Up until about three years ago, I had assumed that a hairdresser was a hairdresser. That was until I’d been in the hands of Nicolas Baaklini and discovered why every woman who wants big, voluminous hair should have a Lebanese hairdresser – a male one at that. Having given up asking for “The Rachel” – you know the one: shoulder-length layers, sweeping fringe and bounce that puts Tigger to shame – I couldn’t believe my luck at finding him.
Baaklini’s is a true rags-to-riches tale. The 34-year-old, who calls himself an “instinctive hairdresser”, followed in his mother’s footsteps, who herself worked as a hairdresser and stylist in Lebanon. Baaklini’s first job was in a salon as a teenager. He was 22 when he left his hometown of Zahlé, two hours outside Beirut, for a job in a small salon in Abu Dhabi, earning only Dh500 a month.
“But I knew I would one day have my own salon,” he says.
Baaklini opened his Artistic Hair salon in 2007 on Khalifa Street in Abu Dhabi and, more recently, inaugurated another branch – much more opulent than the first – at the new Dusit Thani hotel in the capital.
At the original salon, decorated simply in red and white, women sit in front of sinks and mirrors, sipping coffee and chatting during momentary breaks. Others sit around on red leather sofas, patiently waiting their turn. It’s so noisy that even the music from MTV Arabia can barely be heard above the din of voices, running water and roaring hairdryers.
“It’s not what I asked for,” a woman shouts above the din. The salon grinds to a halt. “Just joking,” she shrieks, tossing her head and laughing.
“They’re the words every hairdresser dreads hearing,” says Baaklini, rolling his eyes as he expertly styles a customer’s hair.
Baaklini and his team of up to eight stylists, all male, and just as many assistants, all female, power through up to 50 blow-dries a night. A single blow-dry can take anything from five to 50 minutes, depending on hair length and style. Extensions (Dh1,500 to Dh6,000) are their speciality, and are used to create large updos (starting from Dh250) coupled with voluminous blow-dries (Dh80 to Dh150 with brushing and flat iron curling).
The salon is open seven days a week and is always busy; bring a good book if you arrive any time after 6pm on a weekend, because the salon works on a first-come, first-serve basis. But the women are willing to wait.
“I’ve been waiting for two hours,” says Dina Al Baida. “It takes a long time, but my hair will stay frizz-free and voluminous for at least three days. That’s worth it.”
“The ladies are not the best at timekeeping, so we don’t take appointments,” Baaklini explains. “There’s often a queue, but the atmosphere is great. The guys whip through the customers in record time and the chatter takes care of the rest.”
But exceptions are made for special occasions: wedding make-up and hairstyling, which are a whole day’s job, can be booked in advance.
“In Lebanon, we grow up around women who take pride in looking beautiful,” says Baaklini, himself impeccably turned out in skinny, black Diesel jeans and a white shirt, his black hair flicked from front to back. “Getting ready for a party or a wedding back home can take a long time if you’re a woman,” he says.
In the early days, Baaklini attracted a mostly Arab audience, but says that he’s proud to have widened his client base across many nationalities. But what do the Lebanese hairdressers offer that other hairdressers don’t?
“Others spend their lives trying to create straight, curly or spiky hair,” says Baaklini. “But Lebanese and other Arab women want big, glossy hair, and that’s what we specialise in. It’s second nature to us, I suppose.”
Johana Brehamel, 24, from France, a stewardess for Etihad Airways, agrees. “I walk in feeling low. I walk out feeling on top of the world. I think I’m about six inches taller with my newly styled hair.”
Layal Ayoub, 29, a Lebanese marketing manager living in Abu Dhabi, says that Baaklini is sought after for his honest approach.
“For almost a decade, I’ve been asking for dark hair,” she says, pointing at her blonde locks. “But Nicolas, he says no, he knows I will not look good. He has this ability to read a woman before she even sits down in the chair. He matches personality with hairstyle, and that is an art.”
• To make at appointment at Artistic Hair, Dusit Thani, call 02 444 6876. The original salon is at the intersection of Khalifa and Liwa streets, and is open from 9am until the last person is done. Call 02 627 7660