At a Loss – The Science and Art of Being a Hairstylist

Victor DiBenedetto has spent a lifetime discreetly making his customers look and feel their best. For nearly five decades, the 77-years-young Italian immigrant has been quietly solving the problem of Hamiltonians’ hair loss – including his own. The once-bald barber, whose grizzled, horseshoe moustache rivals Hulk Hogan’s, has owned and operated “Unique Hairstyling and Hayers” in Hamilton’s east end since 1972. Inside his peeling, brown-brick duplex, Victor specializes in the fitting, colouring, cutting, and maintaining of men’s and women’s toupees.

Victor’s life as a Canadian began in 1962 when he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was greeted with what he still believes was the coldest day of the year. “It was so cold,” he says, clenching his large double-double. Barbering since the age of 15, Victor endured seven years of night school to earn his grade 12 equivalency. The coiffeur then completed a two-year hairdressing program at George Brown College in Toronto. “It was a sacrifice,” he says, humbly adding that he graduated top of his class with a 95 percent average. “My brother was here first, so I came to meet him. I went back and forth and all over the place before I decided to open the shop in Hamilton.”

Lying back in his green armchair, nestled amidst closed factories and boarded-up homes, Victor explains: “With all the steel companies and jobs, Hamilton was the place to be in the 1960s and ’70s.” With the city’s booming manufacturing industry, Victor faced some stiff competition. “When we opened, there were seven [barbers] in the first year,” he says, glancing over his left shoulder. “But because I knew what I was doing with long hair, that really made me special.”

On the corner of Gage and Barton Street, under a vintage green veranda, Victor explains that his shop succeeded not simply because of its prime location. “Hairstyling’s not something just anybody could do. You have to have years of experience and chemistry with the clients – and I had both.”

Photo: G. Agostinelli

When Victor started operating the shop, Canadian hairstyling was becoming more recognized. “Finally,” he says, “we were starting to get a place in the world.” In the 1970s, Victor became a member of Team Canada Hairstyling, competing in New York and Switzerland, leaving behind his wife and two children. A native of Pratola Pelignia in the Abruzzo region of Italy who still faintly rolls his r’s, Victor needed to find a niche to set himself apart from the competition in an industry he calls “revolutionary.” His shop still cuts, perms, and colours hair, but hairpieces are Victor’s speciality. “A woman at one of those courses predicted that 10 percent of women [go] bald. About 20 years ago, we separated ourselves from the group. We specialized in wigs and extensions.” And he wanted everyone to know. A large, not-so-discreet, yellow sign on the building’s side reads: “HARPIECE,” the missing “I” only adding to the shop’s charm.

Adjusting his black-rimmed glasses that have slid down to the tip of his nose, Victor admits that the salon had not always belonged to him; he purchased it from his mentor and previous owner, Joe Hayers. “He was much older than me. I took a lot of his knowledge when he was passing on,” says Victor. But the rusted filing cabinets are not all that’s left over from Joe’s reign. The shop’s name and phone number pay tribute to Victor’s former boss. “We kept his phone number. Sometimes we get people calling to know if we’re still on. That number was never changed. It never will.”

At the sound of the front door’s tinny bells, Victor gently sets down his nearly finished please-try-again cup and gingerly stands up to greet his client. “Come on in, Paul,” he says, brushing off one of his seven purple, leather chairs. “How are you today?” As Victor takes out a dark comb from a jar filled with blue liquid, the smell of formaldehyde escapes into the small, pink room. Drying the comb on a hand-towel, Victor continues: “It’s as much a science as an art to be a hairstylist.” With some newfound spring in his step, Victor’s brown loafers begin to dance around the chair. “It also helps that I’m a colour technician,” he says, smirking at his array of bottles and brushes. Barely able to see over his chair, Victor snips from under the gaze of a faded, teen Brad Pitt poster.

Photo: G. Agostinelli

As Paul’s hair falls softly to the brown-checkered floor, Victor looks up. His nostalgic gaze leaps beyond the blue, sun-faded posters in the window display, and catches the street. “Barton Street. The longest street in Hamilton,” he says, “used to be plugged just like Yonge Street in Toronto.” In the 1960s, thousands of Europeans settled in Hamilton alongside Victor in search of work. “If the snow started to fall hard, forget about getting home for four hours,” he says. A wave of silence freezes Victor and muffles the soccer highlights coming from his 17-inch television set. “Just like Yonge Street,” he repeats, softly. A lone, bearded man speaking to himself passes by the window, breaking the silence. Victor turns quickly back to the chair, his gold chains trying to catch up.

Pruning Paul’s pale head with precision, the appassionato continues: “Back then, we did it all by hand, you know? We used to make the toupees upstairs. We had three girls sewing all the time.” The process has since become much more mechanized, with a factory in China manufacturing the ordered hairpieces once the client determines the desired style, size, colour, length, and density.

“Not one head is the same,” Victor notes, “so, we have to make a custom fit.” He opens a filing cabinet’s screechy bottom drawer and gently pulls out a beige saran-wrap and scotch-tape mold. “When it comes back, then it’s up to us to make that hairpiece look real,” he says. “That’s the experience of cutting.” Clients can expect a custom-fit toupee to be imported within two months.

Photo: G. Agostinelli

Though no longer involved in the manufacturing end, Victor is still very knowledgeable on the subject. Whereas local barbers once had to entice clients to grow out and sell their hair to make a toupee, hairstylists nowadays can rely on a vast market of hair that Victor calls “a huge, huge industry.”

“Most of the hair comes from India,” says Victor, whose accent involuntarily adds an “h” in front of the country name. “The H-Indian hair is the softest hair of the human race. Chinese is the coarsest.” Long, Indian hair has become such a “huge and available commodity” because of a traditional hair-cutting ceremony that males in India celebrate on their 21st birthday. “We demand nothing but the best for our customers,” explains Victor, squinting to touch-up Paul’s greying sideburns.

Armed with finesse and a pair of scissors, Victor continues describing the manufacturing process, stopping periodically to allow both of his hands to speak with him. The Indian hair, sold largely in barrels, is transported to China where it goes through a special cleaning process. “They cleanse the hair to take out the indentation and also disinfect it,” Victor explains, looking above his glasses. Once a person’s hair is cut, it suffers serration, becoming tangled and very difficult to work with.

Photo: G. Agostinelli

The hair is fed through a machine that melts each individual fibre into a breathable custom cap. Toupee customization, according to Victor, is the only way a successful salon can reach 99 percent customer satisfaction. “If it doesn’t fit right, forget it. It’s just not going to work,” he warns. Taking the last gulp of his lukewarm coffee, Victor steps back to judge his work-in-progress.

As his round, plaid-shirt belly moves back toward the chair, so does the focus in his unblinking eyes. The toupees, which range from 150 to 1500 dollars, depending on style and density, must be serviced at least once a month to impede stiffness and deterioration. “If not,” Victor warns, “it’s just like wearing a cloth or a pair of jeans on your head.”

Traditional hairpieces are still attached using an adhesive tape, and may be removed daily. However, in the past seven years, permanent toupees, applied once a month with breathable glue, have become very popular among young wearers. “The young people don’t want to do it any other way,” Victor adds, shaking his index finger. A patient Paul stares straight ahead into the large mirror, anticipating Victor’s next digression.

“We used to have a customer, a lady who was senile, and, yet, she would not go without her wig in the nursing home. She used to bring it to me once a month. She wouldn’t do it any other way.” Victor chuckles and still shakes his head in disbelief, though it is a story he’s told countless times.

Stopping again, this time with a comb in his hand, Victor continues, “The oldest guy we have wearing a hairpiece is 98 years old. And he’s three-quarters blind! Can you believe that?” Customer loyalty is important to Victor. Many of his clients travel forty kilometers or more for his service and smile. His most loyal client used to fly to Hamilton from North Bay once a month to see him. “Yeah, we’ve definitely had extremes,” Victor adds.

Though aging is often believed to be the main reason for balding, Victor is quick to shake his head at the idea. “It’s got nothing to do with that. Alopecia is rampant, and cancer leaves a lot of people bald.” Alopecia is an autoimmune disorder that targets and kills hair follicles, permanently preventing hair growth.

Victor has donated numerous hairpieces over the years to the Canadian Cancer Society in an effort to help those undergoing chemotherapy. He admits that he has seen some cases of severe balding in his life. Briefly closing his scissors, Victor shakes his head. “My youngest client is five years old,” he sighs. “They’re just trying to be themselves.” Victor scratches the itch out of his own dark brown toupee before continuing with Paul’s cut.

“Now things have changed quite a bit,” says Victor, whose hairpiece demand has shot up 40 percent since he first opened his doors. Though the toupee is typically associated with men, Victor maintains that half his clients are women. “I think we’re about 50-50. We’ve always been.” According to him, a major motivation for acquiring a hairpiece is one’s personal vanity. “At one time, being bald for a woman was being a ghost. And for men, if they were on the job, nobody wanted to look 20 years older than the next person.” Victor acknowledges that today’s society is much freer for men, with only an estimated four percent of the male population sporting a toupee. “But up to even 20 years ago, being bald was no way. It just wasn’t accepted,” he adds.

As if sharing a dark secret of his own, Victor shifts his weight to one side. “But among women, it would be about 95 percent. They would not do without it. One way or another, they get it.” Victor chuckles recalling the era of metal “hair bands” and fake, Gretzky “hockey flows.”

“We used to do a lot of guys in the bands,” he says, adding that even some Hamilton Tiger-Cats wore toupees under their helmet. “That’s how bad it was to be bald!” Now, a discreet look is in higher demand from clients. “They’re not looking for the big poof anymore. They want it not detectable – they want it to look natural.”

With advancements in hair technology, transplants are becoming increasingly popular, but Victor isn’t worried. Many of his clients purchase a toupee after an unsuccessful transplant procedure. “In the last 20 years, transplants have come a long way, but it’s still not enough to give you a full head of hair, you know?” Victor argues that only a hairpiece can provide the desired “fullness and thickness,” especially for women with male-pattern baldness. “Instead of wearing just a wig, we’re doing a lot of integrations with their hair,” says Victor. The copious jars of hair links in the store’s back room match virtually any hair colour to ensure a satisfying, undetectable finish.

As more customers continue to ease into the green waiting chairs and read the daily newspaper, Victor’s smile grows in fondness of Paul’s new haircut. Observing his mostly middle-aged and senior clientele, Victor notes that business among young women in particular has spiked with an increase in hair extension sales. “Young girls, they just want to be actresses now,” he explains. “Pressure on the parents is good for us. They have to fork over the money!” Whether it’s a young girl who wants to be the next Lady Gaga, or simply a nonna who wants a full head of hair, Victor’s is a one-stop shop. “We do everything here,” he says, greeting his customers by name as they walk in. “Not many people do this type of work.” With his handlebars arched upward, Victor brushes off Paul’s neck.

Photo: G. Agostinelli

Turning the purple chair around to face the mirror one last time, Victor unveils his masterpiece. With an approving nod and a smile, Paul stands up and keenly shakes Victor’s hand. Clients are more than just customers to Victor. “We’ve become friends. I’ve known over 90 percent of my customers for 40 years, some of them even 50,” he says. Victor doesn’t believe in keeping his clients’ information on a computer; the labelled shoeboxes and filing cabinets have sufficed for the past 50 years. When asked how many clients he has, Victor laughs. “I have no idea!”

Though Victor admits he will retire “eventually,” he knows he still has some years left. “I’m still going strong. As long as you’re healthy, you’re gonna stay in business.” Victor plans to pass both his knowledge and salon to his business partners, sisters Lang and Nhung Nguyn.

Victor has lived a fulfilling life by faithfully abiding by his shop’s slogan, “Making you look good, makes us feel great!” Still, there is a lingering emptiness in his voice. “We used to be a lot bigger, but I saw what was happening and, well, you know…” Folding his hands together, he continues, “I’ve stayed here because as you get older, you’re not going to get greedy. You know, we’re okay, but the city’s not doing that well.” Of those original seven Hamiltonian hairstylists, only a couple remain. “They’ve come and gone. They’ve come and gone,” he repeats to the tiles beneath him. No more are the days of bumper-to-bumper Barton Street. Around the corner, an abandoned gas station and sealed off factories stand as remnants of a more prosperous time.

“Usually when they do stories like this, the guy is ready to pass it on,” Victor muses. Perched over Barton Street, a hanging pink sign simply reads, “Unique Hairstyling and Hayers.” But below it is the story, now told, of an entrepreneurial success – one that has helped clients look as ageless as the shop itself. His posters will keep fading, but if the barber as unique as his shop has a pulse, his passion and business will not. When asked if he has big plans for his store’s upcoming 50th anniversary, Victor smiles. “We’ll see.” Looking up at the rainy sky, Victor isn’t sure what the future holds, but he hopes that his salon will remain after he retires. “If I retire,” he jokes.

Gianluca Agostinelli is professor of English and Communications at Niagara College Canada, as well as education instructor, practicum advisor, and Ph.D. candidate at Brock University.

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