The Tress Goddess
Clients of Mahri Martens-Tomas don't blink an eye when spending $10,000 (or more) for hair extensions. What makes her hair worth the price?
How much is a headful of long, thick, shiny hair worth? That all depends: If you are the one shaving it off and selling it, you might fetch several hundred dollars. If you’re a client of Mahri Martens-Tomas, a hair augmentation specialist based in Denver and Los Angeles, purchasing even a portion of that same mane could set you back well over $10,000.
“I’m wearing about three ounces right now,” says Martens-Tomas, 59, who has a head of brunette bra-strap-length hair that would look right at home on a statuesque 23-year-old Ukrainian woman—which, incidentally, might be exactly where it originated. “I charge $5,000 for the first ounce and $4,000 for each additional ounce. I put 7.2 ounces on one of my clients. She wants the fullest, thickest hair she can get.”
Wearing an official-looking white lab coat at her Beverly Hills headquarters—offices that she shares with plastic surgeon Randal Digby Haworth—Martens-Tomas could pass for a surgeon herself, though she might have trouble cramming all that hair under a surgical cap. And the cost of one of her services is about the same as an eyelift. Most human-hair vendors sell extensions by the “bundle,” or small cluster, to salons. A consumer who is buying a full head of extensions might, depending on the salon, spend anywhere from $800 to $5,000. And yet, on average, the process at a salon costs less than half of an initial placement with Martens-Tomas, whose clients then schedule maintenance appointments every three or four months, flying in from all over the country or paying for her to come to them.
Having never been a stylist, Martens-Tomas traveled a unique path to her current status as one of the world’s most expensive specialists in extensions (she prefers her proprietary term “microtresses”). “I was studying mathematics at [the University of Colorado at] Boulder, and to put myself through school, I did some modeling,” she says. “They could clip pieces in for photo shoots and make your hair look great. Then I’d have to take them out, and I’d have my own thin hair again.” After college she became an interior designer. “That may seem kind of strange, but to me, math is about finding balance,” she says. “I’d look at a room and think [about] how to balance color, proportion and scale. It was always an a-plus-b-equals-c equation for me.”
But all the while, the model-mathematician-decorator was obsessed with her hair. “Even when I was 10 or 20, I had thin hair and wished it was thicker,” she explains. “I tried everything. In the late Eighties I came to Los Angeles and spent thousands of dollars to have extensions glued, sewn or bonded into my hair. The results didn’t look natural. It was often painful. And it damaged the hair that I did have. By 1990 I said, ‘Maybe I should just do this myself.’”
Martens-Tomas began tinkering with adhesives like wood glue to find a formula that could withstand months of washing and drying and would not destroy hair cuticles. “Because of my math background, I knew a lot of chemists and asked their opinions,” she says. “Little by little I learned about chemistry and developed my own very gentle adhesive. And because of my modeling connections, I had a good source for hair.” Martens-Tomas adjusts her formula for each client, depending on whether the woman’s hair is oily or dry and how active she is. Those who hit the gym and the shower regularly, for example, will need a different bond from those who don’t.
Martens-Tomas is remarkably direct about her own experience as a follicularly challenged woman in a world that views lush hair as a symbol of youth and vitality. The divorcée claims that her extensions are a huge boon to her dating life. “Men don’t care that the hair is not all mine,” she says. “They come up to me all the time and say, ‘You have great hair.’ It’s a conversation starter.” Her clients, an assortment of professionals and social types of all ages, appreciate her candor. Close to half of them suffer from a medical or hormonal condition that causes hair loss, from thyroid problems to trichotillomania (an impulse control disorder that involves pulling out one’s own hair). Some need just a handful of microtresses to fill in a bald spot, and others want ounces of thick hair simply for kicks. And because Martens-Tomas works out of plastic surgery offices, she gets many doctor-referred clients, who want their hair to look as youthful as their freshly lifted faces.
In the lucrative business of hair extensions—the annual revenue of Great Lengths International, an extensions system and hair source used by many top salons, is nearly $1 billion—several factors determine the cost of the service. There are the skill of the technician (any connoisseur of paparazzi photos will tell you there’s little margin for error) and the method used to attach the clusters to the client’s natural hair. Sewing is popular at the low end, while ultrasound-administered keratin bonds are favored at the high end. Martens-Tomas describes her method as a thermal polyamide bond, and she incorporates plasticizers and other additives based on the needs of the client.
The last factor is the source of the hair. Plenty of supply is available from China, but the texture—extrathick, slick and glossy—makes it incompatible for most Western women who want a realistic look. Indian hair is the next most abundant source. Each day, for instance, thousands of women travel to the Sri Venkateswara temple in southern India to thank the Hindu god Vishnu for their blessings by offering their hair, and their vanity, as a sacrifice. Temple barbers shave the women’s heads and auction off the mounds of hair to brokers to fund the institution’s charitable programs (the women don’t receive any money for their donations). Italian and Spanish hair is, generally speaking, even finer in texture than Indian and in shorter supply, which makes it more expensive; northern European hair is the priciest. The biggest demand is for long, naturally auburn or honey-toned hair that has been untouched by chemicals. It’s usually gathered from women in Russia or Poland and sold to the most exclusive merchants, who in turn sell it to technicians like Martens-Tomas.
“The family I buy from originally provided hair for wigs for all the royals in Europe,” she says. “Their hair is 10 times more expensive than the cheapest hair on the market.”
Martens-Tomas has a stock of hair in different shades and lengths at her Denver location, and she custom-blends each microtress to match the desired color. “When a client comes in for our initial visit, I will clip a sample of the hair and bring it in to the lab,” she says. “We’ll add a few strands of light or a few strands of dark to get the shade right. We don’t dye the hair. If someone wants waist-length blond hair, I might have to wait a couple of months to get it. It’s not a commodity that’s sitting on a shelf, waiting to be purchased.”
Fran Carollo of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is one such customer. At 53, she has waist-length flaxen hair that’s composed largely of Martens-Tomas microtresses. “Mahri’s like the Ferrari of the hair world,” Carollo says, explaining how she justifies the expense. “The way I see it, I’m saving money on a lot of things, like clothes and bags. I used to think that if I bought a nice outfit, I’d feel better; now the clothes aren’t that important because I have great hair. I’ve been her client for eight years, and I’m a much happier person.”
As the offense against aging ramps up its weaponry, with remedies for everything from sagging jowls to sinewy hands, augmented hair may be the final frontier. And extensions, in the right hands, may eventually lose their stigma as the favorite accessory of Hollywood wannabes.
“I do a few things, like Botox,” says Martens-Tomas. “But I think that the thing that makes me look the most youthful is my hair. When my grandmother was my age, it didn’t matter what her face looked like because she had her hair back in a bun and she sat in a rocking chair. Great hair just makes me feel more vibrant. I’m out there thinking I’m young.”