On a typical day, the scene at Dubai’s Belle Femme salon is fairly glamorous. Bejeweled socialites, Céline-clad businesswomen, and perhaps a sheikha or two sit in front of Philippe Starck mirrors, Swarovski-crystal-encrusted curtains glittering behind them. But today, the fab factor has been kicked up a notch: The hairstylist Jen Atkin and the colorist Tracey Cunningham, whose combined celebrity clientele includes the Kardashians and Drew Barrymore, have taken up “residency,” and women have flown in from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for an appointment. Over the course of three days, Atkin and Cunningham each see as many as 80 women back-to-back. “It’s like a marathon,” says Atkin, adding that Middle Eastern ladies tend to have hair that’s twice as thick as, and longer than, that of her clients back in Los Angeles—which means twice the work for their stylists.
This isn’t the first time Dubai has played host to star stylists from the West. Beauty teams have long been flown in from the United States for multi-thousand-dollar house calls, particularly during wedding season. And, in 2010, Sally Hershberger initiated the residency trend when she did an eight-day stint at another Dubai salon, JetSet. Soon after, Belle Femme owner Bodour Al Hilali brought in the New York colorist Marie Robinson (a Hershberger alum who counts Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Connelly as clients); she proved so popular that Al Hilali made the program a fixture on the salon calendar. When it comes to hair, she insists, “what people want in L.A. is the same as what people want here.”
That may be true, but in some very crucial ways, Dubai is not L.A. Though the laws in the United Arab Emirates are relatively lax compared with other Islamic countries in the Middle East, social codes remain complex. Devoutly religious women cannot have their hair touched by men, which means that star stylists like Garren or Frédéric Fekkai offer limited appeal. And although women in Dubai are not required to wear veils, many choose to cover up in public anyway, often in specially designed pieces by brands like Giorgio Armani. Hershberger says that about 30 percent of her Middle Eastern clients dress in the hijab, which completely covers the hair. “It seems so crazy to spend all this money on your hair and then hide it under a veil,” she says. “But women take their head coverings off when they’re around their girlfriends, so they still want to look beautiful. And, at the end of the day, don’t women dress for other women anyway?”
Like fashion, hair seems to be a point of vanity for Middle Eastern women. Conditioning treatments done at home or in the salon are often a weekly ritual, and oil blends are passed down through generations like treasured family recipes, says Al Hilali. Many of those with the means don’t trust their tresses to local stylists, preferring to fly to London, New York, or Los Angeles. So for Dana Al Sagoubi, a 25-year-old Kuwaiti, the one-hour flight to Dubai for her Belle Femme appointment with Atkin is no big deal. “Whenever I cut or color my hair in Kuwait, I don’t like it,” she says. “In the Gulf, techniques are a little behind. They don’t know what balayage highlights are!”
Cunningham certainly knows all about balayage, the freehand “hair painting” technique popularized by some of her clients, including Jessica Biel, Cameron Diaz, and Lily Aldridge. And she’s particularly well versed in ombré color, having kicked off the trend in 2010, when she first did it for Drew Barrymore. Both are among the most requested services from her Belle Femme clients who prefer the flowing waves of Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Lopez, and the Kardashians over fashion-centric trends like the Karlie Kloss bob. The Kardashians, with whom Atkin has worked steadily for years, are practically beauty role models for many of her Middle Eastern clients. “They’re curvy dark-haired women who know how to do their makeup, know how to take care of their hair,” Atkin says. “A lot of people think our cultures are so different, but the Kardashians are the bridge that brings us all together!”
The appeal, for Belle Femme clients, of having their hair done by a woman who appears frequently in Kardashian Instagrams is clear, but why would an in-demand Hollywood stylist fly 18 hours to work with women she’s never heard of? Travel expenses are covered by the salon, and each appointment with Atkin and Cunningham at Belle Femme runs from $400 to $1,000, which can add up to some serious cash. But after spending so much time catering to the whims of starlets, stylists also like the fact that, in Dubai, they’re the ones getting celebrity treatment. Cunningham was presented with a gold and diamond necklace by Al Hilali upon arrival. Atkin received a pair of Balenciaga wedges from a client the day after she admired them in the salon. Both have dined at the sheikh’s palace and been treated to drinks at places like Atmosphere, the 122nd-floor restaurant in the world’s tallest building. “Every single night was planned for us,” Cunningham says. Adds Hershberger of her Dubai clients: “They are powerful, intelligent women who appreciate it when someone of my caliber comes here.”
It’s not hard to understand why. Dubai, according to Tala Farah, a 29-year-old fashion blogger and Belle Femme client, is a merry-go-round of store openings, fashion nights, and social obligations, where a photographer is never too far away. “You get invited to five or six events a week, so you always need to look good,” she says, adding that the social whirl is only accelerating as the wealthy families of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon abandon the political turmoil in their own countries for Dubai’s thriving economy. “Now the people with high purchasing power are all in one place.”
Happily for Gulf party girls, Hershberger will be around more often to help them primp. She’s teaming up with the local company Marquee on two salons—her first outside the United States—which are set to open in Dubai and Abu Dhabi this month. The Gulf, she says, is a lucrative market, with a regular influx of top spenders from Russia, China, and India. She plans to visit three to four times a year to take appointments and train local stylists, and she will regularly send over members of her U.S. crew. Atkin and Cunningham will also be spending more time in town, with their next residency planned for late 2013. “I would even skip one of the fashion weeks to come out here again,” Atkin says. Someone better alert the Kardashians.