It’s noon on a recent Saturday at Drybar on Sunset Boulevard, and the thrum of a dozen bright yellow blow-dryers can’t compete with the chatter of two fresh-faced women discussing their party plans for tonight. “We have to Uber!” says the blond as a stylist tugs her wet, wavy tresses like golden taffy. She and her friend clink their complimentary mimosas while a fortysomething brunet with a corner-office bob looks up from her tattered copy of OK! a few swivel chairs away and laughs with them. What with the free-flowing bubbly and the two flat-screen TVs showing Sex and the City, it’s like a female tailgate party. The collective high, however, comes not from pregame jitters but from the promise of perfect hair, which is exactly what this chain of specialty salons delivers. The drill is simple: You slink in with pesky frizz or a flat mane and about 45 minutes later march out with a shiny new—albeit temporary—lease on life. Blow-out by blow-out, that $40 shot of confidence has built Drybar into a $58 million empire in just five years.
That’s right: It’s been a mere half decade since Alli Webb, a Santa Monica mom, changed women’s grooming by launching Drybar. Though she didn’t invent the blow-outs-only salon (more on that later), her business model is being emulated around the country—from her affordable price point to her Hollywood Regency design aesthetic, complete with buttercup yellow accents that are trademarked along with almost 2,000 other brand ideas. And a movie based on Drybar is in development at Universal Pictures.
By democratizing great hair, Drybar has transformed the culture of beauty. The days when women primped only for special occasions—senior prom, say, or a make-or-break job interview—are no more, and sleek, touchable curls are becoming an everyday indulgence. Many clients live blow-dry to blow-dry, scheduling their Spinning classes and personal hygiene around Drybar appointments. (Full disclosure: I once staved off showering for six days to maximize an awesome blow-out.)
As for the copycats, there are parlors across the city with names like Blow Me Dry and Blow Angels, and more are on the way. Local style icon Rachel Zoe is bringing her East Coast franchise, DreamDry, to L.A. later this year, and the perpetually well-coiffed Gwyneth Paltrow is a partner in a soon-to-open local salon, too.
But as they take on Webb, these fashionistas should understand that it’s not just the hot irons that make Drybar, well, Drybar. The place is a case study in branding genius, and it is that, as much as anything, that keeps customers coming back.
The first thing you notice in each salon is the splash of color. Yellow is everywhere, from the blow-dryers to the curling wands to the stylists’ aprons. That unapologetically whimsical palette stands out in an industry known for its minimalist decor. Plus it sets the girls-just-wanna-have-fun tone. Instead of pointing to a photo of a celebrity in a magazine, patrons select a style from a printed menu of cocktail-inspired options such as the Manhattan (poker straight) and the Dirty Martini (postcoital waves). The soundtrack rarely veers from Lady Gaga and Rihanna power ballads; postfeminist film classics like Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada play on a loop on oversize monitors. Drybar is the sassy antithesis of the intimidating, overpriced Beverly Hills salon, yet it still exudes a polished veneer.
The 39-year-old Webb isn’t intimidating, either. With her enviable blond locks and quick smile, she’s the type of friendly millionaire who happily admits she loves the deals at Zara. Six years ago she was a Santa Monica mother of two seeking a few hours of adult time and some pocket money. Before having kids, she’d apprenticed with renowned Manhattan hairstylist John Sahag, so she decided to start a mobile blow-dry salon, traversing the Westside in her ten-year-old Nissan Xterra. “I had my big duffel bag of tools that I lugged around, and I would set up in the kitchen or living room,” she recalls. As word spread and her appointment list grew, Webb considered hiring a team of mobile stylists. Then she had an idea: If she created an inviting space, women would line up for the right service at the right price. “I thought, ‘What if they came to me instead?’ ” she says.
Webb wasn’t the first to say “Eureka!” A salon called Blow had opened in Manhattan in 2005. Two years later Blo popped up in Vancouver (the company now runs 28 salons in the United States, including two in the L.A. area). But Webb was not laboring under the illusion she had invented a salon that offers, as Drybar’s motto states, “No cuts. No color.” She was determined to make hers better.
To sound out her idea (and borrow $250,000 in seed money), Webb turned to older brother Michael Landau. “I thought it was money I would never see again,” says Landau, a former Yahoo brand marketing executive. Webb rolls her eyes. The siblings have always been tight, and today, over coffee at a West Hollywood café, their affectionate ribbing makes that clear. Webb convinced Landau that she had a killer business proposition by describing the “Stephanie Parsky moment”—so dubbed after a client who was a stay-at-home mom in Pacific Palisades. When Webb paid her a visit, “Stephanie would go into her bathroom to look at her hair, and she would literally squeal,” Webb says. “All my clients would feel different after their blow-outs. I wanted him to see that transformation.”
Landau admits that, his sister’s hard sell aside, he didn’t entirely grasp what she meant until they opened the first Drybar. “Women would come in serious and stressed and then start smiling,” he says. “I realized that we’re selling happiness and confidence, not just blow-outs.”
Before Webb and Landau began scouting locations in 2009, they focused on building a distinctive brand. They brought on Webb’s husband, Cameron, as creative director along with New York-based architect and designer Josh Heitler to help define the salon’s look. “At first we had so many contradictory ideas,” Webb says. “It had to be fun but serious—modern with a French twist.” One early decision that jump-started Webb’s thinking was placing the mirrors behind the clients rather than in front. “There’s so much intensity when you’re staring at yourself in a salon,” she says. “You think, ‘Oh, I look tired.’ ‘My nose is too big.’ ” To offset such self-criticism, they modeled the salon on a swank cocktail bar, with complimentary champagne and wine, hair products lining the shelves like liquor bottles, a menu of drinklike styling options, and big TVs. Then there was the name: Drybar, natch.
In February 2010, the team of four opened the first shop on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood with some of Webb’s mobile customers as initial investors. At the time eight chairs seemed like a lot to fill (blow-outs were priced at $35). But within hours of sending an e-mail blast, Webb had the first week booked solid. When actress Rose McGowan happened to stop in, she was so impressed, she asked Webb to let her invest, too.
“When I started my career, I said, ‘Please, God, let me make enough money to never have to do my own hair,’ ” says McGowan, who used to spend more than $150 a week on blow-outs. “Drybar costs half the price of a parking ticket. It’s a brilliant idea.”
Today there are 38 Drybar salons, with almost half of them scattered throughout California. “Even if I wasn’t based here, we probably would have launched in L.A.,” says Webb. “The women are all sophisticated. Our clients are a mix of young working professionals and stay-at-home moms.” Among local fans are some boldface names, like Julia Roberts, Zooey Deschanel, Maria Shriver, and of course McGowan.
But while Drybar’s success depends fundamentally on how well its stylists wield their tools, in a real way what Webb is selling is less vanity than empowerment. Some might say she has created yet another beauty hurdle that women must try to leap in their stilettos. But I’d counter that salon-bought style truly does imbue a woman with a sense of bravado. I hold a gaze longer and negotiate harder when my typically coarse hair has been tamed and flipped at the ends. Powerful female Hollywood executives, including 20th Century Fox cochair Stacey Snider and CBS Entertainment head Nina Tassler, wear blow-outs like accessories. “Women want armor,” says McGowan. “A blow-out is the equivalent of a man wearing a great suit. I completely understand the psychology of it.” So did Joan Crawford, who once said, “I think the most important thing a woman can have, next to talent, of course, is her hairdresser.”
Crawford’s quip is a reminder that before Drybar’s debut, blow-outs were reserved for starlets with personal stylists or moneyed matrons with cash to spare. Frédéric Fekkai charges up to $90 for the service; Sally Hershberger asks as much as $85. And don’t kid yourself: A $25 blow-out at Fantastic Sams is about as glamorous as an aboveground pool.
“With the price and the unique experience, Drybar is becoming a generational thing,” says Karen Grant, global beauty industry analyst at the market research firm NPD Group. “You’re seeing moms bringing their daughters in to get blow-outs together. And for some young girls it’s becoming a regular thing.”
To make a profit on those $40 blow-outs, Drybar needs to run like a widget factory. You won’t hear juicy gossip exchanged between stylist and client; there are no private revelations about nightmare colleagues or lazy boyfriends. For all the joie de vivre, a Drybar visit is about hair, not hand-holding. Even loyal customers get whoever is available when they walk in. As for the stylists, they earn $8.50 to $9.50 per hour. (A discreet sign suggests you tip $10.)
Veteran L.A. hair guru José Eber, known for his bejeweled cowboy hats and 40-plus years as a celebrity confidant, disdains this new business model of efficiency. “Hairdressing is about building a rapport. People have called us ‘therapists,’ ” says the man who was invited to attend the private funeral of Elizabeth Taylor. “It’s not about in and out. It’s much deeper.”
But what Drybar offers is something different: a fast, fun, and affordable way to fall in love with your hair. Who knows what you can achieve with a rocking blow-out? Just look at Webb. “It’s funny because I wasn’t the overachiever with the good grades in my family,” she says, tossing a sensuous cascade of blondness over her shoulder. “Everyone was like, ‘What the hell is Alli going to do with her life?’ ”