Congressional hair salon finds its roots

Over August recess, the salon’s new and veteran stylists huddled in a corner of the Cannon House Office Building with a representative from Goldwell hair products, learning about a tool that could take Congress’s hair by storm.

The “Colormat,” used to apply color to hair, has a long, cylindrical shape, reminiscent of the oversized pencils given as prizes at county fairs.

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“I could probably be in a house of nuns and they’d still think this was a dirty toy,” the representative for the company, Katie Woolridge, joked as the room filled with laughter.

The joke lent the class a moment of lighthearted fun in what was otherwise a two-hour intensive seminar on everything from how pH levels affect hair cuticles to customer-relations tips like remembering if a client’s dog is sick.

Vincent Marvaso won the contract for Congress’s salon in June, and stylist education like the course with the Colormat is just one of the changes he is bringing with him in his effort to revamp the decades-old salon and make it a Capitol Hill destination once again.

Marvaso, who previously managed the salon in the 1980s, renamed it the Tides of Capitol Hill to draw from his belief that, by keeping his staff constantly educated, they can stay abreast of changing tides.

“In this industry, our profession changes as quickly as computers, and if you don’t stay up on it, you’re left behind,” said Marvaso, who, with his short-cropped hair, black pants and black polo shirt, looked the part of an artist.

“Staying abreast of the changing tide requires being open to change. It’s our service to the clients,” he said, adding that Capitol staffers are going to be pleasantly surprised by the new salon’s approach because “they’re not used to this level of professionalism and the quality of our craftsmanship.”

All Tides employees have signed contracts committing them to attend continuing educational classes every two months for the first year of their employment, and then every three months after that.

“There’re no other salons on the outside that have the cornerstone of Tides’s continuing education,” Marvaso said.

Marvaso, who beat the previous operator, Gino Morena, for the Chief Administrative Office’s three-year contract, controls the salon’s profits and has to pay the House $1,700 in monthly rent.

A career salon manager, Marvaso shut down his own salon of the same name in Alexandria, Va., to devote himself to making Cannon Room 139 the focal point of Capitol life that it was back in the 1970s and ’80s.

Linda Collins was the receptionist from 1983 to 1986 and again from 1991 to 1995. She is now the new manager and remembers the shop in its heyday.

“We were so busy, just crazy busy,” she said of the 1980s. “And then to see it in the past years, how could someone let this happen? Nobody was coming in, and no one knew about it.

“So what sealed the deal for me [to return to the salon] was to be able to experience the rise from the ashes again and make it be something awesome, and crazy busy again,” she said.

In addition to Collins, there are three other veteran Cannon salon employees either returning or continuing to work under Marvaso. Each of them has a theory on why the salon’s business waned in recent years — from improper and disrespectful internal management to a hemorrhaging of employees who desired to make a name for themselves elsewhere. But they all agree on one thing: Business in recent years was not good.

“A lot of people thought it wasn’t here anymore. They thought it had closed down,” said Cynthia Powell, a stylist at the salon from 1986 to 1999. She returned full-time last August.

A representative for Morena did not return requests for a comment by press time.

Politics has inevitably played into the salon’s history. When the Republicans swept to power in the 1994 elections, one of the party’s first internal maneuvers in the House was to privatize the salon, saying it would save it money.

At that time, the beauty shop was set to post a $5,400 net loss, and it faced a $94,000 debt. But when the salon went private, business began to drop.

“I don’t know if the change was in Democrats to the Republicans, but when the Democrats were in control, everyone was coming [to get their hair and nails done],” one longtime employee said.

Marvaso and some of the 13 other employees resigned when the salon went private. For a period of time, many wondered whether the salon would endure the losses.

Now everyone on Marvaso’s staff is convinced that the salon is destined for greatness once again. And though Tides is not planning to advertise outside of the Capitol Hill area, Marvaso said he is trying to draw in business from the Senate side, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol Police.

Collins thinks the increase in clientele will come effortlessly.

“So many of the women who come, for whatever reason, they have an emotional investment in seeing our success, and I really think that once they see the change and experience how it is, that the word-of-mouth will quadruple because they’ve seen what it used to be and then what happened to it,” she said.

By incorporating Goldwell’s product, some might say they’re on the right path. The Four Seasons Hotel’s George salon, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been a client for years, uses the same products.

And though Tides launches its new extended hours this week — from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. — Marvaso is even more excited about what’s in store next month.

In the middle of October, the salon is planning to close for four weeks to tear down walls, gut the light fixtures and pull up the ancient black-and-white tiling, opting instead for a recycled wood floor (in keeping with Pelosi’s Green the Capitol initiative) or a sanded and stained concrete floor with oriental carpets spread throughout.

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Manned with 16 stylists (recruited from as far away as California, Kansas, New York and London) who will operate on morning and afternoon shifts, Tides will offer eight hair stations, two pedicure and two manicure stations, an area for facials and in-chair massages.

Design cuts and hair stylings cost $45 for women and $25 for men; a hair shampoo and blow-dry costs $25; a permanent hair coloring goes for $65; and an eyebrow and eyelash tinting runs $20.

Hair-salon gossip, on the other hand, is usually free, but Marvaso is trying to guard against that practice.

“What I try to convey to staff is that we’re all going to become friends with our clients but … I don’t want gossip, I don’t want who you dated last night, I want the conversation to be on a professional level,” he said.

“We’re all going to have conversations with them about things, but it’s our duty and our professionalism to be able to lead that conversation so the person sitting next to you is not offended,” Marvaso said.

There might be one gossip item, though, to which Marvaso would not object: Tides of Capitol Hill is back and primed for success.