Does New York lose much when a hairdresser dies?
Apparently so, if the crowd at Miwa/Alex last Saturday night is any measure. At least 100 people, all clients of the late Miwa Ikegami, gathered at the Flatiron District hair salon on Jan. 23 to mourn and remember a hair stylist most of them had become as devoted to as they were to their own spouse. Even moreso. "In 30 years, I've changed homes," said one former client, "I've change jobs, I've changed husbands. But I never changed Miwa."
It's a bit of popular urban folklore that many New Yorkers (mostly women here) hesitate to consider leaving the city because they would have to find a new hairdresser. A barber that understands your head of hair—that is, if you're the sort of person who cares about their hair, which I think everyone is, either openly or secretly—is very difficult to come by. If you're lucky, you find one in your lifetime. And one that's actually a first-rate individual—that's priceless. Miwa was such a person. When people found her—and they often did by simply asking well-coifed strangers where they got their hair cut—they almost never left, even though her prices were somewhere in the stratosphere.
I went to Miwa for 15 years. That may sound vain. What sort of men care about their hair that much, after all, but superficial fops? But I have good reasons. Miwa was my wife's hairdresser. She met Miwa when she was the creative director at Vidal Sassoon in the early 1980s (she was the youngest haircutter ever to attain that title). The salon advertised for hair models one day and my wife answered the ad. When it came time for our wedding, I figured I should look good. My wife sent me to Miwa. I met a short, stylish, blunt yet charming Japanese woman in a black bob whom, I could tell instantly, knew what she was doing that way Michelangelo knew sculpting.
She gave me a good haircut. So good, I became spoiled. I couldn't go elsewhere, and couldn't settle for the $12 butchers down as Astor Place Hair Designers anymore. I became a regular. Miwa moved a lot, and I (and many others) followed her wherever she went, from the salon of John Cash on W. 55th to her own place on Madison and 68th to finally her last shop on 22nd near Broadway.
Miwa was funny. She would give you a trim if you stopped in off the street without appointment, but she would also send you away if she thought your had come in for a cut before it was time. She was generous and kind, but also intensely single-minded and unsentimental. She would scold you that, if you didn't greet the world with self-confidence, her haircut would do you no good. I once spoke to her in depth about her personal history. She had a daughter while still young in Japan. She came to New York alone with no idea how she would stay, but was determined to do so. There was an early marriage that allowed her to stay, but it didn't last long. She found success at Sassoon soon after. (A speaker at the memorial talked about meeting her at Sassoon in 1973 and her bowing before she began the haircut.) She said she "cut with her eyes," not her hands, and that was the secret of her genius. Miwa did not have much patience for less competent or less serious cutters.
Miwa attracted an elite clientele. Among her regulars was New School president and former Senator Bob Kerrey, Broadway actress Cherry Jones, CAA super agent George Lane, violinist Joshua Bell and many museum curators. None of those people were at the memorial, as far as I could tell, yet the crowd at Miwa/Alex was remarkable, at least on the surface. I have no idea who any of them were. But they looked like a group of extras for a movie set in New York. Everyone looked great. It was the hair. They all had great hair. It was eerie.
It's a sad fact that you only find out some things about people you know after they die. I learned from Miwa's partner that she liked to garden at her house in the Catskills. She would have a Martini every night, and then demand the fire be made in the fireplace. She helped at least a couple her clients through their bouts with cancer. Many people commented on her begin extremely private: this I knew. A grouping of old, black-and-white photos of Miwa was hung on one wall, showing a chic young woman in a variety of hats, outfits and sunglasses, all too ready to pose, and always up to the task of cutting a figure. She was a personality. She was a person, a real New Yorker. I was something to have such a woman style your hair.
I'm sad to say I went to Miwa less in the year before she suddenly died of cancer just before Christmas. I simply couldn't. The recession had hit me hard and I couldn't afford her wonderful haircuts. But, after several unsatisfying cuts, I threw up my hands. Damn the expense; I wanted a decent haircut. I went in November. She looked drawn and tired, but greeted me with the usual warmth and effusion, gave me an excellent cut, and parted with a smile, saying nothing of her illness. The next time I called, I was told she had died three days earlier. I couldn't have felt more awful.
A lot of the people at the memorial seemed slightly rudderless. Oh, they'll all be fine. But something vital had been removed from their lives and they weren't quite sure how to proceed. Is it silly that they felt a loss because their hairdresser was gone? I don't think so. Everyone spoke about how a visit to Miwa sent you out onto the street feeling better about yourself, more confident, your self-esteem and world view refreshed. So few people can do you that service, especially when you're a neurotic New Yorker. When one disappears, life here is just all that much harder.
Thanks, Miwa. You were great.