You don’t have to be 5-feet-11-inches and promenading on the catwalk to have your tresses shaped and molded by one of the best hairstylists in the country. You just have to push the door of the upscale Jackson Ruiz Salon, on Sixth Street and Lamar Boulevard. Recently, owner Allen Ruiz, of Austin, was named for the second time the Hairstylist of the Year at the North American Hairstyling Awards. And this latest accolade comes in addition to other awards to his salon.
His creations adorn covers of Vanity Fair, W, Shape and American Salon, and are a staple of runway shows by Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Rodarte, Cynthia Rowley and others. He’s also global style director for Aveda in North America.
At 43 years old, Ruiz has launched an international career from Austin and is as passionate about his craft and art as when he began 20 years ago after graduating from Bowie High School. The boy from El Paso has earned top honors in national competitions while designing hair for ordinary people, celebrities, runway models and magazine covers.
We asked him about his career and had him show us what he could do to with the hair of an ordinary woman, Gissela SantaCruz, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman’s Spanish language publication ¡Ahora Si!.
Growing up with Austin
Born in El Paso and raised between L.A. and Austin, Ruiz made Austin his home for good in 1986. “I feel like we’ve grown up together,” he said of the increasingly multicultural city during the interview at his salon, amid the roar of hair dryers, soft jazz background music and chatter. Back then, when he was in high school, Austin was a sleepy little town, he said. “Every time I needed to stretch my wings out, Austin provided that room for me to grow every time.”
The third in a family of four children, he knew he wanted to be a hairdresser since he was 12 years old. “I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea there was such a thing as the North American hair awards, I didn’t know I would be working for a global brand, I just knew I wanted to be a great hairdresser,” said Ruiz.
After high school, he enrolled at Vogue Beauty College. “The only reason I went there is because I could ride the bus from Ben White to work, to my house on South First,” he said. After graduation, he went to work for Aziz Salon, where he found the first of many good mentors. Owner Beverly Cox Miller (and husband Dwayne Miller) taught Ruiz that “you should exercise both your creative and your business mind,” and Cox suggested he take some business classes.
After three or four years at Aziz, he said, he gained more experience at Bella Salon, where he rented a chair, “so I learned to run my own business,” which was good practice before opening his own salon when he was 28.
In 1998, Ruiz founded Jackson Ruiz with then-partner Beverly Jackson, a business relationship that ended a few years ago. They had two salons at the time; she took one and Ruiz took the other, he said. By the time of their separation, the Jackson Ruiz brand was well-known, so he decided to keep the name and “just make my name bigger,” on the storefront and logo, he says with a laugh.
“I work three days a week behind the chair,” he says, adding that he doesn’t foresee not having a hands-on role, because after 20 years he still loves cutting hair. “It’s a perspective you have to have when you own a salon.” When you cut hair for your clients, you’re more attached to the outcome, as opposed to on the runway where you simply do what others tell you to do, he said, “because it’s their life, how are they going to style it in their everyday life.” On the other hand, there are the national and global aspects, which are a “whole other story.”
Runways, magazines and global brand
This year, Ruiz has traveled to London, Madrid, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and very soon he’ll be in Australia. He also travels a fair deal nationally. His biggest creative inspiration is travel, he says.
He says he’s a city boy, and when he travels, he enjoys sitting at a cafe, watching people, what they’re wearing, how their hair is; it’s one of his favorite pastimes. “When you see how other people live, why they do certain things, you pick up on the nuances.”
He takes “visual notes” on his iPhone, and uses social media site Instagram, where he posts his photos of architecture, his two French pugs, his nephew, him in Iceland or Hong Kong, his late mother, landscapes, details, basically anything that catches his eye.
He is able to focus on his creativity and continue to develop his style thanks to good managers at his salon, he readily admits. This has allowed him to have a national and international presence and to keep broadening his vision.
“Think big, dream big,” he advises young people and his hairdressers at the shop, “because you’re going to do all those things you want to do, so just dream bigger.”
As much as he travels, when he comes home to Austin, “I have to have Mexican food,” he shares. When he travels, although he enjoys different food, some of the finds are either “bland, or really out there, or just weird,” so to take care of the craving for something familiar, he goes to Polvo’s for their Casa Enchiladas with avocado and cabbage on top.
In addition to the food, he appreciates many things about his Latino heritage, “I love being Latino, I don’t shy away from it, from my last name, my cultural background.” And one of the key aspects of the culture that he truly appreciates is the importance of family.
He enjoys having Sunday brunch with his extended family, when he finds himself in town. While some people might think of family gatherings as obligations, for him it’s more “‘I need you in my life.’ ” “We’re very family-oriented, you can’t get away from that.” And to him it’s key that his nephews understand the value of family, playfully adding, “I don’t care if you don’t speak Spanish, but you better come see your Uncle Allen.”
And although he spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother and learned some Spanish, Ruiz regrets not speaking the language better. He gets by in Spanish, but admits “I say I speak housekeeper’s Spanish … but I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a business deal in Spanish at all.” And while he’s proud to be Latino, “I think of myself as a person first … it’s important that you see me for who I am, not my ethnic background,” he reflects.
Although Ruiz estimates that about 40 percent of his clientele are Latino, it really is a mix; “hair is hair,” he says.
“Austin to me is a lot like a mini New York,” he says referring to the changing fabric of Austin. “We have to learn to understand how to manipulate hair of each of our guests the best way we know how,” so he emphasizes to his team that they have to know how to work with curly hair, straight, coarse, black hair, not just one type of hair: “We do everything.”
“As we grow as a society that’s more multicultural, you’re not going to have to work with just one type of hair,” he says.
When asked if he could work on any head, who would it be and what would he do differently, he first relates a dream in which he changed the late governor Ann Richard’s do; then he pauses, considering. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, of course! “The idea of changing someone whose hair is so iconic, that’d be fun to do.” Part of his magic is seeing someone differently, and if the client embraces that new image, “it’s the coolest feeling,” he says, glowing.
It’s a feeling he’s known throughout his career, “it’s about changing perspective, the way you look at everything.” And while he’s certain he’ll never change his short-cropped hairstyle, he enjoys creating something exciting for his guests, as he calls his customers.
Still in the works are plans for creating a foundation, as he strongly believes in giving back to the community. For many years he and his salon sponsored cut-a-thons to benefit Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, and then took a break for a couple of years.
“I want to do something Livestrong, you know, big … it has to resonate in your heart, then it’s not work, it’s just what you do, it’s part of ‘I exist.’”
To see more of his hairstyles and coifs, check out www.bit.ly/1aTwqkm and other sites on the Internet, where he says “Creativity is something one can develop.”
This international hair artist has gotten this far through business savvy, dedication to his craft and dreaming big.