Last week the doors of the John Barrett Salon — the high-end, full-service beauty destination that has occupied the penthouse floor of Bergdorf Goodman for more than two decades — closed for the last time.
To some, it was the end of an era for a particular breed of New York women, famously christened Bergdorf Blondes in the Plum Sykes 2004 novel of the same name. The title was a nod to the tribe’s preferred hair color as well as to their favorite hangout, Mr. Barrett’s salon, where the champagne, gossip — and high jinks — flowed as easily as the shampoo and conditioner.
“It was a bit of a scene,” said Ms. Sykes, who now lives in Britain. On any given day, salon-goers might spot Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton or Liza Minnelli, who were all regulars.
Stellene Volandes, the editor in chief of Town & Country, said she once watched Liza Minnelli sing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Barrett. “It somehow felt like home and like a really great cocktail party,” Ms. Volandes said. “You never knew who was going to be in the chair next to you.”
Making sure the wrong people didn’t end up in the next chair was a normal, and crucial, part of salon business.
“There’s always the situation where you have to keep the first and the second wife from seeing each other,” said Mr. Barrett, who also recalled the day when he had to separate two best friends who were fighting and another day when he had to make sure Mrs. Clinton and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News didn’t cross paths.
“We tended to wall off Secretary Clinton,” said Mr. Barrett, who explained that although he didn’t have a private room — “all the wrong people want to be in it,” he said — he did have room-dividing screens that his staff could put up for extra privacy. His staff also knew not to book certain clients at the same time and they kept others at opposite ends of the space.
“I have a woman at the front of the salon who is basically like a maître d’,” Mr. Barrett said. “She knows who’s who.”
And that’s the tame stuff. There was the well-dressed client who would come in two to three times a week for a blowout ($ 85 and up) and then run out of the salon without paying. One day Bergdorf security stopped her. Instead of having her arrested, Mr. Barrett came up with a simple solution: Put her credit card on file.
“I thought she would be too embarrassed to come back, but she was back the next day,” he said.
Jennifer Costa, a senior colorist with the salon, was once called out to the Mercer Hotel to color the hair of a celebrity. Ms. Costa found herself alone with the woman, whom she described as “not being in her right mind,” not to mention totally unclothed. They ended up working on the bed, where Ms. Costa struggled to do the color and highlights.
“She couldn’t sit still,” Ms. Costa said. “I had hair color all over.” When the celebrity requested that she join her in the shower so she could rinse out the color, Ms. Costa drew the line.
“The color was fine,” she said. “I was a wreck.”
Presumably the juicy tales will continue to pile up at Mr. Barrett’s new salon on the mezzanine floor of the tower at 432 Park Avenue. The space will house a library filled with books available for purchase, and a retail section will be stocked with makeup kits from Trinny London and skin-care products from Nannette de Gaspé, a Canadian beauty line, among other items.
“I think the salon as we know it is over,” Mr. Barrett said. “The New York woman of today doesn’t want to spend her whole day in a store. She is multitasking. I’m creating an environment where you come in and there are things to stimulate you while you are getting your hair colored.”
You can also eat. Mr. Barrett has arranged for Bouchon Bakery to supply salads and other light fare. There will also be turmeric ginger tea, blended fresh for each client, as well as the cappuccinos the salon is already known for, now offered with almond or cashew milk.
This isn’t Mr. Barrett’s first attempt at reinventing the salon experience. “John was one of the innovators of the full-service salon,” said Sarah Brown, a writer, brand consultant and former beauty director of Vogue. Of course, adding extra services, like brow grooming, manicures and makeup, also added to clients’ bills (manicures cost $ 45 or more; brow shaping will add another $ 75).
For Mr. Barrett, the reasoning was simple. “If you had a great hairdo and your brows were not right and the makeup was not right, then what good was it?” he said.
So Judy Taylor learned the first time she met Mr. Barrett. “He said, ‘Darling, don’t you want to be glamorous?’” Ms. Taylor, a senior vice president for corporate communications and philanthropy at Equinox, was whisked to a chair, where Mr. Barrett told the colorist to make her a blonde. “And then he said, ‘Do something with those eyebrows,’” Ms. Taylor recalled.
Mr. Barrett, who was born in Ireland and still speaks with a strong accent, is known for being affable and chatty. It’s a demeanor that can help when contending with eccentric demands, like the client who wanted to be carried to her car after her pedicure.
Yet Mr. Barrett’s tolerance for his clients’ antics extends only so far. Perhaps the most bizarre story he tells is of the customer — “a well-dressed, well-turned-out lady” — who had a penchant for urinating in the wastebaskets of the salon’s changing rooms.
“The housekeepers really hated her,” he said. “We finally had to tell her, ‘Look, you can’t do that.’” A manager started standing outside the door of the changing room and doing room checks after she exited, which solved the problem. “It was completely crazy.”
And just another day at the salon.