Get to know... Elan McDowell
NEW CANAAN — Since she was a teenager in the United Kingdom, Elan McDowell has known for certain she wanted to cut hair.
She’s taken a circuitous path to New Canaan, with stops at fashion school and an apprenticeship in London, a stint as a stylist in Italy and, for many years, working at salons in her home country. Four years ago, she opened her own studio and this August, McDowell moved her eponymous salon from its original home on Burtis Avenue to its new, larger space in an alcove off of Elm Street next to New Canaan Music.
The new salon — most of it redesigned by McDowell — is spacious but cozy, with an inviting seating area near the entrance and a row of chairs where McDowell and her assistants Mendy Andresen and Kate Arrimour serve an expanding clientele.
Because of its location off of Elm Street, Studio Elan offers the advantage of seclusion for women who “don’t want to sit in a window with foils in their hair where everybody can see,” according to McDowell.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a stylist?
A: I think I’ve always wanted to be a hairdresser and I’ve been doing this since I was 17. I trained in London and in those days a very strict apprenticeship was required. So I did a three-year apprenticeship and I also attended the London College of Fashion.
So you work in the salon to learn the styling part of it and then you go to college to learn the theory and chemicals and physics of hairdressing.
Q: When did you come to America?
A: I left London after my apprenticeship and went to Italy. I worked in Bologna for a year and then back to London for a couple years. I said to myself, ‘I’ll come to America for one year.’ And I’m still here. That was 1988. I loved the people, the lifestyle. We speak the same language, but the culture is different. And I loved New England because it reminds me of England.
Q: What has the reception been like to opening your own shop?
A: It was great because I had a clientele already, so they were happy that I’d finally opened my own business and I wasn’t working for other people. They followed me from salon to salon. I’ve always worked as an artistic director in a salon or a manager in a salon and I’d helped other people grow their businesses, so it was time for me to open my own. So my regular clientele was very happy that I finally had a home base.
And then obviously people from New Canaan started to come to me as well. So we had to make this move, we had to expand.
Q: What sort of environment do you seek to create in your salon?
And, of course, we do great hair. One of the biggest compliments people give me is they feel like they’ve come to my home and then they’ve left with great hair.
Q: How does your work as an educator fit in with operating your own shop?
A: I travel around the country teaching advanced hairdressing and because of that my standards are really high. Mendy and Kate both wanted to work with me because they knew they’d get advanced training and quality education.
Yes, you can go to hair shows. Yes, there are other courses you can take to continue your education as a stylist. But my advice to anyone coming out of beauty school is try to find someone who has a true apprenticeship course to learn under. Find a mentor. To me, Mendy and Kate are my proteges.
Q: What’s the best part of cutting hair?
A: There’s a lot more to hair cutting than people think. It’s one of those things that people say, ‘It looks so easy.’ But when you really break it down, it’s math, it’s physics, it’s everything.
You have to stay up on fashion, you have to stay up with the celebrities and what they’re doing. To me, the Oscars are homework. I have to watch the Oscars because whatever happens there, the hairstyles that are worn, is going to translate down. If a big actress cuts her hair short then everybody wants to cut their hair short.
I just love what I do; my tagline is, ‘Your hair, my passion.’ And that’s truly how I feel. Hair is my canvas and nothing brings me more joy than when I complete a lady’s cut and color and she looks in the mirror and feels good about herself. You’ve given that woman confidence and just to see her feel good makes me feel so good. I’m one of those fortunate people that gets to get up and do what I love everyday.
Q: Have you ever thought of doing something other than cutting hair?
A: I have been doing hair for over 30 years now. I’ve always done hair and then through education it forced me to be a motivational speaker for people in the hair industry and an educator. So all my platforms that I’ve grown have always been based in hair.
Someone asked me the other day, ‘When will you retire? Have you thought about retiring?’ and I laughed. I haven’t even considered it. As long as I’m given the strength to do what I do, I’m going to do it. I genuinely love what I do.