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Shaggy customers are happy to return to the salon

Alexis Dudden estimates her hair has grown almost 8 inches since her last appointment with her stylist more than 13 months ago.

"It's so long, I look like I'm in the seventh grade again," said the professor of history at the University of Connecticut who lives in Noank and will turn 52 soon. "It's so long, it looks the same as my forsythia. It hasn't been this long since I was in the seventh grade."

Dudden is among a legion of men and women who are booking appointments with their favorite stylists after a long pandemic-induced hiatus that kept them from their regular appointments until they could be vaccinated.

"I get my second dose April 23 and my (hair) appointment is April 28. I'm counting the days," she said. "It will be great to see Ric again."

That's Ric Waterhouse, her stylist at Waterhouse Salon on Bank Street in New London, where Dudden says she has been getting her hair washed, cut and blown since at least 1999.

"I go to see Ric so I can look like a grownup," she said, explaining she's overdue after a year of Covid hibernation.

Referencing the tune "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," from the musical "South Pacific," Dudden said, "I wanna wash that pandemic right out of my hair."

For Waterhouse and other stylists and salon owners, the return of longtime, loyal customers who stayed away during the lockdown is not only making for joyful reunions, but it's good for business.

"We are 100 percent booked three weeks out and we need help," said Waterhouse, who is hiring.

"They have been hunkered down. They have been doing their own hair or letting it grow, or their husbands have trimmed it for them," said Nancy Hennegan of Nancy's Salon on Meridian Street in New London. "Some of these women have not been out of their house. They have not done anything."

And what does that look like?

"These are not haircuts, they are makeovers," said Hennegan. "These are real transformations."

Rob Rivers, who has salons and spas in Old Lyme and Mystic, said many regular clients have given up coloring their hair because over the months of staying home, their locks turned natural.

"They went so long without coloring, they have grown their color out completely," he said.

'Toughest year ever'

All of the salon owners said they are grateful for the new normal after such a tumultuous 2020. On average, they estimate their businesses were off 30% to 35% last year between the state's forced shutdown from mid-March to June 1 and the limitations and safety protocols in place when they reopened.

It was difficult for the owners and their stylists to adapt, they said, and to be on the front line, literally touching clients to wash and cut and style their hair.

"Thirty-two years I've been in business," said Rivers, "and last year was the most challenging ever. We took a big hit and I know all the salons did."

"I had to reinvent my business to survive," said Hennegan. "I've been in business 39 years and it was the toughest year ever, absolutely. And I have a newfound respect for essential workers, for those on the front line, for the medical workers and the grocery store clerks and all of those people."

Antonio Mastroianni of Antonio Hair Design on Williams Avenue in Mystic, a Republican, praised Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, saying he handled the situation well and as difficult things were for hair salons, they could have been worse.

"I'm really grateful to the governor and the way he handled it," he said.

Added Rivers: "Here we are in April 2021, and we are still recovering. We lost a third of our business in 2020 and we are still not back where we were before the pandemic."

The natural look

Typically, when a client comes in for a retouch, there's a half-inch to an inch of regrowth, Rivers said. Now, they have 7 or 8 inches of natural hair color and for many, it's an opportunity to go the way genetics intended.

"People are definitely trying different styles" said Kathy Couture of Hair Unique on Coogan Boulevard in Mystic. "For a lot of people who did color, they lived without it for so long, now instead of paying for color, they're going natural.

"Some are doing the salt and pepper look, some are going gray, and some men are letting their hair grow longer."

Debbie Caron at Shear Timing Hair Salon in Uncasville agreed.

"I'm seeing people now that haven't come in in a while, but the majority of our customers came back right away," she said. "But for those that have stayed away, they've grown out and they're a little grayer and they've chosen to go that route."

Couture, from Hair Unique, said from what she has witnessed, of those who stayed away, the women fared better.

"Honestly and truly, the men look worse than the women," she said.

Mastroianni said he and his regular customers have missed the rapport they share — that special bond between a hairdresser and loyal customer.

"It's so good to see them again," he said, "And yes, we are doing some makeovers."

"Everyone who is coming in now who has been away, they look like they are from a '70s movie," said Rivers of Rob Rivers Salon & Spa. "They've got long hair and it's parted in the middle. And the guys, the guys are shaggy."

"Women are coming in and saying now that I have my second vaccine my husband says I can come back," said Waterhouse. "And they're coming for haircuts, color, for everything. We are getting busier and busier and busier, and I can't tell you how welcome that is."

Rivers is happy to see his regulars coming back. Just recently, a client who had her daughter cut her hair at home for the past year came in for an appointment.

"She felt so good to get her hair done," Rivers said. "Going to a salon is social for her, too. And when she walked out of the salon, she didn't walk, she floated out. A haircut and color can do so much for someone's metal health. People have been isolated and down, and a visit to the salon is the best medicine."

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