‘I charged 3s 6d for a hair cut at the time. These days we charge £37’

One of Huddersfield’s best-known town centre salons, Rubens, is now in its 30th year. That’s quite an achievement, given that the average lifespan of a hairdressing business is just seven years. HILARIE STELFOX reports on how times have changed in hairstyling

WHEN Italian-born Joe Mazza opened his first hair salon in the early Seventies he was just 15 and ready to be the Vidal Sassoon of the North.

“By the time I was 20 I was making more money than I could spend, smashed up a couple of sports cars and wanted to expand,” says Joe, who is now a more mature 52, but still as enthusiastic about the hair business as in those heady days.

That first salon, in Ashton-under-Lyne, cost him £1,000, which he paid off at £12.50 a week. His father gave him the £200 deposit.

“I charged 3s 6d (17½p) for a haircut at the time. These days we charge £37,” said Joe.

“But back then you could get a three-bedroom semi for about £2,000.”

Joe was fortunate enough to begin his hairdressing career at a time when fashion was erupting with new, youthful styles.

It was the era of Twiggy, The Beatles, celebrity hairstylists and fashion designers such as Mary Quant.

“When I first began hairdressing it was all short, back and sides for men. Then men started growing their hair.

“For women precision cutting became the big thing, with geometric styles,” he explained.

Joe moved to Huddersfield in 1979 and opened his first Rubens salon in Cloth Hall Street.

Today he and his business partner, Carmen Harriott-Brown, also have two other salons – in Mirfield and Elland – and have moved the Huddersfield salon to Westgate.

As Rubens enters its 30th year in business Joe has had a chance to reflect on his long career, which began at the tender age of 10.

“Back in Sicily, where I come from, it was normal for parents to send the boys to learn a trade from being quite young. You never got paid a penny for working after school and during the holidays, but you learned a trade.

“I worked in a barber’s as a lather boy and after we came to England when I was 12 I carried on with my apprenticeship at a barber’s shop over here,” said Joe.

Learning to cut men’s hair, he says, gave him just the expertise he needed to create the new geometric and asymmetrical women’s haircuts that required precision cutting.

To this day, Joe is first and foremost a precision cutter.

Although Carmen, 44, didn’t become a partner at Rubens until 1988 she has been with the business for all of its 30 years. She started as a Saturday girl and then joined as a stylist at the age of 16.

Today she is known as the salon’s colouring expert.

Joe said: “We still have Saturday staff now who start at 14. By the time they are 16 they have done their basic training.’’

In fact, one of Joe’s four children, Daniella, served her apprenticeship in this way at Rubens in Huddersfield. She now works at the Mirfield salon.

There may have been a time when hairdressing was seen as a low-paid and low-status career option.

But the rise of the celebrity hairdresser and quality town centre salons such as Rubens have turned it into a fashionable profession with real opportunities for advancement.

“Hairdressing is a fantastic profession and while it used to have that tradesman’s stigma all that has changed,” said Joe.

Carmen, for example, spent six years teaching part-time at Huddersfield Technical College and worked her way up to salon manager before being made a partner.

It’s too early yet to say whether Carmen’s two sons, Callum, 10 and Carlo, seven, and Joe’s younger children, Giorgio, 11 and Sarina, 10, will follow in their parent’s footsteps, but they would be welcome.

There have been many changes in the hairdressing world over the past three decades, and not just with styles and fashions.

New techniques and products are being developed all the time.

Never slow to spot a business opportunity, Joe and Carmen also have their own business selling hair straighteners to the Italian market.

They know how important it is to keep up with hairdressing trends and pride themselves on staying at the top of the game.

Joe said: “Carmen and I have just been to Milan, where we were invited to the launch of a new colouring technique. When we got there we realised we’d been using the technique for ages.’’

One major change in the way they run their salons has been to encourage staff to become self-employed after completing their training.

“We support them until they become busy enough to work for themselves,” said Joe. “We think it’s the way forward in hairdressing.”

Although Joe has been in hairdressing for 37 years he is showing no signs of winding down towards retirement.

“We are still planning to expand the business and increase what we are doing. In fact we haven’t even started; there is still so far to go,” he said. “Our achievement is not that we’ve been going for 30 years, it’s staying at the top for so long.”