Levin hairstylist Sidney Gilroy is still zhushing hair and paying taxes. At 85 years old, she could very well be the most senior practising hairdresser in New Zealand. Horowhenua Chronicle reporter
sat down in the chair to learn more.
Sidney Gilroy first felt the snip of her scissors slicing through a tuft or hair when she was just 11 years old. Since then she has made countless cuts, heard a million whispers and owned a string of salons.
Styles have come and gone, but her skills are as much in demand today as they were in the swinging 60s when she first opened her very first salon in Levin.
"As soon as I get going with my scissors and chatting to people I feel 25 years old again," she said.
"It's my passion. I still enjoy making people look amazing. I love doing restyle work and making people look and feel great."
Her own personal journey was in tandem with the fashion and styles changes of iconic eras. Mrs Gilroy was right there with a front row seat in the 1960s, the 1970s, and ... (what were we thinking) ... the 1980s.
Hair salons were "quite old-fashioned" when Gilroy moved to Levin in 1963. She saw an opportunity to introduce brand new hair styles that were going by such names as Mop Top, the Beehive and the Flipped Bob.
It was a revolutionary time, man. People were beginning to express themselves with fashion and culture experimentation, and a big part of that was hair.
Gilroy even gave her own name to styles that had found favour with clients - feather cut, short shag, long shag, tulip - and crafted cut-out albums with photos that kept up with ever-evolving international trends.
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A newspaper article at the time quoted her as saying "after being in Levin for a short time ... I found there was a desperate need for up to date styling and advanced techniques of colouring, cold waving and style cutting".
"It was badly needed. There were smelly perms being done, where you had to oil your hair for two weeks after," she said.
"And it was all just starting to happen ... social outings ... balls ... a lot of people were starting to have their hair done every week.
"We always had so much fun."
Hair product companies began sending stylists out from Germany and England to her salon, now recognised as one of the best in the country. It was happening thing.
Gilroy began to take on staff - she would end up training 100 young apprentices - and right from the start they were all instilled on how to behave.
"And I always treated my staff as I would want to be treated, and never asked them to do anything I wouldn't do myself."
Clients were always shown a style book and time was taken to have an in-depth conversation prior to any cutting, to avoid confusion and help ensure a customer got exactly what they wanted.
"For example, if we felt it wouldn't suit their face or was the wrong length ... that early consultation was very important," she said.
Gilroy created a customer card system where preferences and interests were noted down to help build good rapport, and she insisted that staff not talk about themselves all the time, preferring that they ask clients how they were.
"It is strange though. There were some people that were quite private and would possibly not mix with others very often, but they would offload once they sat down in the chair. You learn to listen and sympathise, and empathise."
Mrs Gilroy had a good teacher herself, though. Her mother Joyce Jacobs was once a leading stylist in Christchurch, demonstrating and also judging the latest fashion of the time.
In fact, in 1958, Mrs Jacob hit the headlines with a colouring demonstration using "Bermuda blue, Caribbean pink, emerald green with gold tips and midnight black tipped with gold and silver ..."
Newspaper headlines the next day told how it stopped traffic and drew the attention of police, who were called to clear the crowd.
Mrs Gilroy grew up watching her mother and started cutting at age 11, but didn't begin formal training until she was 15, which back then meant just watching senior stylists, in the absence of any formal industry training.
Later on, recognising that gap in the industry, Gilroy was instrumental in setting up apprenticeship training programmes in the 1960s, forming a committee with the support of other hairdressers from around New Zealand.
They published a textbook and created a course with industry standards. She became Manawatū president of the New Zealand Hairdressing Association, and New Zealand president of Intercouiffure, a worldwide register of elite hairdressers.
In the 1980s she worked with the Government to establish pre-hairdressing courses for at-risk youth, taking on unemployed young women wanting to try hairdressing, with one young girl eventually owning her own salon.
That must have been rewarding for Gilroy, as in her early days, with young children, she started off her business from scratch from their home in Queenwood Rd.
Her late husband Alec, an accountant, did the books. He also trained up in hair-tinting and did all the shampooing, while also looking after their two preschool children, Blair and Sally.
"It was very revolutionary at the time," she said.
"We got too busy. Every night, every weekend, so we started another salon in Weraroa, renovating an old haberdashery shop."
In the early 1970s, the couple were approached by developers of a major shopping complex - Levin Mall - to open a salon. They did. Gilroy said it was state of the art and "one of the best in New Zealand" with 10 hairdressers on staff.
Three of those on staff were young men who she said all went on to open their own salons.
While Gilroy had trained almost 100 apprentices, as many didn't want to leave after they had graduated, she found it easier to open another salon and keep them on.
At one stage she had five salons operating, three in Levin, one in Foxton and one in Ōtaki. There was 25 staff on the books at that time.
"It was so vibrant. We always had so much fun, going to hair shows and competitions. There was always something happening," she said.
In 1983 her son Blair, who had trained in Palmerston North, was ready to keep the dynasty going and joined the family firm.
Blair Gilroy branched out on his own in the Regent Court in the 1980s with a salon called Rivarge, and he is still cutting and styling hair in Levin today, at eNVY.
Over the course of his career he had won six national hairdressing titles, judged at national level, and travelled internationally representing New Zealand in overseas hairdressing events.
It became a real family affair in the early 90s when Blair took over the training the apprentices, her son-in-law Richard Harrow took care of the wages, and her daughter Sally looked after the accounts.
A source of pride for Mrs Gilroy was the fundraising events she has been involved in. One event, called Hair Happening at the Oxford Hotel, raised enough money to send a child with special needs and their family to Disneyland.
They were part of a Dance Extravaganza that helped a young dancer attend the World Ballroom Championships in Europe, and did "cutathons" at school fairs.
When Mrs Gilroy was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1998, she scaled down her operation. Doctors had told her to call it a day.
"It was very serious at the time. I was told to give up. I had a lot of ex-staff drop what they were doing to keep the salon going for me," she said.
Three months later she was back cutting hair and held on to a boutique little salon called Outer Limitz.
"It was quiet - not all the razzle dazzle of the others," she said.
But even when Sidney Gilroy sold her last salon in 2005, customers kept calling for cuts.
"I left thinking it was all over. When my dear old regular clients wanted me to do their hair for them - a number of them date back to that first salon in Weraroa 50 years ago - I knew I couldn't give it away," she said.
So in 2006, she set up again, this time at the Sommerset Resthome in Liverpool St, operating as Gilroys Hair Stylists, with her book balanced at the end of every financial year.
"I still pay the taxman," she said.
"I can't operate as fast as I used to, but I have at least 50 people that come to me regularly ... I keep it simple now though, and take my time.
"I feel privileged that I can still do a lovely job and as long as my health keeps up this is what I will be doing.
"I love hair."