From his work with celebrities to owning the world’s first “smart salon,” Ted Gibson is transforming a lot more than hair these days. Learn how he’s redefining the role of salon owner and hairstylist, all while staying ahead of the curve.
How did you get your start in the beauty industry?
My dad was in the army and we travelled every two or three years, but my mom and dad ended up in the small town of Killeen, Texas, which is pretty much where I grew up before moving to New York, where I lived for over 20 years. I remember as a kid that I always wanted to play with hair, but my dad wasn’t really happy with his only son doing anything with hair. I was really into magazines, models and celebrities,but I didn’t really know that it was the direction I was going in. When I decided I wanted to be in the beauty business, I had finished high school and was around 22 or 23. I told a good friend of mine who’s a hairdresser that I was thinking about working in the industry and he encouraged me to do it. The next thing I knew I was in beauty school. I remember picking up a pair of shears and a comb, and how I tingled all the way from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I knew I was in the right place; it felt really good and I really loved it.
You mentioned that you moved around a lot. Did that have any influence on how you viewed hair and the beauty industry?
I think it did—the experience of living in Japan, Germany and Hawaii, and seeing the different cultures. I had to leave friends and make new friends over and over, which helped me adjust to circumstances very easily. I think when it relates to beauty, it’s the same thing. When I decided to be a hairdresser, I didn’t want to necessarily be pigeonholed into being a Black hairdresser; I wanted to be a hairdresser that focused on textures of hair and not the colour of skin. It’s always been my platform in knowing that I can bounce from Angelina Jolie to Lupita Nyong’o to Debra Messing to Zoe Saldana to Priyanka Chopra, and the list goes on. It’s really about the technique and texture and not the colour. When it comes to braids or extensions, I think those are more specialties, but I do think that everyone should know how to cut, style and finish textured hair.
You’re known for your work on TV, celebrities and Fashion Week. What would you say you most enjoy about your career?
I love all of it! It all feeds me in different ways. Working with celebrities—I love the red carpet. I love movies—I’m a big fan of cinema, so being able to work on someone that I see on the big screen is really a joy to me. With clients in my salon, I love the transformation of someone who may not necessarily feel great, but when she leaves, she feels like a million bucks. I love creating trends, so I think all the years of being backstage at Fashion Week have helped me with that. I think it’s a little bit different now because of social media; it’s really changed the dynamic of everything. I’m grateful for that because it’s a huge opportunity to talk to millions of people that you didn’t get a chance to talk to before.
Looking back at your career, what would you say was your most life- changing moment or experience?
There were so many! I lived in Minneapolis from 1991 to 1996/1997. I wanted to work for Aveda and I wanted to be famous. Working for Aveda, I remember when I started teaching beauty school—and I taught beauty school for about three years—and Horst [Rechelbacher] asked me to be a global educator for the company. As I became a global educator, which I was for about two more years, Horst asked me to move to New York City, which was a huge turning point for me because I always loved fashion and the whole idea of working in the fashion business, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant.
So when I moved to New York City that was a huge life-changing moment because I started doing editorial work and I would do fashion shows in Milan and Paris. I knew that it was a turning point for me to leave Aveda and get into the fashion business. I would do editorials for all the major publications from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar to Cosmopolitan to Marie Claire. Marie Claire’s fashion director at the time, Lucy Sykes, told me she had an opportunity for a cover with a celebrity. As a fashion hairdresser, I didn’t want to be a celebrity hairdresser, but she said she thought it would be really good for my career. The cover was with Angelina Jolie in London, and Patrick Demarchelier was shooting it. So I flew to London and the next thing I knew, Angie and I hit it off and I worked with her for six years. That’s really what changed my career. Everyone wanted to know who was doing Angie’s hair.
Congratulations to you and your partner, Jason Backes, on your “smart salon,” Starring by Ted Gibson. Tell us about how you came up with the concept.
Jason and I have owned three salons previously and we decided to close our last salon in New York because we felt a shift happening in our business and industry. It used to be that you’d cut someone’s hair, go to a retail shelf and put products on the front desk while explaining what you used. What started happening was, as I’m talking to the client, they’re pulling out their phone and already buying the products online.
We moved to Los Angeles because we felt what was happening was the whole idea of celebrity was turning into influencers, and the influencers were in L.A. We also wanted a change of pace and a change of lifestyle. We decided to revisit the idea of owning a salon and create a new brand that wasn’t the same old. We knew the salon model hadn’t been updated in a really long time. We knew that chair rental was very hot and it was going to continue to be. The onset of suites was really hot, but we didn’t want a room that was just closed off. That’s how we came up with Starring by Ted Gibson, which opened in 2019 and is the first smart salon in the world, powered by Amazon and Alexa. The reason we decided to go that route is because we wanted to create something that was thought-provoking and refreshing. We wanted to create this intimate, semi-private experience for each guest. That’s how we came up with the idea of the “clouds.” From each “cloud,” they can shop, change the music, change the lighting, etc. The guest can book their appointment online, just like an Uber ride. A huge component for us was not carrying any retail—it’s all QR codes that take them to Amazon to shop from there. We wanted there to be an intimate experience. You can go anywhere for a great haircut or colour, but what’s your experience going to be like? That’s what I feel people are looking for in the future.
We were very fortunate to have you on our Contessa Awards judging panel last year. What was that experience like?
I loved the creativity! I think that the Contessa Awards have really brought out some people’s A-game. You can tell that people really wanted to win. You can see the talent brought to the table, which I think is really important. It wasn’t just a beach wave or foil of highlights—it was really greater than that. I love the fact that people were so creative and I think we’re in a time right now where we really need that; the juice and inspiration of thinking about something a little differently, and I think the Contessa Awards definitely encouraged that. I was truly honoured to be a judge and to just see the talent, especially in Canada. People may wonder since Canada is not as big as the U.S., but for it not being as big as the U.S., I would say the talent is extraordinary in Canada! I think competitions are important to get outside of yourself and do something a little bit different, and the Contessa Awards definitely inspire that.
What’s next for you?
I think Los Angeles and Hollywood have brought up some things inside of me that are a bit different than I ever anticipated. I’m in the process of writing a script that I’m very excited about. I’m working with a writing partner and it’s not a documentary per sé; it’s experiences that I’ve had in my life that have to do with people I know. It’s fiction and non- fiction combined, and I think it’s going to be a really incredible story. So I’m exploring different opportunities within myself that aren’t only about hair, but being creative overall, as well.