Josef's 2014 Annual Fashion Awards: Behind the Scenes
A missive in which I republish a story I wrote about family and hair.
I hadn’t intended on doing a republish so soon, but last week my Great Uncle Joe passed at 97. My Great Grandma Mary’s youngest brother. He was something of a legend in the Fargo-Moorhead area and to all who knew him. This piece isn’t about him specifically, but it is evidence of his legacy. You can find a nice obituary at InForum, an article honoring the 50th Anniversary of Josef’s School of Hair Design (now Josef’s School of Hair, Skin, and Body), and the High Plains Reader republished an interview with Uncle Joe originally published a few months after his 90th birthday. He was a man who truly lived life to the full and embodied joy and playfulness until the last. Piece originally published in 2014 in ArtsPulse. Some of the business details are now out-of-date.
Judging’s begun when I arrive at The Hub, Fargo, ND, Friday near 1 p.m. Models and stylists are spread across the room. Bags, curling irons, bits of costume, and headdresses are piled and scattered. Stylists pin, style, and spray before their salon/category is called. Models line the dropped runway that leads to a constructed pit that sits in front of the stage. On that stage, house lights up, models pose. They stand impossibly still for an impossibly long time. Judges weave around the fifteen to twenty models scrutinizing hair and costumes. Hair, makeup, costume, precision, “total look”; it’s all taken into consideration. The anxiety’s palpable, the discomfort visible. This is JAFA.
Josef’s School of Hair Design has three locations: Downtown Fargo, West Fargo, and Grand Forks. Josef Olivieri founded the school more than fifty years ago and once had a number of schools across North Dakota. Haircuts, colors, perms, treatments, facials, and mani/pedis, all for reasonable prices by stylists in the making. Mario, Josef’s son who’d been initiated into the hair business since infancy and bought the schools from him in 1991, and Elaine Olivieri, educator and colorist, are current owners of Josef’s schools and Olivieri’s Salons. Josef’s Annual Fashion Awards began in 2005. Josef’s alum gather, bringing more than 100 models with teased high hair, wild color designs, stiletto heels, and indescribable costumes. Weeks of prep and planning for the chance to win advanced training. This year’s first-place winners receive training at Rocco Altobelli Salons, and one lucky winner will be training with TIGI in NYC.
Josef, or Uncle Joe as I know him, stands at the corner of the stage watching. Dapper in his grey pin-striped suit and his white curled ‘stache, this isn’t his first rodeo. Uncle Joe trained students and competed in hair shows of his own for more than fifty years. The only boy in beauty school after he served in WWII. Instead of working alongside his brother Funzy at his Dilworth barber shop, he likes to quip that if he was going to do hair he wanted to do it on people he liked: women.
Nino Altobelli, a cousin, flashes a tiny flashlight over the models’ hair and face. He leans in close. In the business since birth, Nino’s the International Creative Director and VP for the business his parents created: Rocco Altobelli Companies out of Minneapolis. This isn’t his first rodeo either: he’s traveled worldwide in the name of hair. He’s a photographer, a stylist, and an educator. He’s been a regular judge at JAFA since its inception and a regular guest lecturer at Josef’s since, well, forever, despite the fact that when he came to the school to get his first official education in hair, he was kicked out. A story he tells with his laugh.
Elaine Olivieri, Josef’s daughter-in-law, picks up the mic. She thanks the models posing and directs them off-stage and upstairs where a young Joe, the grandson, has set up a photo shoot. Elaine calls the next category forward: Downtown Jungle. The categories are cut/color, makeup, Jungle, Dolls, and Futuristic. In the latter categories models (primarily women) wear headdresses taller than me; various objects wrapped and glued around their bodies; corsets; unitards; heels I can’t imagine anyone walking in without tumbling to the ground; and they hold their heavy heads up with their hands.
Model Sophie Thiel wears a tan unitard from ankle to wrist. A moss-like substance wraps her heels, ankles, and up her legs. Her tall, blond beehive-like ‘do, houses three or four birds and nests. This is the jungle category. Stylist Dylan Harrison explains that she was a tree, but the tree broke last night and what I’m seeing is an emergency Hobby Lobby trip this morning (this morning?!), and under the hair is a Styrofoam cone. He says this is her real hair. Then digresses, it’s her real hair about halfway up, and he points, the rest is extensions. I would never have guessed this came together this morning.
Dedicated, some of the stylists and models have been here since 5 am. The models do a lot of standing today. Some, because of their costumes, can’t even sit down. Carielle Henry, however, offers her model a seat while waiting for the photo shoot. “Jane Henry,” she says, “My mom.” Jane takes the stairs slowly and explains that because of the insulated pipe wrap and the interior of the hard hat, which is used as the headdress’s base, pressing into her left ear and tilting into her face, she can neither see nor hear. Carielle’s former dreads are wrapped around her mother’s legs. Carielle explains that she wanted to be in the jungle category and that she wanted to make a statement about the environment, but the category was big and her message would have been lost. She opted for the futuristic category, “Mother Nature taking back the future,” she says. Metallic tubing is placed strategically and appears to be consumed by the rest of the earthy costume.
Something like thirty boxes of pizza is delivered, and the judging ends. Things shift and it’s time to rehearse. Nick Irwin, Creative Director, TIGI London, and Thomas Osborn, TIGI’s US Creative Director, say a few words, then Mario grabs the mic. He tells the stylists, “This is the fun. You’re done,” the judging is over, “today’s the day that I hope you enjoy yourselves.” He turns to Elaine and, in so many words, tells us all how she’s the rock that keeps this thing moving, that keeps him moving, and then says he’ll cry. He gives her a long look of appreciation and hands her the mic.
The calm before the storm: 5 pm the run-through’s finished, stylists and models sit as relaxed as they can be, their bags still strewn among the chairs. They watch the dance team prepare. Last-minute sprays and costume checks. The stylists are all dressed for the show by now as well, most of which happened in The Hub’s bathrooms. An elephant headdress made of yarn wanders through the crowd, one or two peacocks are in the building, and Poison Ivy and a human pin cushion prepare for the show.
Finally, the big moment, the stylists are corralled in the pit, the crowd filters in, and the bars have opened. The stage lights are brought up, cue the music, and the Josef’s models and dancers, in dresses made of show fliers and large headdresses, walk the runway. Or, dance the runway. Each model’s personality comes through as they play to the crowd with kisses, posing, and shaking their tail feathers. And so begins the fun.
Whether long or short, we only get this one chance, so remember to have some fun.