In many neighborhoods across the Greater Toronto Area, there are cosmetology schools where aspiring hair stylists can learn the basics: looks, tools, techniques, and products. But for those who are driven to become exceptional stylists, the Sassoon Academy in Bloor-Yorkville is the best place to learn advanced styling and coloring using the Sassoon signature technique: precision haircutting.
There are 10 Sassoon Academy locations across the world, they can be found in London, Germany, and in the major style cities of the United States. In Canada there is only one—on Scollard Street in Yorkville. I sat down in the bright and airy top floor of the salon with Creative Director Wesley Hanlon to learn more about how the Academy equips its students to become elite stylists.
Wesley is a Scottish-Canadian dual citizen, but he calls Toronto his hometown. He started cutting hair in his parent’s basement at 15: “I lived in Scarborough and had a friend that always wanted his hair cut once a week so that it looked fresh all the time. His sister’s boyfriend would do it—but I just believed I could do better. So I started cutting his hair. That’s how it all started.”
Soon realizing that he needed some proper training, Wesley started seeking experience and education. He is adamant that stylists should always be seeking to push themselves one step farther and keep challenging themselves. Each time he felt he had hit a plateau in his own career, he took a step back and started seeking a new challenge.
In his younger years, the adventure on the horizon was to work in Glasgow, where he had family ties, and where he ended up joining the Sassoon family of salons. The challenge for any stylist who joins Sassoon is passing the rigorous testing and training programs, including demonstrating 4 different types of cuts on live models, one after the other. “With Sassoon you don’t just start work [on day one]” he tells me. “That’s how we keep our reputation, our standards.”
He loved the attitude and small-town feel of Glasgow. Back then, it was the kind of community where people would suit up to go to the local bar—a great fit for the aesthetics of precision haircutting. Despite the formalities, the people were very fashion forward: “In relation to hair, they always want something new. They want the latest trend, and they’re not scared of change. They want to be different… They would be mad if you made their hair symmetrical.”
Established in his career, and following a period of time working in Miami, Wesley moved back to Toronto to work as a stylist and instructor in the Academy. He says he missed the big-city feel and loves how all the different styles, ethnicities, and subcultures make Toronto vibrant. His love for variety is reflected in his work and teaching as well. “As a hairstylist, you never want to hone in on one thing, because then it will get boring. So that’s why I do everything: cuts, styling, weddings, photoshoots, teaching, travelling. If I only did precision haircutting I wouldn’t have the breadth of skills to do fashion shows.”
Wesley brings this breadth of skills to the Academy’s track of programs that starts with advanced fundamentals, the ABCs, and then moves on to creative cutting and coloring. “The ABCs is your H&M type of thing—mainstream” Wesley says. “And then the academy, the really creative, is more what you see on the runway.” Programs are 3 or 5 days long so that stylists can fit their learning into time off. If stylists can’t find the time, instructors like Wesley often come to them and demonstrate the Sassoon techniques in their own salon.
As a teacher, he emphasizes the importance of control over the styling process and good communication with the person in the chair. One of the most important things he does is to make sure his students know how to completely listen to their clients, so that they fully understand what the client wants and what their comfort zone is.
He also says that with precision haircutting, students need to learn how to create proper shapes and styles in hair without relying on an overstuffed toolkit to do the work for them. Students are not allowed to use a round brush to do a blowout, since it adds ‘false volume’. When they are learning barbering, they use clippers with a comb instead of relying on a guard to determine length. And when hair is too heavy and needs to be lightened, they’re not allowed to reach for the thinning shears. “We solve that problem by removing the weight from the area in a precise manner” Wesley says. “Instead of thinning it out or taking a razor to it and thrashing the hair—we do it technically.”
When he teaches, Wesley likes to take a step back when his students are doing their styling work to understand their instincts and habits before stepping in to nudge them in the right direction. Sometimes he even learns something—he describes watching a student use styling mousse, which is usually applied wet, on dry hair for client with a bounty of curls. Normally it would have taken a lot of the client’s time to drench their hair, apply the product, and then dry and style. But applied dry, it was effortless and had the same effect. “The hair was amazing” he says.
When students are learning their cutting techniques, he steps in more quickly—the Academy uses live models, so the length of someone’s real hair is on the line. Mannequins are mass-produced, with perfect, uniform hair to practice on. But live models are human: they have kinks in their hair, different textures, natural hairlines, and bumps in their skull. They move around, and can feel if the students have poor technique. This is essential for Wesley, because teaching advanced styling is all about problem-solving. He says about his students: “They know deep down that the answer isn’t “if it’s wavy or heavy take out the thinning shears and thin it out until the problem goes away.” They know that. That’s why they’re here.”
In addition to travelling around Ontario to teach, Wesley also likes to hang around the city—“everywhere” he says. He likes to see all the different styles and subcultures around Toronto. He even teaches his students to pay attention when they’re out and about: see what people like, what their comfort zones are, and what different styles people are wearing. With the skills learned from the Sassoon programs, his students will soon be people worth watching as well.
Story by Ben Coleman. Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. All images courtesy of the Sassoon Academy.