September/October  2007 



Paul Tortoriello
by Annette Cunningham

“When the hair is starved, the cuticle opens to find a source of nourishment. That explains why some hair seems dry and lifeless.”

Paul Tortoriello knows hair like a scientist and handles it like a great sculptor.  Add to that the insight of a compassionate psychologist and you’ll find three of many reasons he has been voted “Best Stylist in Chicago” for the last four years in an online consumer poll conducted by one of the city’s most prestigious magazines for professional women.

It all started when he did the stylist equivalent of running away from home to join the circus. In his case, it was the home of his grandparents. He had begun to read the credits at the end of old movies where he discovered that is was someone named Sydney Guilaroff who was responsible to the luxurious hairstyles of beauties from Lana Turner to Gene Tierney and Marilyn Monroe.  In the teenager’s mind, a question had started to form.  Could you achieve the luxurious look of the distinctive hair “dos” he saw on the screen, by cutting?  The question developed into a sort of crusade.  And ultimately, as the head of training handpicked by Vidal Sassoon to bring his “look” and philosophy to the United States, he led the movement to transform his profession from the invention of hairdos to the art of the liberating and luxurious hair cuts.

“Tortoriello accepted his invitation to go to London for three years; the result was that he became Sassoon’s creative director whose vision would shape the cuts that changed the way young American women looked, and how they felt about their hair and themselves.”

Meanwhile the semi-runaway found a first job in a suburban “Beauty Salon” in Chicago with a mission was to do cuts, not “dos.” His curiosity later took him downtown to “The Harem,” a polar opposite of the suburban salon and a 24-hour studio that catered to showgirls.

Tortoriello’s next move was to the salon of makeup artist Syd Simon where there were a dozen chairs for stylists.  By then he had bid a permanent farewell to hairdryers.  The hairbrush became the critical tool of his artistry and it was the pursuit of the famous Denman brush, made in Northern Ireland, which took him to New York and to the temple of structural cutting and its high priest, Vidal Sassoon.

When Sassoon met the young stylist from Chicago in 1971 he was on the brink of growth in the United States.  His philosophy was to hire local talent and then train them in the Sassoon approach. Tortoriello accepted his invitation to go to London for three years; the result was that he became Sassoon’s creative director whose vision would shape the cuts that changed the way young American women looked, and how they felt about their hair and themselves.

When asked how he recognized talent in an aspiring stylists, he instantly responded, “First I look to see that the person is not afraid of hair, observe how freely he or she moves and the level of manual dexterity (it helps to be ambidextrous.)”  He demonstrated by mimicking a “stand off” in which the stylist timidly, gingerly touches the hair, strand by strand as if it might explode at any moment. With a knowing laugh he then illustrated the contrast as he buried his hand in my hair; moved it and moved with it, knowing he’d find there the answer of what that hair would need to release its hidden potential.

“Feel this,” he said, inviting me to run my finger up and down a strand of my own hair.  “Move your fingers down from the scalp and notice the smoothness.” Then he said to change direction and become aware that it gave the sensation of scales. “What you’re feeling is the hair’s cuticle, the outer surface, he added. “Inside each strand of hair is the cortex. In healthy hair the cuticle is closed over the cortex, protecting its inner source of nourishment. When the hair is starved, the cuticle opens to find a source of nourishment. That explains why some hair seems dry and lifeless.”

Tortoriello noted that in general that a flat cell is characteristic of African people’s hair. Because it is strongest only at the center, the stylist needs to be careful not to break the weaker outer edges of that flat cell. The hair wants to be curly to protect itself so straightening it can inflict a lot of damage. That round cell typifies Asian hair, he explained. “It’s the strongest and straightest.”  The oval cell is typical of European hair.  It is not perfectly straight, but it tends to have body, a slight waviness.  “In many ways it’s the most adaptable to a variety of styles and often looks best but in some variation of the classic bob,” he explained.

“You want to work hair like a sculptor” he says. That can range from shaping African hair with clippers to create a topiary effect you were seeing when “Afro” styles were popular.  “At its best styling involves the sculptor collaborating with the painter.”

One consideration is proportion between the hair and the rest of the body. “Bigger hair will work in certain cases,” he explained with a smile, “you know, the Dolly Parton effect.” He noted that long, heavy hair narrows the field of vision and the way you look at the person’s face. And you don’t let the hair and the shoulders meet unless your goal is to “shorten” a long neck. In the case of someone whose neck is already short, it has the effect of eliminating the neck altogether.

When he meets a new client, the hair choices they’ve made speak volumes about the person.  If the individual has long bangs and hair that drapes the face, you can make a good guess that the person is shy or self-conscious.  The shaved head can signal someone who might easily be described as “in your face.”

But, Tortoriello added, you don’t want to confront the person with observations like that. It’s much wiser and more productive he says to use “trigger words.”  If you want to replace a style that is highly structured or overly “done” and that has an aging effect, better to say that a new style would be youthful. Or to tell that shy individual hiding behind her hair that the cut you’re suggesting will be understated but will show off her great eyes, or cheekbones,

As to the search for a stylist, Paul suggests that when you see someone whose hair is structurally like yours and whose style you admire you should ask the name of his or her stylist.  “There’s nothing more powerful than word of mouth to build a clientele,” he observes.

At its best, the client-stylist relationship should be a partnership and lead to growth on both sides. The client will be wise to listen to the suggestion of a trusted stylist and let both collaborate in discovering new looks and variations on familiar styles. “Shorter” is the general trend he predicts for the near future.  And when asked what high profile figure he thinks has “great hair” he names Reese Witherspoon.

The Sassoon era ended when Tortoriello opted to stay in Chicago with his growing family of young children instead of moving to New York. At that point, he began a long period of being one of the two marquee names at a chic salon on Chicago’s Near North side. As the salon grew, he was spending what he considered a disproportionate amount of time on managerial issues.  So now he rents a chair in the Elizabeth Adam salon in Chicago’s Water Tower Place and spends all his time doing what he most loves to do.  For him the rewards include “instant gratification and the joy of knowing that his clients feel better because they look better.”

The “Least” You Can Do: Practical Tips

When asked what his clients need to do between visits to him, he answers, “The objective is to insure that they need to do the very least.” 

For starters, kiss the rollers goodbye. The only tools you should need are a round brush and a blow dryer. Because animal bristle has the same cuticle as your own hair, it may cause some irritation as the two sets of “scales” intersect.

When selecting products learn to read the label and don’t make the mistake of believing that higher price means better quality.  Check shampoo for the ingredient “panthenol.” The higher up the list the better. It’s a protein agent that adds body.  Most of the rest is detergent and fragrance.  Salt may sometimes appear. It’s used as a thickener that may expand the hair. Paul Mitchell Awapuhi Shampoo and Kiehl’s Stylist Series Cream with Silk Groom are two he respects.

He sometimes uses a finishing touch of Rusk Being Gutsy mixed with Biolage Gel and his own round brush to “lock in” the volume achieved in the cut.




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