedule. I wanted to take more time with my clients in a intimate, quiet environment. After traveling the world with Jen and seeing many different types of salons, I really fell in love with the ones that had a warm, cozy feeling with character and charm. I wanted it to feel like I was doing my friends hair out of my home.
For someone who’s thinking of opening their salon, what’s it REALLY like being a salon owner?
It’s honestly so exciting! It definitely starts as a one-man show, but over time hiring people that you trust and believe in to make your business amazing helps a lot. For me, someone who has been an assistant for roughly six years supporting OTHER stylists careers, I have found it to be so rewarding knowing that every minute of work benefits my own personal career and life.
You travel often, and far and wide! What are your personal favorite hair products/tools to take while you’re away?
I can’t live without my Dyson Supersonic Hair Dryer! I have a European, UK, and Australian voltage plug so I never have to worry about adapters or converters. Some of my favorite curling/flat irons to use while I’m overseas are GHD and Eideal. I always bring my Mason Pearson, Sheila Stotts and Ibiza Hair brushes along too. Some of my favorite hair product lines are OUAI, Amika, Monat and Kristen Ess. I also can’t go anywhere without my Mizutani and Hikari shears.
What does it take to become one of your assistants?
Right now I have two assistants, but when I’m looking to hire someone new, I will post on my Instagram to email in a resume. Having a hair Instagram account is also required.
When looking to hire an assistant, I look for someone who is organized, on time, tech savvy (Instagram is a job in itself!), and willing to learn. I want them realize that everything they do as an assistant will really benefit them in the long run when they someday become a stylist of their own. I think from being an assistant of my own for so long, that I definitely have a certain way of doing things that I have found to be beneficial and efficient. I want to hire someone who is excited for their future and wants to be one of the best.
How can one go about assisting or shadowing you?
Keep an eye on my Instagram page for positions that come available! I’m more than happy to have people shadow me to see/learn all of the things I’ve had the opportunity to learn over the years.
What’s one thing you learned while working with Jen Atkin that you apply to your styling skills or business today?
It may be impossible to choose just one thing! I truly feel like I’ve learned everything I know from her! The most important things though are the life lessons she’s taught me…to never compete with your peers in the industry, we can all benefit and grow our success from working together! Be nice to people! Never be “too good” for anyone or any job, we work in the service industry and always need to remember that.
Is there anything you wish you would’ve done sooner while building a name for yourself in the beauty world that you think could benefit stylists who are just starting out?
Everyone has their own timeline in life, I think we all learn and experience things at different speeds, which is ok! The one thing I can suggest is to assist, assist, assist. You will learn and see SO many methods and techniques that you can then choose which is best for your personal style and career. Build your own luck, follow your dreams and make the big move if its what you’ve always wanted to do, we only get a shot at this once!
You just hosted your second Cocktails and Collaboration event. Congrats! As the events get bigger and bigger, do you ever envision yourself teaching classes nationwide?
When starting Cocktails and Collaboration, it was really about wanting to see our industry start to come together as one. Here in Chicago especially, we all tend to stick to our own salon world which can then turn into a competitive environment. Now that we have instagram as a platform to showcase our work, we may find ourselves “following” another hairstylist from a salon down the street, but never have the opportunity to meet them in person! I hope to bring a positive change to the industry by preaching “collaboration over competition”, creating a mindset where we can ALL be successful and grow together, supporting each other.
If you weren’t a hairstylist and salon owner, what would you be?
An interior designer! I’m obsessed with HGTV and love everything about creating a specific aesthetic or vibe in a space.