It wasn't just the gilded fabrics and sumptuous fur that looked opulent on fall runways: It was the hair. Endless waves at Rochas, expansive '40s styles at Bottega Veneta and Marc by Marc Jacobs, long Daenerys Targaryen plaits at Valentino and Rodarte—big, beautiful, fairy-tale hair is having a moment.
"We always want volume," L.A.-based hair extensions specialist Mahri Martens Tomas says matter-of-factly. "Even with the sleeker styles on the runways, there's a lot of hair there. Braids and ponytails are substantial, because thick hair is what's desirable. In real life, nearly every girl wants more hair." For Martens Tomas, who deals in gorgeous, is-she-really-born-with-it hair (answer: no), fall's big moment is just another day at the office.
Said office is tucked inside the Beverly Hills digs of plastic surgeon Randal Haworth, where Martens Tomas does her hush-hush work augmenting high-profile manes in the entertainment industry. But just as often she's jetting off to somewhere in Europe or an idling yacht with $25,000 worth of the most exquisite hair stashed in a Prada tote. Her own lifelong hair envy, due to what she describes as genetically thin, fragile strands, spurred her to create what she couldn't find on the market: custom, handmade luxury extensions.
For the sparse of lock, it's hard to deny the appeal. Thick, shiny hair is a marker of youth and vitality. It makes a person look healthy, like great skin or white teeth. Extensions can offer an anti-aging boost much like Botox or glossy new veneers. "When an actress or singer is getting toward 40 and competing with the 20-year-olds, whether she's supplementing due to age or styling stress, she doesn't want anyone to know, because she doesn't want to appear older," says Martens Tomas. Behind-the-scenes people all know about it, just not the general public."
That's because well-done extensions fly under the radar like good cosmetic work, while obvious fakes—the type that pair up with thick, square-tipped French manis—give extensions a bad name. "We've all seen the junky jobs out there," says Martens Tomas. "The problem is that there's not a lot of real, high-quality hair on the market, and there are a lot of dirty little secrets." A few of them: Even if you choose real hair, what you're getting is usually mass-produced and highly processed (while most widely available, and the cheapest, is from Asia); the majority of the bonds that adhere extensions to your existing hair are taken off with a solvent—often acetone—that will strip your hair to breaking point over time; and many popular brands certify their "pros" after just a weekend training seminar.
But with increasing demand for a better product, the idea of extensions as status symbol is trending. Balmain (yes, the French fashion house) has a line of high-end extensions that recently reached salons in the U.K. and the States. And oddly enough, extensions have joined the ranks of luxury items that are hawked on the black market (Rolex watches, Louis Vuitton bags). Thefts have been reported from Chicago to Philadelphia to Langley, B.C., with thieves hitting beauty supply stores and stealing up to $250,000 worth of hair at a time.
Martens Tomas's brand of luxury is in a class by itself. For her bespoke creations, she sources the rarest virgin hair from remote villages in northern Finland and Russia, and stores a selection in felt-lined drawers, sorted by color, like Loro Piana cashmere sweaters. Platinum to honey shades nestle in one drawer, auburn to espresso in the next. Since she doesn't dye the hair, a blend of six different shades is often required to give the client a perfect match.
"It has taken years to get to the collectors I use today and I never tell anyone my sources," Martens Tomas says. My assistant doesn't even know." She labored for years with a chemist over her proprietary thermal bond. "I wanted something non-damaging that would adhere hair to hair," she says of the formula she refuses to patent lest someone discover a way to reproduce it. This commitment to secrecy extends to her clients: Martens Tomas considers herself bound by the same confidentiality clause as a surgeon.
Martens Tomas tells the story of one (unnamed) client, a beautiful blond whose hair was reduced to two-inch tufts in some spots by cheap extensions removed with industrial strength solvent. "Someone passed her my name and she flew me to her husband's yacht in the Atlantic," she says. We ate, drank fine wine and cruised the coast, and the next day I gave her a mane of 44-inch, smooth-as-glass platinum from the Ukraine. Show-stopper hair." Of course, not everyone wants to look that dramatic, so Martens Tomas always customizes her work according to lifestyle: "If you're a wash-and-wear type who likes pulling your hair into a pony, I make sure the look is all-natural."
The price for such head-turning results: $10,000 and up. Clients pay $5,000 for the first ounce of hair and $4,000 per ounce thereafter, and most require at least two ounces. With quarterly maintenance, the average annual tab rings in between $50,000 and $75,000—enough to buy a new Jag every year. Martens Tomas customized clip-ins, designed to help you change your style "like you would your dress or shoes," are slightly more affordable.
"Having great hair is addictive," she says. Her own mane, embellished with $17,000 worth of buoyant chestnut waves, acts as a calling card. It also helps her pass for far younger than her 63 years, which is what many of her clients are paying for—a subtle rewinding of the clock. "I call my extensions Microtresses® because they're so small. You could be standing next to your sister, and she wouldn't know."
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