Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
The King's Room at Vieux Carré Hair Shop in New Orleans is nothing special. There is no throne, just a plain metal chair. No tapestries adorn the walls, only shelves and a full-length mirror. Easy egress is crucial. If one king is still having his wig fitted when a second king shows up for his appointment, that first king may have to slip out the back door or risk being recognized.
"A lot of Mardi Gras is built on secrecy," says Lynn Highstreet, Vieux Carré's third-generation owner. The kings "don't want other kings or other clubs to find out who they are."
Vieux Carré (the term is another name for the French Quarter) provides wigs and makeup for the kings--also pages, dukes, and other assorted royalty--who preside over the krewes of Mardi Gras. Krewes, for the uninitiated, are the social clubs that stage balls, parades, and other organized revelry throughout the festival season, which begins on January 6 and ends on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. (This year Fat Tuesday falls early, on February 9.) Vieux Carré services more than half the krewes, including Proteus, Neptune, and Comus.
"These are prominent people. We have had U.S. senators from New Orleans that were kings," says Highstreet. "They come in and we fit them with their wig and their beard and their moustache. They bring their crown so we make sure everything looks just the way they want it." On the night of a ball or the day of a parade, teams of hair and makeup artists from Vieux Carré fan out to get customers ready on-site. The business has just three full-time employees, but that number expands to as many as 18 in Mardi Gras months.
"This weekend we have five balls," says Highstreet, speaking in mid-January. "I have to have one of my main people on each one. If it just has a king, then one person needs to go. But if it's a ball that has a big tableau and a lot of officers, then I need a lot more people."
Mardi Gras accounts for about 45 percent of the company's revenue. The rest of the year, Vieux Carré trades on New Orleans' natural flamboyance. The city is full of theaters and opera groups that buy the company's hairpieces and theatrical makeup and sometimes enlist staff to help get them ready before shows. (For every dress rehearsal and performance of the New Orleans Opera, Vieux Carré personnel are backstage at the Mahalia Jackson Theater preparing members of the cast.) Non-stage-trodders hit up the store for parties and at holidays, like Halloween. "Yes, We Have Warts," announces a reassuring sign on the front door.
Ace Denison has been "obsessed" with Vieux Carré since he was a first grader accompanying his mother on weekend jaunts to the French Quarter. "Every time I saw those eyeless faces--the masks--in the window, I would get excited," says Denison. As founder of Starlite Starbrite Productions, a small, quirky theater company, Denison consults Highstreet and her employees whenever a new production looms. Given that his shows run to subjects like zombie support groups and mafia clowns, Denison's makeup and prosthetic demands are significant.
"They give me a breakdown step-by-step of how to use everything and make it look as professional as possible," says Denison. "I want these shows to look like movies. Every time I go in there I learn more."
A neighborhood's tressing needs.
Eugenie Saussaye, a widow with a child, knew nothing of wigs when she fetched up in the French Quarter in the late 19th century. Newly emigrated from France and looking for work, she wandered into a shop on Royal Street where women were weaving hairpieces from human locks. The manager asked about her skills. "She said, 'Of course I know how to do this!'" says Highstreet. "Of course she did not know how to do that. So she followed what the other women were doing. And she caught on quickly."
In 1877 Saussaye took over the business. Previously, the Vieux Carré Hair Shop had sold chiefly to private clients. Saussaye sought new customers in the city's vibrant theatrical sector. The French Opera House, around the corner on Bourbon Street, needed wigs in different styles, and Saussaye offered a rental deal. After each production she would take back the wigs, then wash and restyle them. So "instead of the curls coming down in the back, she would make an updo with a few curls in the front from the same hair," says Highstreet.
Part of the Vieux Carré service was personalized fittings. Saussaye would bring her wigs, fake beards, and eyebrows to the opera house to make sure they fit well on the performers and conveyed their characters. Soon she was offering the same service to local theaters. She made up business cards "that said 'E. Saussaye,' so as not to let on she was a woman," says Highstreet.
Saussaye started training her grandson, Herbert, in wig-making when he was a teenager. (Her son, Gaston, never joined the business.) In 1941, at age 20, Herbert Saussaye succeeded his grandmother, who died the following year. Herbert made the logical decision to expand into theatrical makeup. After all, if you're backstage adjusting Rigoletto's tresses beneath his jester's cap, you might as well daub his face in clown white while you're at it.
Unlike his grandmother, Herbert Saussaye loved to travel and meet new people. He visited other wig-makers and makeup manufacturers around the country to learn their secrets and share his own. He also met with theatrical hairdressers and makeup artists, particularly in New York City. Back in New Orleans, Highstreet and her three brothers helped their mother run the shop.
Over time, the family took on more and more challenging shows. In 1973, the inaugural season of the New Orleans Theater for the Performing Arts (now the Mahalia Jackson Theater), they applied head-to-toe makeup for a very large cast presenting Aida, the Verdi opera set in Egypt. "We had them stand in buckets to do their feet because a lot of them were barefoot onstage," says Highstreet. The new theater lacked accommodations for such an elaborate--and messy--makeup job. So Vieux Carré's crew worked in a building across the street, and the nearly naked singers walked back to the playhouse through traffic.
Fit for a king.
For the Saussaye children growing up, Mardi Gras season meant long hours working in the family business. Herbert Saussaye taught them the wig and makeup trade, and they waited on customers who thronged the store in the winter. Vieux Carré was in the French Quarter then (it is now located in the Riverbend neighborhood), in a building right on the parade route. Tourists trouped in to buy masks and wigs. Representatives from other Mardi Gras celebrations in states like Alabama and Mississippi traveled to the Quarter to outfit their own krewes.
Vieux Carré often supplies wigs and makeup for multiple members of a krewe's royal court, who preside at the balls and sail through the streets on floats. It also makes up krewe members who perform in skits at the balls. "The skits can have a political theme. They like to make fun of local politicians," says Highstreet. "This year we have one doing a Disney theme, with people dressed up as Alice in Wonderland and characters from Frozen."
Preparing a king's wig is less labor-intensive than in her parents' day, says Highstreet, who took over the shop with her brother Bob in 1982. "The wigs were longer then, and my mom would have to set them on rollers," Highstreet says. "And there was a lot more hairspray involved." In the 1970s the business started buying most of its wigs--which these days comprise a blend of synthetic fibers--from overseas instead of making them all in-house. But like Eugenie Saussaye in the 19th century, Highstreet and her colleagues still wash, dry, and style the hairpieces. (Styling can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours.) Everyday wigs at Vieux Carré run between $28 and $58. Theatrical and Mardi Gras editions are $175 to $300.
Most kings choose a traditional monarchial style: something in the Louis XIV mode, for example. Others want something specific to their krewes. The King of Neptune requires streaming white hair and a white beard like the eponymous sea god. "One year a guy wanted to be Howard Stern," says Highstreet. The krewe's captain called Highstreet and warned that if she sent him a Stern-tressed king, he wouldn't pay. The king wore a traditional wig for the ball, but kicked up a fuss at the parade. Worn down, the captain capitulated. "So for the parade he wore this long, long, crazy, crazy sticking-out-everywhere wig and sunglasses," says Highstreet. "He didn't look like a king at all. But he was very happy."
Vieux Carré staff also volunteer at a Mardi Gras ball at the Lighthouse for the Blind, where "we put on their makeup and beards and wigs, just like for the other balls," says Highstreet. "They are all blind. But they love to get dressed up and have everybody see them."
From the Quarter to the quiet.
In 2001 the Saussaye children sold the French Quarter building in order to equitably divide their parents' estate. (Highstreet's brother Bob Saussaye is the only other sibling still working in the business.) Highstreet misses the bustle of the Quarter but says she prefers it here, where she's not constantly distracted by tourists trying on wigs and masks and taking pictures of each other. Dermatologists' conventions proved especially trying. Responding to the "Warts" sign on the door, "they would all come in and say, 'I know how to cure that,'" says Highstreet.
Now instead of tourists, Vieux Carré sells mostly to theatrical companies and to locals. Highstreet likes knowing who all her customers are and why they are buying. "I have a nurse who comes in once a month and buys glitter so she can put a little bit on her chest," says Highstreet. "She works in the ER, and she says that a tiny bit of glitter catches [patients' eyes] and distracts them, even if it's only for a moment, from what's happening to them."
Highstreet has a daughter, a niece, and a nephew who help out with the shop. She looks forward to passing it on to the fourth generation--and even to the fifth. "I am expecting my first grandbaby in two months, and I would like to teach him the business, like my dad's grandmother taught him," says Highstreet. "It's such a fun business to be in. Even when the economy is bad, people usually have enough money for a clown nose."