Ever since she was a child, Patty Wolfe has been in love with hair. So it was perhaps destiny that she’d make her adoration for flowing tresses a career, and become a hair dresser. Wolfe has been flourishing in that role for the past 29 years, most of which she’s spent at Renate’s Hair Designers, where she’s the salon manager. (TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN)
I was completely unsure as to where to start this interview until a moment ago, when you said, ‘I’ve always loved hair. When I was little, I used to put towels on my head and swing them around!’ How young were you when you did that?
When was ‘Sonny and Cher’ on TV? That would be in the ’60s! So I would have been five or six years old. I never, ever cut my Barbie’s hair because I’ve just always loved long hair —I’ve never been able to grow my own, so I guess that’s why I like playing with everybody else’s long hair. I just think it’s so pretty and feminine and playful — it’s full of self-expression.
Did you always want to do this? Or did you entertain other notions?
I thought of different things — photography, writing — I thought I would go on to university. And then I found myself graduating high school without having given a lot of thought to the next year.
And my mother, who is a very traditional woman, suggested very typical women’s careers — she thought I should either be a hair dresser or a nurse. Well, I don’t do body fluids, so here I am!
But your enjoyment has never flagged, has it? Never any regrets? This has been fun for you, good for you, right from the get-go?
Absolutely. The trend is usually that people will move around and change careers throughout their lifetimes, which is wonderful — it’s wonderful that people keep expanding. But I find that in this career, the sky is the limit. There’s never been a moot time, there’s never been a down time — you’re constantly learning, refreshing.
Even styles, as we see them be revisited, are slightly different. Right now we’re getting back into wedge cuts. Well, I did those in the late ’80s. So there’s a comfort zone in, ‘OK — great — I’ve done this. I know how to do it, I don’t have to relearn it.’
But I do, however, have to give it a modern flare so that I don’t date and age the women who are wearing these cuts. I have to keep them up to date.
So you are never without challenge because you are serving other people. And if you’ve ever had a bad haircut, you know that there’s happiness in my hands, and I can make it or break it for people! So there’s a lot of pressure just to keep going forward, and learning, and never stagnating.
It’s just been an incredible career of being pushed and challenged in every positive way.
You continue to take courses and seminars, I’m assuming, because just like technology — technology is changing, the technology involved in the beauty industry is also evolving, right?
Right. And that’s where a couple of things come to mind. One of the things that I’ve noticed change in our industry is in our equipment — it’s ergonomically designed. We are learning to take care of ourselves, of our bodies, so that we can stay in this career longer. And we do always have hair shows, hair classes — something to attend that will either technically teach us or inspire us to fall in love with our profession all over again.
And working with a team — I find that when I work with a strong team, as we have here with Suzanne, Kyla, Danielle, and Delaney, and Renate as motivator and leader — we’re always learning and feeding off of each other. We’re inspiring each other — we constantly teach each other. This is my 29th year in the industry, and as much as I have to offer our apprentices who come in, they also have that much more to give back to me, because they keep me young and fresh in my ideas — they challenge me to step out of my comfort zone. So to work in such a well-established team, you can’t help but to learn and go forward.
I know that you’re a person of faith, and really, it’s good advice for any of us to be more focused on what happens on the inside rather than what happens on the outside. But I’m wondering how you equate worrying about the physical self as the focus of your career, as compared to what’s in our heads and our hearts. Are we vain creatures by nature? Do we feel better when we look good on the outside?
I think so. We’re a package, both inside and out. And I do believe that when we feel good about our outer appearance, it does strengthen us inside — it gives us that confidence boost. If you’re going for a job interview, you’re going to dress the part. If you want to meet a special someone, then you adorn yourself to attract the opposite sex. So we’re a complete package. And the outside complements the inside, as the inside complements the outside. We can’t feel good about how we look unless we feel good about how we feel about ourselves. Our outer adornment is the icing on the cake. It is our form of self-expression — it shows the world a little bit about who we are, as much as we want them to see.
And I find it fascinating how something in one culture is beautiful, but not necessarily to another culture. Or they just have different ideas of what beauty is. So it’s a wonderful way of self-expression that gives us that boost of confidence when we need it. Because we all do succumb to societal pressures of what our society deems beautiful. But having said that, I think we need to embrace our own individuality and be happy with who we are, and not try to look like the next person. We have to enhance our own beauty, because we all have our own beauty.
Is there an inherent pressure to be beautiful when you’re in the so-called beauty business?
I definitely think we have to sell ourselves, because we know that people are looking at us and wondering, ‘OK — she’s got great hair so obviously she can do great hair.’ I have to say, though, there are times when I’m a month behind getting my hair cut or coloured because we’re so busy that I can’t even get in! And I just kind of muck through.
But getting back to the confidence that it gives us when we feel good about how we look: I used to tell this story to my young staff when I was teaching them about appearance and looking professional. Years back, I had someone come in who really felt like she needed a makeover, and it was a day when I hadn’t put a lot of effort into my own appearance. And it was awkward. I really felt that I couldn’t serve her because we looked, actually, like she should be the one telling me, because she came in already looking stunning. And it taught me a lesson: You’ve always got to be on your A-game.
Do you have any advice for people who are coming into the salon?
When you’re going for a consult with a hairdresser, use pictures. Back when I first started — it was in the mid-’80s, the time of the mullet — I had a young woman come into my chair and she asked for her hair to be cut over her ears. So I cut her hair, exposing her ears — I cut it over, meaning around, her ears. But she meant leave her hair long so it covered overtop of her ears. So she felt horrible, I felt horrible, and it just taught me such a key lesson in communication. Use pictures. Because you can use the same words but be picturing two different things in your heads.
I’m not asking for any tales out of school here, but do people tend to share a lot of intimate stories with you when they’re in the chair?
They do. One of the most amazing things about this profession is the connections and the friendships. I’ve got some good girlfriends outside of work, but my entire social network is based in my chair. If you’ve ever felt like you had a really good connection with your hairdresser and she’s really someone special, chances are she would have felt the same way about you. Because it is that human connection. I have laughed with people, I have cried with people, we have celebrated, we have grieved. I think maybe we’re a safe pair of ears to talk to because where is it going to go? It’s not going to go any further than your chair. And I think it’s such a beautiful thing to be able to be such a part of people’s lives. You just can’t help but to be touched and moved by it.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 28, 2012