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Frédéric Fekkai created a new category for beauty—prestige hair care—when he launched his eponymous brand in 1995, and he hasn’t looked back. After navigating adroitly through the ups and downs of life as an entrepreneur, Fekkai now has the power of industry behemoth P&G behind him—and the vision of creating a beauty megabrand to match. He may have the means to retire from active duty in the beauty industry, but, as he reveals in this wide-ranging interview, he most definitely doesn’t have the desire.
This story first appeared in the September 7, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
What’s your current assessment of the beauty industry overall and the hair category specifically? Where do you see the most opportunity?
It’s a great moment. Hair has taken on more importance in beauty. People realize hair is not second to skin—it’s a vital point of beauty. If it’s not shiny, healthy, colorful, it’s a minus in our beauty flow. Retailers are also starting to pay more attention and are treating the category less as a commodity and more as a platform, and that is a plus.
That seems like a bit of an uphill battle because the category has become so commoditized. What has to happen for it to be elevated?
We have to work on the presentation and the assortment. We need to bring more guidance, more pampering to the customer. The message has to be like skin care. In the hair industry, we don’t see too many categories; in skin care, you have different technologies for different skin treatments. There is a broad assortment, and in hair care we need to do that. People make product according to hair types and that’s it. There’s more than that. That is where we need to focus.
How has your vision of the business evolved?
I believe that more and more, women are thirsty for information and ideas for their hair. The vision I have is very simple: How can we make it user friendly and create collections of products that will allow women to easily handle and manage their hairstyle, whatever the weather is and whatever chemicals they use on their hair? It’s about youth, vitality. And why are we being penalized because we do too many highlights or because our hair is frizzy and we have to use a flat iron or blow-dry it every day? It shouldn’t be a negative. How can we figure out how to handle this in a positive way? There are all kinds of things today that allow us to do that.
It’s been a generation since a superstar hairstylist who was able to build a commercial empire has emerged. What’s changed since you started?
There was the era of makeup artists—MAC, Bobbi Brown, Nars. Right after that came John Frieda, myself, Michael Gordon and Bumble and bumble. We came at a time when we treated hair in a very glamorous way. For me, it was a balance between the red carpet and the fashion world. And also the fact that we had the commercial aspect—the salons. We were able to deliver services and experience as well as the product. Also, like everything, there are cycles. I belong to a breed of hairstylists who have a very classic education, [who] also did studio work. And I was also fortunate to have the salon experience. By doing so, I was covering a spectrum of ideas and addressing a much wider range of style.
There’s much more of a bifurcation today between editorial stylists and salon stylists.
Exactly. If you look at the stylists who are famous, they are mostly in the studio. They don’t have much salon experience. What has distinguished myself from some of the amazing talent out there is the fact that I really listen a lot to my customer. I always remember a great piece of advice Ralph Lauren gave me: Don’t be only trendy—make sure what you do is timeless. That resonated. I didn’t want to be known for one special style. The era of Sassoon is over. People don’t want one signature. They want versatility. What distinguished us is that we were creating unique styles for each individual, and by so doing, created a collection of styles that are distinguished.
Now that you spend less time in the salon, how do you maintain the visceral feel for what women want?
To be creative, you have to evolve all of the time. I still love cutting hair. I work a lot with friends, customers, on shoots. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I like it because it’s no longer a necessity for me to exist. I do it for pleasure and also it helps my team. I also transfer my creativity in many other ways, whether it’s the design of the logo, the packaging, the advertising, the formulas. For me, creativity doesn’t stop at cutting hair. I love that I keep my eye a little bit more neutral. Compare it to a cyclist: I’m not doing the Tour de France anymore; I’m doing some étapes here and there and it’s more refreshing to me.
Do you ever have regrets about selling the company?
I would say I have mixed feelings sometimes. Sometimes I say, I wish I could see what I could do on my own, continuing to grow the brand. But then I look at it on the other hand and say, I could never have the potential, the power, the resources that P&G has,to do it as fast as they will do it. I would lie if I said I don’t wake up and say, Shoot, I don’t have my brand anymore. It is weird to not own your name. But on the other hand, I see some of my friends who have their brands and when I have dinner with them, they would like to be in my situation. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. It’s wonderful to have been able to sell the brand like I did, and of course it is true to say, You know what? It would be nice to be able to drive your own car.
How did you feel about the decision to pull Fekkai out of global distribution?
I saw it coming. When I did the international distribution, I did it the entrepreneurial way. It was like a puzzle, fragmented. We were trying to make it work like this because we had no other way to do it. P&G has a different, more efficient way—much more coherent and consistent. Although it was strange for me to see it coming, I appreciate the strategy behind it. It is a step back to jump higher. Of course, emotionally, it hurt.
Were you supportive of the decision to create a two- tiered structure and expand into mass distribution?
Very much. When I was only in prestige, I knew the potential was going to be too limited. I’m thrilled today that our product is in a much wider distribution. For me, the only condition was to not discount it and to not lower the price. To this day, we fight for it. It is an uphill battle, because you have to deal with the retailers and they have to be consistent with us. If they want our product at our price, they also need to showcase it in the same way.
You’re a master at creating an amazing experience in your salon. What needs to be done at mass retail?
I’m a believer that you treat the customer with the utmost respect. That’s what we do in the salon. I would love to reproduce that with the retailer. It’s not worrying about selling the product, because the product should sell if you guide customers and you’re genuine and trustworthy and generous with the product and your story. For me, it’s about romancing the customer and delivering a surprise, a story and a great experience.
Customers will spend dollars for their beauty if the product is right. If you start to commoditize, you are in a battle of price. If you differentiate yourself by delivering great product, great ideas, great technologies, great innovation, and you’re also helping a customer create and own a good style, now you’re not a product in a bottle. Now you are help. You are a necessity—and a luxurious necessity.
How do you see the brand evolving?
I would love to see in my lifetime the brand become a megabrand, so big that we are able to develop other categories in beauty. That is the dream. What else can it do? It is a fantastic brand with great potential. It is a unique brand. What drives me is to make sure my customer can trust the brand, my name, me—that she feels satisfied because we have the right product, the right delivery, the right message. I love when people tell me, “The first thing I see in the morning is your name.” It’s great, and I don’t think you would say that if it’s a product you don’t care about.
Have you always been superambitious? Yes. Ambition is a great thing. It keeps me thinking, keeps me growing, keeps me fighting, keeps me passionate. The minute I stop being ambitious, that means I’m getting bored. And boring, by the way. People are afraid of using the word. If you are ambitious for the right reasons, it’s a magic moment.
You’ve tried a full-fledged beauty brand before. Was the timing wrong then?
Totally. The customer has to decide, not us. The lesson we learned was too fast and too far. If you keep doing it in a contained and measured way, why not? But again, it’s about timing and delivery. It’s like a writer—you’re not going to do six books at one time. You do one book, make sure it’s a success, then the next one. Once you’ve done a book, you’re not going to write the same story. You may have the same style, but it’s going to be a different story.
How would you describe your management style?
It’s about empowering my people, listening to them and guiding them. To be a good leader, you have to bring your team ideas, some kind of a surprising factor. In the corporate world, I do the same thing. It’s bringing the chief executive and chief financial officers things they don’t have. They have so much they can bring to me, so I try to bring them ideas and connections, because then they feel part of the team, part of the family. My management style is to treat everyone like I would treat my family.
Do you have a mentor?
I have a friend who is a mentor. He has a great, open vision of the world and makes me see things differently. I love the way he lives—not materially, but how he conducts himself and approaches things. Mentors are important. I talk to my friends about finding a mentor, which is not easy. My mentor doesn’t even know he’s my mentor. It’s not somebody who is named. A mentor is organic, it just happens.
What’s the next business you’re going to start?
I love brands. I love beauty. I love fashion. I love style. I’m taking my time, but I’m certainly studying things out there and looking at what is next. For me, there has to be a reason, something that satisfies my need, my passion and my vision. It could be anything as long as it is enhances the lives of people.
So it’s a when, not an if?
Born in Aix-en-Provence, France, Frédéric Fekkai moved to Paris at age 21 to study hairdressing with French legend Jacques Dessange. Four years later, he moved to New York to help open the Bruno Dessange salon, a joint venture at the time between Dessange and stylist Bruno Pittini. In 1989, Bergdorf Goodman tapped Fekkai to open a salon, an immediate sensation and the first of many high-profile Manhattan locations. Fekkai introduced his first product line in 1995, a pioneer in the prestige hair-care category. In 2008, the brand was acquired by Procter & Gamble, who expanded distribution into the mass market a year later. Today, the brand has estimated global sales of about $150 million. Fekkai now serves as a consultant, playing a strategic and creative role in its development.