After more than 25 years as an innovator with Bumble and Bumble, his turn as a salon owner with his Los Angeles based White house studio and famed experience as a renowned educator and editorial hair expert, Howard McClaren pioneered R+Co. We chatted to the hair industry legend from his base in LA to discuss his perspective on his past, his influence and the trials, tribulations and future of the hair industry at large.
Working with renowned fashion-forward hairdresser Garren and famed men’s hair groomer and celebrity stylist Thom Priano, the group saw a gap in the haircare market for something new, fresh and organic, fortified by the benefit of their varying and vast perspectives.
“At that time I felt there was a massive hole in the industry with education, and millennials not really getting into the classics,” Howard said. “It was kind of like everybody was just Instagram famous and, for us, it was about going back to really classic education and referencing, and then bringing a new type of product that was obviously organic. We just felt that was a huge hole to be filled and that was really it.”
Over several years in the industry, the brand has managed to evolve with the times, crediting their personalised and smaller mentality, even as they’ve actually grown in stature, with their capacity to stay adaptable.
“Being able to shape shift any day for us is very important,” Howard shared, adding that ‘skinification’, or understanding the relevance of skincare in haircare, has been vital to his own innovative practices. R+Co’s ingredients often take from skincare, prioritising scalp care and working with the unique facets of the scalp that allow hair to grow and hair to remain healthy. New launches work with this concept and showcase the prominence of health and wellness in the R+Co DNA.
It’s this tailored mentality, true sense of care and passion for innovation that allows R+Co to truly help their salons with speed and efficiency when COVID hit.
“By April we had an affiliation program where we were giving hairdressers up to 45 per cent of a sale so they could still keep in contact with their clients, maintaining the products and maintaining our relationship with them, and that was massively successful for us,” Howard said. “Being a small brand, we can shift on a dime, or a quarter, or a penny. We can make those changes and really reach out to our customers and their customers to try keep things moving and keep people motivated.”
This approach didn’t stop there. Constant online communication with salon owners and managers, education and a true want to help has defined the R+Co response to the pandemic. Constant connectivity, Howard says, is the key to the pandemic response for the entire salon community. “Don’t let someone feel alone” is a personal and brand mantra.
“For us it’s really been about reaching deeper into our customer service and working with people, not to try and make money, but to make people feel confident that we’re going to get through this,” Howard said. “It’s never going to be the same but how do we prepare for what’s next? Hairdressers are very smart people, they’re funny, but they have an intelligence in the creative level that you can dig deep and help them get over this, go over the day to day to try and prepare them for what’s next.”
A highlight has been drive-in education nights, where attendees learn while distanced in their cars, but can grab a (masked-up) beer or taco at will. Zoom series on everything from photography to music and books have also maintained motivation for the R+Co bubble, engaging the community and protecting that socialness that’s so paramount for the hairdressing industry.
After more than four decades in the industry, Howard’s career has taken him to a lot of places – from his beginnings in Glasgow, to New York, London, Paris and LA – and a lot of different fields – photography, brand development, film and education beyond his business and hairdressing roles. In this storied career he’s learned the power of reinvention and the importance of changing when you’re on top. Within that, he finds the highlights in the minutiae of his work.
“It’s a career, it’s not just a job,” he said. “When you do a French Vogue cover, or you do a client in a salon and it’s the best haircut they’ve ever had. There are so many great highlights but ultimately for me it’s about being able to change and not be afraid to change.”
More specifically, Howard looks at his major wins in brand development, inspiring travels and work alongside hairdressing legends like Anthony Mascolo as pinch-me moments in his career, but there’s a more recent development that truly takes the cake.
“My son is a hairdresser as well,” Howard said. “ Watching him graduate and being on stage with him in New Orleans was spectacular. He was cutting hair besides me on stage in front of all these people and I was just so proud. I think I was in tears actually. It’s constantly being able to have those moments, you can’t predict them.”
R+Co’s approach to the future embraces a sense of the past, with a reverence for the hairdressing legends and fashion pioneers of yesteryear. Knowing where we come from, and classic hair, beauty and fashion references from Dior to Balenciaga or Vidal Sassoon, informs the future. For R+Co, that future is still largely predicated on wellness.
“Millennials want brands that are very transparent, they want to know who and why we’re making products. People are starting to understand that we have to take care of ourselves and, more importantly, understand our needs as individuals. That’s where hairdressing comes in. We’re creating individual characters, one size doesn’t fit all,” Howard said.
For the brand, this means varied, diverse products that are truly effective in what they’re trying to do. In education, it’s understanding both the classic references and the personal client needs. According to Howard, lockdown offers the time and opportunity to ask those questions, to develop relationships, to go deeper with clients and the community, beyond trends or even culture, to truly great hairdressing.
In the end, the R+Co through line isn’t all that complicated. It’s built on quality ingredients, with a vegan, eco-conscious ethos. For three hair legends who have experienced most of what there is to experience in hair, they, and their brand, are constantly learning, growing and innovating, from pandemic approaches to their newest product launches.
“Ultimately, we want products that we want to use in the salon, and I’ll give to my friends and not be embarrassed about,” Howard said.
A noble endeavour to be sure, from a truly inspiring group of innovators.
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