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celebrity colorist brad johns on the art of hair color

Celebrity colorist Brad Johns, who invented “chunking” for model Christy Turlington and is best known for his buttery blondes has been color director at some of New York City’s most prestigious salons, including Jean Louis David at Henri Bendel, Bruno Dessange, Oribe, Elizabeth Arden and Avon. Allure called him the “Color Czar,” and even after a career than spans more than four decades, his obsessive attention to detail and fierce loyalty attracts a clientele at Riccardo Maggiori Salon that includes the women who run Manhattan, from beauty editors to socialites to CEOs.

Johns urges colorists to think of themselves as artists and to develop a signature style. “Sharon Dorram and I are both artists, but we’re just different in our approach to color,” says Johns, who thinks of himself as Picasso, painting in broad strokes, and Dorram as Matisse, whose highlights are like a finely woven tapestry. When Johns began as a colorist, frosting caps were the preferred method for highlighting, but the results were ashy. Johns knew instinctively that most women look better in warm, golden shades, and he spent the next decade experimenting with ways to create hair color that looked like a child who’d spent the day at the beach.

Johns allows that some women prefer cool, ashy shades and that some even look good in them, and that’s fine with him. Still, ashy shades are not for everyone. “They’re deadly,” says Johns, who finds that sooner or later a woman who goes that route is going to look in the mirror and not particularly like what she sees. “Ash might work on some people, usually girls under 25 because their skin still has color, but that color is leeched out as we age.” With blondes having a moment—“People gravitate toward brighter colors in troubled times,” he says—Johns is happy to see warm shades of caramel and gold enjoying a resurgence in popularity. By summer, expect to see blondes that are drastically lighter, but baby-blonde, not ash.

The ability to replicate formulas is crucial, he says, and new technology like the Suretint™ app from Suretint™ has made it easier to keep accurate records. “Hairdressers like order and systems. That’s how we work,” says Johns, who likes the fact that Suretint™ keeps track of his formulas but also makes it easier to post his work on social media. Another plus: Suretint™ can store notes for future reference. “Let’s say the client’s color was a little too ashy this time,” he says. “You can write yourself a note to add a little gold to the formula the next time.”

Like most colorists who view their craft as an art, Johns may change a client’s look, even if only slightly, four times a year. Drastic changes, he says, tend to come in the winter as we approach the holidays and again in the summer when people spend more time outdoors or at the beach. Johns also allows that lifestyle changes, say, a breakup or major career move, may warrant a radical change.

Johns admits that he’d be nothing without his three assistants. “My assistants do everything I don’t do,” he says. “If I highlight, they rinse the highlights. If I do a single-process, they check it and shampoo it. I make the artistic decision about placement, and I provide the actual service, but they do the cleansing, conditioning and toning.” He’s also learned a lot from his assistants, who offer suggestions that challenge him to switch things up now and then. Johns has been good to his assistants over the years, and they’ve been incredibly loyal in return, but he’s also quick to point out that he couldn’t do what he does without the support of everyone from the people who work the front desk to the cleaning staff. “It’s important to treat all of these people better than you would treat yourself every single day, even when you’re crabby,” he says.

One of his hard and fast rules is that the client does not need to hear your problems. “When they’re in your chair, that’s their time,” he says. “Respect that space.” He remembers the morning his sister called to tell him that their father had died. “I hung up the phone and did 30 clients,” says Johns, who told his staff what had happened only after the last client left the salon. Now that’s discipline, and it just might be the secret to a long and successful career.

What I Know For Sure: Advice from a Pro

  • Everybody could be a little lighter and brighter.
  • Hair color should not be the colors of vegetables or wine. That means no eggplant, burgundy, pomegranate or Bordeaux. Instead, choose shades that mimic candy or spices like butterscotch, vanilla, chocolate, nutmeg or cinnamon.
  • Be true to yourself. If you don’t want to do a certain kind of work, it’s okay to recommend someone else. We are one community; we can share paint. I’m known for hair color that looks natural, like a child’s hair after a day at the beach. I don’t do blue hair or neon colors or pastel shades. If a client comes in and asks for a particular look that I don’t want to do, I refer her to someone else. Like I always say, Matisse didn’t paint like Picasso, but each has their place.
  • There’s nothing better than a visual aid for a colorist. I have 16 portfolios at the salon that I let clients look through when we’re thinking about doing something different. It’s not my client’s job to explain what shade she wants. It’s my job to give her the tools to make it easier to make herself clear.
  • I like to think of single-process color as the cake, highlights as the icing and toner as the cherry on top of the cake. Putting these three separate entities together is where your art comes in. If a client has no gray in her hair, I don’t make the cake; I just ice the cake. If a client has gray hair, I cover the gray with a single-process color first to create a background color. Then I add the icing to the cake and, if the situation warrants it, the toner or cherry on top. When an artist paints a picture, he starts with the background. That’s single-process color for me. Then he adds people, trees, flowers. They’re the highlights. During Picasso’s Blue Period, he painted essentially monochromatic paintings in shade of blue and blue-green. That’s how you would use a toner.
  • Get to the salon an hour ahead of your first client to get the vibe of the day, the vibe of your art and to get your assistants settled in. Your client should never wait for you. You should be waiting for them. Anything else is unacceptable.