Hair is everything. Fleabag knew it, Jennifer Aniston built her early career on it and Chris Rock got slapped for making a joke about it.
As Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote in her hit show: “We wish it wasn’t, so we could actually think about something else occasionally. But it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day.”
Over the last few decades, however, few among us spent everything on it. In the 1950s and 60s, at-home hairdryers were large, unwieldy machines that sat over the head. In the 1970s and 80s, a culture of heavy-duty styling led to women perming their hair at home, or even ironing it, protected by a tea towel on top.
Buying appliances worth three figures wasn’t an option – but that was before the business of hair styling exploded. Britain’s hair styling tools market, which was worth £27.2bn in 2018, is set to grow by almost 5 per cent from 2020 to 2025.
It comes on the back of booming spending from consumers, including men who have turned to the market in recent years. Hairstyling has even become a trend on TikTok among millennials and Gen Z groups, further driving the sales of tools from the likes of Dyson, Panasonic and ghd.
In this era, many don’t think twice of the large price tags these brands command, even in the face of the cost-of-living crisis sweeping across the UK. A new hairdryer called the Zuvi Halo launched on Sunday, costing £329. It follows the launch of the Dyson Supersonic in 2016, which comes at a price of £330, and its Airwrap two years later, at £450.
Amid rave reviews for the latest appliance, few have baulked at the price. Today, women ask for hairdryers as birthday presents or – in a move that would horrify Carrie Bradshaw – treat themselves to a new hair appliance over a pair of expensive heels. High-end gyms and hotels are judged by how luxurious their hairdryers are – another form of advertising – in addition to stocking verbena-scented body washes and fluffy towels. But is it all hot air?
The boom began around the millennium, when straighteners emerged as the gateway drug for pricy at-home appliances. ghd was the one brand that became associated with leaving the house looking as though you had made a trip to the salon, transforming it into a household name.
“Ten years ago, before ghd existed, we brought out the UK’s first ever professional straightening iron,” says Luke Hersheson, celebrity hair stylist and chief executive of Hershesons hairdresser chain. “At the time, there was a market for professionals and a market for consumers, and the two things were completely different. We found a great professional product in Italy, brought it to the UK, and it was such an insane success, we couldn’t keep up.
“Shortly after, ghd came along, and that of course was a roaring success globally. I think what it did was put the power of getting good hair into people’s hands.”
Twenty years on, the designer straightener has been replaced by the designer hairdryer – but whereas before it was teenagers leading the trend, now it is midlife women.
Hence the fuss being made in middle-class circles over the Zuvi Halo. While pricy, it aims to be revolutionary by using light to dry hair rather than heat. When our hair dries naturally, the inner tube of each strand stays hydrated; when we blast it with hot air, it dries all the way through and can feel and look unhealthy.
The brainchild of a Chinese tech start-up based in Shenzhen, Zuvi’s light technology keeps the inside damp, resulting, it claims, in shinier, stronger hair.
It was James Dyson who broke the mould of the designer hairdryer cult. I visited the Dyson factory in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, in 2016, a month after its Supersonic was released. At the time, consumers were fascinated by the new product, mostly because the cost felt absurd – you could fly to Thailand for £300, so why use that money to buy something you already owned?
Yet Dyson was already an expert at taking everyday appliances and making them sleek, desirable – and 10 times more expensive than any competitor. Price, the founder explained to me in his glass walled-office, becomes a lot less important once we are emotionally attached to our products.
The Dyson centre made hair drying look like rocket science: there were padded chambers to test the sound frequency of the tiny motors, and mechanical claws running their fingers through mannequins’ wigs. It took 100 engineers £50m, four years and 1,625km of human hair to design the Supersonic, which was marketed as being unusually quiet and twice as fast as any rival, with “intelligent heat control” to keep hair healthy.
Sales were lacklustre at first, but picked up steadily once Dyson began partnering with hair stylists who worked the fashion week circuit and who had thousands of followers on Instagram. Around the same time, Claridge’s became the first hotel in Britain to replace all of its hairdryers with Dyson machines. By the end of the year, the Supersonic was more than just a way to dry hair: it was a status symbol.
Known to work for women with difficult hair, the new technology also nabbed many customers who would otherwise pop into a salon for a quick blowdry.
“There has been a decline in hair salons, even prior to the pandemic, something which we can attribute in part to the standard of ‘at home’ styling products,” says Victoria Brownlie, chief policy officer at the British Beauty Council. “Consumers can now achieve salon-standard bouncy blowdries, flawless curls or sleek styles at home.”
Well, some of them can. Reviews for Dyson have been mixed: one colleague said she didn’t think it was worth twice the price of her old ghd dryer and that she couldn’t use it in Asia despite it being billed as portable; my mother’s broke twice in six months. I wash my troublesome hair every day: I justified buying one because the cost per use was so low (there’s nothing like a bit of maths to explain away an expensive purchase).
While it is a lot faster and leaves my hair sleek, it’s not much quieter than a standard hairdryer. Equally, it made me realise that even Dyson’s brilliant engineers couldn’t stop my hair from going full Hermione Granger at the first sniff of rain.
On to the Zuvi Halo, which I was impressed with. It is remarkably light and easy to handle and my hair felt smoother and more malleable, with its natural wave intact but thankfully none of its natural frizz – the sort of hair I imagine having on holiday but which I never actually achieve.
Still, I probably wouldn’t buy one, given that I already own a Dyson. Although a wise woman once told me that a great haircut was worth 20 new dresses – and the older I get, the more I agree with her.
I know a hairdryer isn’t exactly the same thing, but if, like Fleabag and me, you easily fall into a pit of hair despair, then these new designs might just be worth the painful price tag.
Additional reporting by Laura Onita
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