The state of Victoria, Melbourne as a city and Melbourne salons have done it tough, with months of one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, and hair salons closed for over two months – the only Australian salons that have had to forcibly close their doors during the pandemic.

As the state opens back up, hair salons have now been open for over a week, and the insights and feelings of Melbourne hairdressers and salon owners on the long lockdown and intense reopening will prove nationally and globally significant. In speaking with several salon owners in the trenches within Melbourne’s ‘ring of steel’, the diversity and nuance of their experiences, approaches and thoughts are clear.

“It was tough not knowing exactly when and how we could open up, and it was more for the mental health of our staff who were in lockdown, not knowing what was going to happen and when it was going to happen,” said celebrity hairdresser and multi-salon owner Joey Scandizzo of the lockdown. “We kept doing appraisals, education and training to keep our staff’s creative minds kicking. Being stuck in lockdown wasn’t the best for some of them so, for us, we just wanted to get the doors open. Other industries were open and we were stuck in lockdown relying on other people to do the right thing, so that was the hardest thing for us.”

“We had no roadmap and no idea when we would open and every time we thought it was time they’d change the goal post, it was a roller coaster ride. We had a COVID safe plan, we knew what we had to do but we just weren’t allowed to get back to work,” he continued.

The lockdown was different for all salons – some had chosen to shut in the first wave, some had kept their doors open. Some salons had closed as early as July, including Tom Donato’s Xiang Hair, which was located in an early hot spot.

“It was a little bit surreal this time around,” Tom said. “The first time we kept really busy and quite motivated. There was lot’s to do, to organise JobKeeper and rent relief from the landlords, to organise business overdrafts to pay the staff before JobKeeper kicked in. There was so much to do it kept me busy the whole time. The second time around it was like an apocalypse, it was pretty dark, the weather wasn’t as good.”

Salon owners pursued various methods to keep their teams connected and motivated. Tom asked his staff to create an awards submission, including video and personal questions, paired with Zoom meetings and online training, to keep his team learning, growing and creative. Marie Ricupito of Marie Nahas salon met up with staff member for walks and exercise.

Marie Uva of the famed UVA SALON created an online training program three times a week, including Monday sessions with a guest artist – famous names included Renya Xydis, Jules Tognini, Pauline McCabe, Brad Lepper, Sheree Knobel, Monique McMahon, Justin Pace and more –, Wednesday virtual styling workshops where senior stylists would teach junior hairdressers and Friday personal development sessions, that ranged from personal branding to team bonding meetings, customer service, product knowledge, applying makeup, meditation and yoga.

“Not only was the team active via lockdown, they were still connecting and seeing each other,” Marie Uva explained. “I kept in contact with my staff three times a week and as a team we still had that contact and I think it was really important not only to utilise the time and try put a positive spin on the fact that we weren’t able to open, but we looked at what we could do with this time. We’ll never get that time again to do some of the training sessions that we did and we had amazing sessions with people that shared inspiration with us that my team would never be able to usually have.”

Despite being out of the salon, the logistics of the lockdown and the uncertainty of the situation made the months stressful for salon owners, and some teams became more despondent as the time went on.

“On our end there was a lot of work behind the scenes going on, which put pressure on us and our team,” Joey said. “Rent’s coming in, you’ve got annual leave accruing, you’ve got super, you’ve got wages, the bills are still ticking over, so there was a lot of pressure on us in the back end. We didn’t want the staff and team to see, but we were going through a tough time.”

“Towards the end in our zoom meetings I could tell by the body language that some people had had enough, it was really starting to get a bit daunting,” Tom added of team morale.

Communicating and interacting with clients was another major component of the lockdown, with some retail initiatives, personal and social media contact and programs that thought outside the box.

“We did a lot with clients on social media, like Instagram Lives and some of the staff did how-to videos,” Marie Uva said. “Our phones were diverted so there was always someone answering the phones. We stayed pretty connected and as a result we have an influx of new clients that want to come on board and our regular clients knew what was happening the whole time. We communicated with them constantly, we did virtual consultations with them via Instagram.”

“We communicated with our clients every two days on social media and stayed in contact messaging our clients. We didn’t completely stay away from the business, what kept us going was staying in contact with our clients and their support,” Marie Ricupito added.

Marie Nahas Hair only just celebrated its one-year anniversary so the lockdown has been difficult and frustrating for a new business, and this new opening time is proving crucial. Thankfully, clients are flocking to salons in unprecedented numbers.

“I’ve never seen anything in 25 years of hairdressing like the last week,” Joey said. “We’re in week two and the phones don’t stop, they’re just going and going, the emails are coming in, people are on the waiting list at the moment. People want to look and feel great again so there’s pressure to try and get everyone we can while following a COVID safe plan where we can only fit so many people in the salon.”

“There’s a sense of relief, everyone’s glad to have their purpose in life back again, to come in here and fulfil their career and do what they love, there’s relief for the clients to come get their hair done, it’s a great vibe in the salon,” Marie Uva added.

Salons booked in clients without having an exact opening date – such as Marie Nahas salon, which booked clients for the 26th of October and told them if restrictions eased earlier to just shift their appointment forward one full week, or Xiang Hair, which booked for the 19th and then prayed they wouldn’t have to rebook 500 clients.

“The last week has been insane,” Marie Ricupito said. “We did 58 hours last week. My staff has been amazing, we have no lunch breaks, no stopping, late nights and now we’re up for a big week again. It just went into overdrive, our phone was ringing and there was no one to answer it, we have a four-page waiting list that we couldn’t even get back to – Facebook, Instagram messages, emails.”

“I worked seven days straight and tomorrow I’m back on the floor to probably do another fourteen days straight until we get rid of the backlog,” Tom said. “It’s just adrenaline, I just want to work. Altogether between the first and second lockdown we’ve been shut for 21 weeks. All our employees are pumped, we haven’t had any clients being rude. It’s been amazing support from the clients.”

Opening back up with extreme COVID safe plans, precautions, disposable masks and often professional deep cleaning practices, Melbourne salons are opening their doors to do what they do best – make their clients feel better in a time where Melbourne desperately needs it.

“I’m very excited that our industry has reopened and we can get back to doing what we love and making people feel amazing because everyone has been feeling it so badly and we’re a feel good business, if your hair looks good you feel good, you can achieve anything,” Marie Ricupito said.

Melburnians and Melbourne salons have certainly shown that they can achieve.