Hairstylist and entrepreneur
Born July 5, 1951, in England; married Lulu (a pop singer; born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie), 1976 (divorced, 1994); children: Jordan (son).
Home —New York, NY, Connecticut, and London, England. Office —John Frieda Professional Hair Care Inc., 333 Ludlow St., Stamford, CT 06902–6987.
Apprenticed in the London, England, salon of Leonard, late 1960s; opened first London salon with Nicky Clarke, 1976; opened namesake salon, London, 1979; began selling small hair–care product line in the British drugstore chain Boots, 1988; formed John Frieda Professional Hair Care Inc., 1989; opened first New York City salon, 1990; sold hair–care product company to Kao Corporation, 2002.
British hairdresser John Frieda leveraged his celebrity status to create a tremendously successful line of hair–care products bearing his name. The road from well–heeled salon owner to brand name was a short one for Frieda; he launched his first products in drug stores—an unusually daring start for a line with roots in the professional salon world—and quickly captured a mass–market share with products like Frizz–Ease Serum and the Sheer Blonde line. In 2002, Frieda and his longtime business partner sold the company to Japanese giant Kao Corporation, which also owns the Andrew Jergens brand. With this new marketing muscle, industry analysts predicted that the Frieda line would continue its unparalleled growth as the one of the most successful hair–care lines in history. The handsome, 50–ish mogul, with his close–cropped salt–and–pepper hair and understated dark suits, asserted that all the expertise in the world would not help a shampoo, gel, or hair spray if it did not do the job. "People will pay if they know a product will make a difference," he told Sunday Times writer Claire Oldfield, "and the reason why we are successful is because the products really do work."
Frieda is a third–generation coiffeur. His grandfather was a barber on Fleet Street, the epicenter of London's newspaper world. By the time Frieda was born in 1951, his father owned a hair salon in Ealing, a district in West London, and had a small real–estate business on the side. Frieda proved to be an academically gifted child, and his family hoped he might choose medicine as a profession and become the first doctor in the family. Sent to King's School in Harrow, England, Frieda found his interest in schoolwork abruptly waning as a teen. "Girls appeared on the horizon," he recalled in an interview with Rachelle Thackray of London's Independent newspaper. "I must have stopped working—I failed all my exams. My motivation was to get out of studying."
Frieda decided that he wanted to join his father's business. "Dad tried to talk me out of it, but I was quite determined," he told a Financial Times journalist. Realizing that his Ealing establishment would not launch a necessarily impressive career for his son, Frieda senior arranged an apprenticeship at the salon of Leonard, a famed London stylist of the late 1960s. Frieda rose quickly in the job and soon became Leonard's assistant, which placed him at editorial shoots for top British fashion magazines like Harper's & Queen. Frieda also styled his first celebrity clients during this era, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Diana Ross.
Frieda followed in his father's footsteps in investment habits as well, and owned three houses by the time he was 20 years old. In 1976, he used some of his accumulated capital to open his first salon on Marylebone Road in London with another defector from Leonard, future celebrity hairstylist Nicky Clarke. At the salon, Frieda created what is known in Britain as the Purdey cut, named after the character played by actress Joanna Lumley, later of Absolutely Fabulous fame. Frieda cropped Lumley's hair into a bowl–shaped bob for her 1976–78 run on a revival of the hit British television series The Avengers that was widely imitated. The brief fad of the Purdey cut helped make Frieda famous, and he even married a celebrity himself—1960s pop star Lulu, best known for her appearance in the 1967 Sidney Poitier film To Sir With Love and her hit single of the same name.
The first actual "John Frieda" salon opened in 1979 in London's New Cavendish Street, and there Frieda gained a devoted clientele in the 1980s that even included the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and former Beatle Paul McCartney. As always, though, the ambitious Frieda was looking for new opportunities. "I wanted to expand, but didn't want to open lots of salons," he told Thackray in the Independent article. "Products were the way to go. The only professional line was Vidal Sassoon's; I knew the products people needed, the ones I used on models, which weren't available to anybody else."
Frieda was a veteran of day–long fashion shoots in which the models' hairstyles needed to be changed and perfected quickly. Stylists used an array of tricks to achieve the effects needed, and Frieda joined with a chemist to come up with a viable product of a similar nature for the consumer market. His small line was at first only sold in his salon, but then "people who were not clients were coming to the salon just for bottles of the lotion," he recalled in the Sunday Times interview with Oldfield. In 1988 Boots, a ubiquitous British drugstore chain, invited him to do a line of products for its shelves. His first success came with a thickening lotion, and to promote it Frieda went on television and performed a "before" and "after" demonstration with a model; the British station was immediately flooded with calls from viewers wanting to know where they could buy the product.
By this point Frieda had met Gail Federici at a trade show. Federici was a vice president at Zotos, a U.S.–based hair–care company. "I was running the company out of a basement in my salon; a logistical nightmare," Frieda remembered of this time in the interview with Thackray. "Then I got an order for 1.2 [million] bottles of thickening lotion—it was like having a hit record. And it was the one moment when Gail was available to join me." With each owning half of the new business, John Frieda Professional Hair Care Inc., they set out to conquer the American market with a miniscule marketing budget of just $30,000. Frieda spent these early years in shopping malls and elsewhere, demonstrating his products first–hand.
Frieda's first big seller was Frizz–Ease Serum, launched in Britain in 1989 and in the United States two years later. The struggling company received a lucky break when a buyer for Eckerd, a large drug store chain that dominated the southeastern United States, agreed to give the Frieda Frizz–Ease Serum some shelf space. In the face of tremendous—and well–funded—brand–name competition, Frieda was convinced that his products were superior. "We couldn't out–spend the opposition, so we had to out–think them," he told the Financial Times. "We had to target areas that nobody else had targeted, so when people used our products they thought, 'God, I can't live without this'. If we really worked, people would stick with us."
The success of Frizz–Ease Serum and its successors proved Frieda correct. When it was launched, it sold for a much higher retail price than its rivals—a strategy that Frieda was warned was a gamble. "No one was charging over $5 for a hairstyling product when we entered the market," Frieda told Chain Drug Review in 1994, "but we were confident that when women saw what Frizz–Ease could do for their hair they would be willing to pay what we were asking for it." His gamble worked. "What Frieda recognised," noted Tina Gaudoin in an Independent article, "that the rest of the American haircare market did not—was that American women probably spend half of their adult lives trying valiantly to calm their frizzy hair."
Throughout the 1990s, Frieda worked tirelessly to promote his products and even appeared in television commercials. He also worked on developing new formulas for different niches of the hair–care market. His second line, aimed at fine hair, was called Ready to Wear. It failed to catch on as quickly as the growing line of Frizz–Ease products, however, but Frieda's 1998 launch of the Sheer Blonde line made him a household name in North America and gave him an impressive amount of shelf space in drug stores and mass–market retailers across the continent. It also became a top–seller in Scandinavia. Relax, an ethnic hair–care line, came out in 2001 after Frieda learned that African–American women were using Frizz–Ease to tame their locks.
All of Frieda hair–care lines have products ranging from shampoo and conditioner to texturing sprays and glossers. His company has posted steady growth, and Frieda attributes the success to a maxim he once learned from his father: "[O]nly two businesses are recession and war proof. Groceries and hair," he told the Financial Times. "When people are a bit down, they still get their hair cut." By 2002, Frieda's company enjoyed worldwide sales of $160 million. In August of that year, Frieda and Federici sold it to the Kao Corporation, a Japanese company whose American consumer–products unit is the Cincinnati–based Andrew Jergens Company. The infusion of capital meant that Frieda's products could now be promoted in stylish television commercials that resembled music videos—some of them starring Federici's twin teenaged daughters, the signature faces of the Sheer Blonde line. The company also planned to gain a better foothold in the continental European market. Frieda still remained heavily involved. "In many respects, my job is very much the same as it was before we sold John Frieda, except without the responsibility—it's quite nice," he told WWD 's Andrea M.G. Nagel and Jennifer Weil. "I don't own the company anymore, but I still feel the same. I am just as passionate about the products."
Frieda rarely cuts hair any more, but still owns a handful of salons, including his New Cavendish Street space. Other addresses included one at 797 Madison Avenue, and a lavish Los Angeles one called Sally Hershberger @ John Frieda. Hershberger, best known for shaping Meg Ryan's sought–after late 1990s coif, worked with Frieda on developing the Sheer Blonde line and holds the title of style director at the Frieda company. The posh L.A. salon includes a courtyard pool and in–house video–monitor system that lets clients accurately assess their $400 haircuts from television screens situated at the stylists' stations. Frizz–Ease, meanwhile, continues to be the biggest seller in the Frieda line, with some $60 million in sales annually and a bottle sold every 30 seconds.
Frieda and Lulu divorced in the early 1990s, and their son Jordan, a Cambridge University graduate, is an actor and lives in New York City. Frieda spends much of his time in his Manhattan penthouse and at a Connecticut home near to his company headquarters in Stamford. He also keeps homes in London and the Spanish hot–spot of Ibiza. Famously unflashy, the hairdresser favors sober suits and is known for generously supporting Conservative Party politicians in Britain like Iain Duncan Smith. He likes to ski in Austria and is a devoted cricket player who plays on a team with Broadway lyricist Sir Tim Rice. For a famously successful beauty mogul, he is surprisingly low–key, assessed journalist Shane Watson of London's Evening Standard. "The fabulous life of Frieda is unusual—as superrich businessmen's go—in that it combines the fastidiousness peculiar to the world of fashion, the obsession with control typical of the successful entrepreneur, and a robust sporty outlook and abhorrence of all things flash that's more English public schoolboy," Watson wrote.
While Frieda admits that the beauty business has brought him great success, he maintains that looks are indeed a superficial attribute. "People are so impressed by impressions, but your happiness should not depend on how you look," he told the Financial Times. "I've known many people who were beautiful but once you got to know them they were horrible—and the other way 'round."
Advertising Age, May 12, 2003, p. 18.
Chain Drug Review, December 5, 1994, p. 58.
Evening Standard (London, England), November 8, 2002, p. 29.
Fairfield County Business Journal (Fairfield County, CT), April 7, 2003.
Financial Times, January 26, 2002, p. 3.
Independent (London, England), November 24, 1999, p. 8; June 18, 2002, p. 8.
New York Times, September 29, 2002, p. 14.
SalonNews, May 2000, p. 52.
Sunday Times (London, England), June 27, 1999, p. 15.
WWD, March 17, 1995, p. 8; November 5, 1999, p. 14; November 10, 2000, p. 10; September 28, 2001, p. 10; August 2, 2002, p. 1; December 10, 2002, p. 16; April 25, 2003, p. 14.
— Carol Brennan