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Classic Ideas Define Elan Sassoon’s Line

Hair care line Elan S. bows in January.

BOSTON — Elan Sassoon may be restricted from using his famous last name on his hair care bottles (it’s owned by Procter & Gamble Co.), but he’s nevertheless using time-honored insights learned from his father, Vidal, and other salon greats for his debut professional hair care product launch, bowing in January.

The Elan S. range is built on three ideas: preserve hair health by maintaining the cuticle’s naturally acidic pH; build strength with cashmere wool keratin, and provide a “clean” product that’s as effective as traditional salon formulas. Elan S. is free of parabens, sulfates, denatured alcohol, formaldehyde and salts, ingredients some consumers perceive as undesirable.

“We wanted a product that returned to some of the good practices that we’ve lost in recent years,” said Sassoon, who envisions marketing the line through salon workshops of cutting-edge styles, à la his dad. “My father never sold a product — he sold his work, and the product sold itself.”

Company chief executive officer Larry Williams, an industry veteran who built distribution for Jhirmack, Nexxus and John Sahag, projects Elan S. will generate $2 million to $5 million in sales in 2010, building to $22 million by the end of 2012 through salon distribution and company e-tail. Prices range from $14 for gel to $28 for conditioner; 14 stockkeeping units bow for January (color seal shampoo/conditioner; moisture shampoo/conditioner; thermal straightener; antifrizz serum; styling crème and gel, among others), followed by additional items to be added in April, August and November.

Long planned, the Elan S. launch is the latest step in Sassoon’s drive to build a hair empire. Since 2008, he’s opened upscale Mizu salons on New York’s Park Avenue and in Boston’s Mandarin Oriental hotel and partnered in a roll out of suburban salon/spa chain Green Tangerine in metro Boston. But the economy has crimped some of his ambitions. He hopes to open the Elan Sassoon Academy for Hair and Skin in 2010 in space leased from Boston University, rather than in a new building as originally planned.

Although Elan S. is formulated to be eco-friendly, the chic-minimal packaging is sophisticated, not earthy. Slender bottles in matte, brushed plastic come in shades of avocado, ivory, rose and steel blue labeled with lowercase sans-serif font. Unlike the many pearlized shampoos that are now popular, formulas squeeze out clear and are lightly scented. Los Angeles celebrity stylist Melissa Stone, who serves as the brand’s creative director, said her clientele is eager for a stylist-endorsed, high-performance product without heavy chemical load.

Sassoon believes pH, while not immediately sexy to a consumer, will be a critical product differentiator over the long haul. Professional shampoos can be significantly alkaline, according to Sassoon’s chemist Rob Guimond, who tested nearly two dozen competitors and found pH levels running as high as 10. Alkalinity opens the hair cuticle, drying it and causing color treatments to leach away, ruining a stylist’s labor. In the Eighties, Sassoon noted, salon product listed their pH (Redken founder Jheri Redding famously visited salons with litmus strips to endorse his shampoos) but over time, the generic claim “pH balanced,” replaced specific data. “Balanced,” Sassoon contends, implies a pH of 7, or at the midpoint of the 0 to 14 point acid-base scale, but that’s still too alkaline for hair. Each Elan S. product list a pH between 4.5 and 5.5, the slightly acidic natural state of untreated hair and the ideal condition for keeping the cuticle intact.

“This will be the only pH balanced gel in the marketplace,” he noted of the line’s styling aid. “Most have denatured alcohol that breaks down your hair until it breaks off.”