Michael Christopher Salon Blog
Michael Christopher Speaks is the blog for Michael Christopher Salon located in Wilmington, DE. Learn helpful hints, watch how to videos, be the first to see new products, and upcoming events at the salon.
The Reinvention of Michael Christopher—Again
More than 40 years after he launched his legendary salon—and begat dozens of local stylists along the way—the pioneer, visionary and creative force that is Michael Christopher Hemphill remains as fabulous as ever.
Every morning, Michael Hemphill skips the eggs and OJ and logs on to the Daily Word to feast on what he calls his spiritual breakfast. If it’s nice out, he’ll jump on his bike—“not wearing those shorts that ride up my ass,” he says. He’ll pedal. He’ll talk to God. He’ll muse. “I’ll say, ‘Send me a sign. Lead me down the path of where I need to be.’”
That question reveals much. Most would consider his high-profile career to be a darned obvious path.
Chatting in the new HQ of his legendary Michael Christopher Salon, now in Greenville, Hemphill, however, poses another question: How does a lamp get lit? “That’s easy—from the plug,” he answers. “But I’m not plugged into anything you can see. That’s faith.”
While Hemphill doesn’t rip off the Good Book, he’s famous within his circles for speaking in proverbs. The Book of Michael would weigh with equal sanctity statements such as “There are two important days in your life: The day you were born, and the day you know why,” and, “We’re all the fastest swimmers—you’re the sperm that hit the egg, girl!”
The bike-riding, God-talking, faith-forward side of Hemphill might not be what most people imagine when they think of Michael Christopher.
This is, after all, a guy who expertly matches a kiss of blue-green on the upturned cuff of a Burberry shirt to his eyes; who is internationally celebrated in the hair-styling world; and whose name probably graces the side of a styling product you might find in half the vanities in the state—and that’s just Delaware. QVC sales of his products extend coast to coast.
“I can look at something and see more,” Hemphill says.
Like the space he stands in.
In 2017, the salon left its former digs along Pennsylvania Avenue, where it stood for almost four decades, for the Montchanin Corporate Center in Greenville. The commercial property boasts perfectly reasonable retail space. But Hemphill, who calls himself the master of “future pacing”—a practice at the crux of his business—saw more.
“When I toured this place with Pettinaro, I saw this big gray box that said ‘unrentable.’ I said, ‘Show me that.’” The rep told Hemphill it was a dead zone, a dirty truck depot. Hemphill was undaunted. He took one look at the four-bay garage and said, “I’ll take it.”
Famous for reinvention, it didn’t take long for Hemphill to turn the abandoned garage into a sanctuary.
Bold and interesting art and sculpture in gilded vintage golds enliven the walls and complement the wood flooring. The warm tones collide unexpectedly with the cool hues of exposed pipes and beams, stainless steel touches and utilitarian-chic vibes. Natural light drenches the place. Decadent furniture in the reception area offers clients a place to sit and sip something from the beer and wine case. Or clients can hang on the front terrace, nudge their toes into spongy Astroturf and nurse a frap. A private shampoo cavern jams tranquil playlists. The open-look color-mixing space lets clients play voyeur as Hemphill’s masters whip up potions. And the beautifully lit makeup bar is a dream realized for the palette-besotted.
A master of detail, there is but one particular out of place: Cozied up next to lovely bottles of wine in the self-serve case is row upon row of Coors Light cans, and not for irony’s sake. “Oh, God,” he says. “I’m gay. What do I know about beer?”
Hemphill, the future pacer, paces in the present—in $450 martini-embossed Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers. “The Wi-Fi is down,” he says, thumbing a device now rendered practically useless. “That means no Internet, no music. The phones are down, too. When they come back, we’re going to be flooded.”
It’s an interesting moment for two reasons: The satire at the loss of ’net in the salon of the man who, over a decade ago, in a pre-smartphone world, pioneered the implementation of computer stations at every stylist’s chair so clients could surf the web while getting a partial foil. And the notion that almost 45 years after he started his salon, the 65-year-old Hemphill still books like crazy.
“I see about 20 clients a day,” he says. “My last client drove from Connecticut. I have clients from an 8-year-old to a 98-year-old. Everyone loves the new space, and they keep coming back.”
That’s what happens when you constantly give them something to come back for.
At 14, Hemphill had a doozy of a plan: Be a stylist, own a business, travel the world. “Thank God I didn’t know about marijuana yet,” he says.
Growing up in the salon biz—his father owned two salons in Kennett Square and his mom worked the desk—Hemphill opened his salon in 1975, in a brownstone on Delaware Avenue that was the antithesis of what he considered a beauty salon: “Smocks, hair all spun up, smoking a cig,” he says. His concept: the boutique salon. “It was sublime, very New York.”
The salon headed to bigger space on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1980 and enjoyed growth attributed to the host city.
“The banking industry was taking off, and women were beginning to go to work in more numbers,” Hemphill says. Add to the mix that there wasn’t another game in town offering edgy, contemporary looks—and from an openly gay stylist.
“He was one of the first gay men on the scene,” says Ann Tasker, owner of Salon Pasca, who worked with Hemphill for 30 years. “He was so proud of it. I remember when the Hotel du Pont asked him to host a cancer auction. It was a big deal. And fabulous—the best one they ever had.”
Tasker, who met Hemphill when she was still wearing braces, became his No. 1. She often had to talk him out of crazy ideas, like the time he wanted to descend from the rafters in a spaceship at a hair competition. “He never wanted to do the same old thing,” she says. “That was death.”
“I’m the guy who’d rather say I wish I hadn’t than I wish I had,” Hemphill says. “But, God, did I overdo things. But sometimes it’s not done until its overdone. When we moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s when we really went off the deep end.”
He describes an early iteration of the salon as “spaceship meets Studio 54.”
“So much neon and stainless steel,” he says. “I had uniforms made, with these big padded shoulders, huge belts. We looked like the Starship Enterprise. I just kept stretching it into an explosion of grandness. We were the only salon doing what we were doing.”
Stylist Toni Toomey was starry-eyed at what she saw. “I was just in awe of the energy there,” Toomey says. “I loved watching Michael create. It was never boring and always, always ahead of the pack. He showed me that even though we live in a small town, we should think big.”
Hemphill out-thinks the pack by future pacing, the term he uses to define his ability to see future trends in business. “I didn’t see the wear-your-pants-below-your-ass thing coming,” he says.
Things he did see coming: the need for a fine-mist mechanism on hair products. At the time, he was consulting for a Japanese company on a product. “The formula we were working on was fabulous,” he says. “But the delivery system was terrible.” He was right. Now that mechanism is all you’ll find.
He also beat YouTube beauty-bloggers to the punch. Before the video-hosting site was but a Silicon Valley dream, QVC was selling out of Hemphill’s “How-To Blow Dry” VHS series.
“I have to stay ahead,” he says. “The pendulum swings every 10 years. Were we being kaled to death 10 years ago?”
Things he did not see coming: watching the talent he cultivated walk out his doors in the 1990s. “One part is, ‘Damn it. They left me.’ And the other is, ‘I planted you like a seed. I grew you. Go grow elsewhere—but don’t you dare come pick from my garden. I will kill you.’”
“I felt bad when people started to leave, because it was the most amazing place,” Toomey says. “The stylists and the assistants were by far the best in the country. I say that with confidence.”
When George Ritzel, former owner of George Marcus Salon and longtime friend of Hemphill, realized it was his time to leave, he was a nervous wreck.
“I admired the man,” says Ritzel, who now lives in Spain. “I strived to be him. I wanted to do the right thing in telling him goodbye, and not be sneaky about it, giving him a choice to either let me go or let me stay until my opening date. When I approached him, he first thanked me for my honesty and congratulated me. Then he told the scheduling coordinators to please inform my clients of my new address. I’ll never forget that—or his famous quotes: ‘The wheel is round, water is wet and the sun is hot. What is it you don’t understand?’”
Years later, Hemphill insists it’s all good. But it stung. “I was the only pie in town,” he says. “And all of a sudden, there were all these new pieces of pie—and I baked them.”
Tasker says if it weren’t for Hemphill, Delaware’s salon industry wouldn’t be what it is. “I remember he got a small business award—and, my numbers could be off—but he had created some thousands of jobs in the state,” she says. “Everybody that has a big, upscale salon, at one point, worked for Michael. I think people fail to realize how big of a deal he is in the industry. International competition awards, he was on the Olympic team. He’s the top of the top.”
Says Ritzel, “We all need to admit that there is a little Michael in every salon that has spun off his.”
That pendulum swing was hard. But another was much harder.
At 40, Hemphill dangled his feet from the top of the world.
“I was at the pinnacle of my career, and I had my great love,” he says. “We were just sailing into the moon.’
But then his partner, Mark, tested positive for HIV.
“I didn’t know anything,” Hemphill says. “AIDS was relatively new. Was I infected? It was all still a mystery.”
Future pacing kicked in. He bought cemetery plots, took out a life insurance policy, got his business in order.
Hemphill was negative.
“The doctor said ‘nonreactive.’ They wanted to do a study on me. After that, I got into gear. Once you say ‘AIDS,’ people scatter. My story was, Mark has stomach cancer. Everyone bought it.”
Hemphill brought his test results into the salon. “This is sad. But I hung it in the lounge. If Mark was positive, then I’d be, too, and they could see I wasn’t,” he says. “I couldn’t juggle anything else, so I lied. I’ve never felt more horrible about something.”
Years later, Hemphill—now happily married—was on a trip with his staff. He stood in the middle of a bus and confessed.
“There were tears and applause,” he recalls. “His death still kills me. And it changed me, because here’s what I’ve always believed—we can spend 10 minutes today invested in this and get back 10 minutes tomorrow, but it doesn’t work like that. I started asking myself, ‘How important is that party?’ Time is the most precious thing we have.”
Tasker was on that bus. “It was really devastating, but we were all proud of him,” she says.
In 2006, he gutted the Pennsylvania Avenue location, put $300,000 into it and relaunched. Count to 10, and he’s in a once-forgotten truck depot, trading laughs with a client, wearing a cornflower waffle-knit henley, jeans and taupe flats.
A henley and jeans? At Michael Christopher’s?
“I remember when we hooked the fancy,” he says. “Everyone started dressing up to come. Why? It’s not like that. Unless you’re booking me, we’re on par with many salons.
“It’s like I have this persona,” he says. “I was in Pathmark in a hoodie and jeans, and a woman said, ‘Does anyone ever tell you you look like Michael Christopher?’” He said yes. Then she said, “But he’d never be caught dead in a Pathmark buying chicken.”
“I’m down to earth,” he says. “I can be all, ‘Ladies and gentlemennnnn’ in a second, but it’s not every day. Yes, I’m gay. I know the real meaning of fabulous. But you don’t need to come here in Gucci.”
Having launched his salon, consulting jobs, a remade salon, QVC products and another renovated salon, Hemphill is considering his next act. “I lay in my pool with a cocktail and think, What am I going to do next?” he says.
Right now, it’s putfeetunderyourprayers.com, a web-based matchmaking service where entrepreneurs can mingle with giving spirits and make business dreams come true.
“I think we’re here for someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to and something to leave behind,” Hemphill says. “Life is simple. We make it difficult. We need to find our mission, and I’m still looking. When you’re ripe you’re rotten, but when you’re green, you grow.”
The cutting edge
The Knot Dream Wedding Makeup Artist Talks Bridal Beauty—Get the Details Here
Kristina Ruggerio, of Kristina Ruggerio Cosmetics, isn't just lined up to do The Knot Dream Wedding Couple Elena Delle Donne and Amanda Clifton's day-of wedding makeup—she's also an old friend of Elena's from high school and has done the WNBA star's makeup in the past (and can't wait to do it again for her wedding day). How cool is that? We caught up with the Wilmington, Delaware–based stylist to hear about her plans to beautify the naturally gorgeous brides-to-be.
What can we expect from Elena and Amanda's day-of wedding makeup?
"I’m planning on enhancing both Elena and Amanda's natural beauty. Of course, we’ll play up Amanda's beautiful, bright eyes just enough to make them sparkle even more than they already do, along with a pale bridal pink mixed with a pale peach to bring out the blue in her eyes. Elena has such a beautiful smile, so we'll want to keep her lip color pretty natural—most likely a blush or mauve tone to compliment her green eyes, with a pop of gloss in the middle to brighten. I want them to look like the best version of themselves."
How did they land on each of their looks?
"We’ve played around with different looks over the years. They're both naturally gorgeous and they [glam] up beautifully as well. I know the look we'll go with for their day will be simple elegance, something they'll feel extra beautiful in. I just want their natural and stunning features to shine on this special day."
What are your top wedding makeup tips for brides?
"Whenever you're doing makeup for a long day, or in photographs, you want to make sure you apply enough color to your cheeks, lips and eyes—specifically eyeliner, especially in between your lashes, to make the lashes appear thicker and darker. This will make everything pop in photos. Be sure to apply a translucent powder, mainly in the T-zone, to avoid any shine in pictures. Prep your face with makeup primer first, and set your makeup with translucent powder at the end to ensure longevity all day and all night. Lips should be freshened up every couple hours."
What has it been like to work with Elena and Amanda?
"Elena and Amanda are dreams to work with. They're so laid back and so funny, to the point where I'm afraid all of our makeup will run whenever I'm around them—they bring me to tears of laughter every time! Waterproof mascara is a must any time I see them—especially for the wedding day."
Do the brides know what each other's makeup will look like, or will it be a surprise?
"I know both women are very in tune with each other—they're so close—I’m sure each will assume the other will go somewhat natural, but with an elegant twist. It’s going to be a stunning wedding, and when they both get to see each other completely done, I truly believe they'll both be blown away. I can’t wait to see their faces—I'm getting chills already!"
With Kristina in Delaware until Elena and Amanda's November 3 nuptials, Brittany Lo of New York City–based Beautini stepped in to give the brides a preview of their wedding day looks. Watch their full makeup trial on TheKnot.com/dream-wedding for serious beauty inspo.
Michael Hemphill, hairstylist to Delaware notables such as Jill Biden, Carla Markell and Elise and Pete du Pont, is moving his Michael Christopher Salon to Greenville after 35 years at the Galleria Shops in Wilmington.
Other Galleria tenants must move too, at least temporarily, because Newark developer Angela Tsionas plans to tear down the shops at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. to construct a $40 million, five-story mixed-use building by 2018.
Hemphill, who has styled the hair of many Playhouse actors, including Debbie Reynolds, is known for reinventing his current space several times with a waterfall feature, a white grand piano at Christmastime, and a serene black shampoo chamber with a lighted ceiling. After years in a busy downtown location with difficult parking, he said he plans to create “a sanctuary.”
“I call it the-gates-of-hell-close-behind-you,” Hemphill said. “The reason I chose the space is because I think it’s like a sanctuary. We’re all connected so much to our phones and our computers.”
“We want to be in there by the first week of April,” he added. “That’s the plan, if everything goes smoothly. You know how construction goes.”
The current salon is 6,000 square feet, but part of it is subleted to Morgan’s of Delaware, the dress shop. The new space will be closer to 3,000 square feet. “We want to be green in what we’re doing,” Hemphill said. “We don’t want to burn up more space than necessary. But we’re actually going to supersize some services.”
He said more space will be devoted to permanent makeup trends, eyebrow trends, day spa services and new hair techniques.
The salon took over a four-bay garage, so there will be large windows to the outside. Hemphill said he tried to create a Carmel, California look.
A new outdoor garden will allow customers to take their complimentary coffee or wine outside in nice weather.
‘This new salon’s all about relaxing. You feel it the minute you drive in. It’s just a beautiful property. It feels like a sanctuary or a country club,” Hemphill said. “When I drove in there, all of a sudden I felt relaxed and you usually don’t have that experience when you’re in a shopping center.”
Hemphill said he did a ZIP Code study to determine the spot most convenient for his clients. He found they come from Greenville, West Chester, Wilmington, Unionville, Kennett and Newark, so he looked for a central location within a two-mile radius of his current shop with good road accessibility.
Greg Pettinaro, CEO of Pettinaro, said Empowered Yoga and Michael Christopher will be the only retail clients in a center that includes offices of companies such as Bryn Mawr Bank, Citigroup and Brandywine Center for Integrative Services.
Pettinaro said current county code allows up to 10 percent of tracts zoned office regional to be retail locations, but his company will go before County Council this month because a previous owner signed a deed restriction stipulating there would be no retail.
Before leasing the location, Pettinaro said his company met with representatives of Hagley Museum, Kennett Pike Association, Beck’s Lane Homeowner’s Association and surrounding neighbors and they were all supportive of the change.
Delaware business pioneer rethinks salon
By LULADEY B. TADESSE, The News Journal
Posted Thursday, September 14, 2006
Michael Christopher Designs Salon & Day Spa is accustomed to giving people a new look, but on the eve of its 31st anniversary, the Wilmington salon is getting a new look of its own.
Michael Christopher Hemphill, the salon's owner and creative force behind the improvements, has invested more than $300,000 to modernize the 6,000-square-foot salon and better equip it to meet the needs of his clients and 80 employees.
"It was beautiful before," said Alexis Tweddell, 40, of Middletown, who has been going to Michael Christopher for nearly eight years. "The fact that he wanted to remodel and update and make it cutting edge is always Michael."
At the salon's grand reopening Friday, the clients will notice a "salon of the future" featuring different chambers, each with its own atmosphere, music and furniture.
Flat-screen computer terminals sprinkled in the waiting area near the entrance and the "hair coloring theatre" give the salon a high-tech feel.
There are 25 pod stations accented by shimmering screens hanging from the mirrored ceiling. The electric plugs and hair equipment that previously rested on a shelf in front of each station have been shifted to shelves behind each station, taking away the clutter in front of clients.
And then there is the shampoo chamber. The warm, dimly lit room has a blue sky ceiling panel, a yellow hologram projected on a deep blue wall and barely visible black sinks. Meditative music plays in the background and the sounds of the water from the tap sound more like small springs. "People come here not to relax, but for a relaxing experience," said Hemphill, who caters to about 300 clients a day. "Why not make it an experience that people want?"
More salons are focusing on the convenience of clients, offering wireless Internet service for business executives who want to work all the time and a relaxing atmosphere for those who want to escape for a few hours, industry experts said.
"He is more on the cutting edge," said Christine Kauffman, executive vice president of Veeco Manufacturing Inc. in Chicago, which designs and manufactures salons and spas. "We are not doing a lot of that kind of work."
Ann Tasker, a former employee at Michael Christopher who recently opened Pasca Salon in Wilmington, said she expects the industry to follow Michael Christopher's lead.
"It's modern, it's upbeat," Tasker said. "It's what the industry is doing today."
When Hemphill opened his business in Wilmington in 1975, the city hardly had any trendy hair salons. There were mostly mom-and-pop beauty shops. Hemphill made a name for himself by winning dozens of national and international awards, including North American Hairstylist of the Year for Creative Excellence in 1997. He also has worked with stars ranging from Bruce Willis to Elizabeth Taylor.
An average haircut by Hemphill costs $100, or $45 to $65 from one of his stylists.
Michael Christopher has managed to establish not just a salon, but a recognizable brand beyond Delaware. The salon has its own line of hair products.
Over the years, there have been many new salons that have opened in Wilmington -- mostly by former Michael Christopher stylists.
"I consider Michael still the leader," said George Ritzel, a former Michael Christopher employee who now owns George Marcus Salon in Talleyville.
Ritzel said Michael Christopher's redesign makes sense.
"You need to make changes continuously to make your clients interested," he said. "When Michael makes a change -- he makes a major change. You should be doing that every few years because styles change, fashion changes, looks change."
Besides revamping the interior of the salon, Hemphill plans to expand his product line. In January, he expects to be featured on QVC, the television shopping channel, where he will introduce a new hair cleansing product that can be mixed with shampoo called Erase. QVC requires vendors to sell as much as 5,000 products in a minute.
In addition to expanding his $3 million business, Hemphill plans to work on a few new projects including an e-commerce site that will sell jewelry, handbags and other accessories manufactured in China. He also plans to work on home interior decorating projects for some of his clients.
The killer cool re-emergence of a salon
After an extensive renovation, Michael Christopher Designs begins a new phase of bringing the cutting edge to fashion
By Richard L. Gaw Special Sections Editor
Greenville Community News, November 7, 2006
Invent something that's never been done before and you are a genius. Re-invent what you have invented all over again and turn it into something altogether new and you are practically knighted. Though Michael Hemphill of Michael Christopher owns no crowns, his Michael Christopher Designs has, for the last thirty years, served as the one salon in our community that takes the gold standard of what it means to be bold and cutting edge and moves it here, there and everywhere.
Over the course of a two-week span that began in late June and ended in early July, Hemphill took his studio on Pennsylvania Avenue and had it gutted practically to its core. The nail, mortar and plywood evidence of the work going on inside the salon had, in fact, been conceived one year ago, when Hemphill began studying the effect that a new splash of light and sound could have on the space. He also began asking his clientele what they wanted from his salon.
"It was quite natural that our clients would have a huge impact on where we were going to take this," Hemphill says. "People should come to a salon and have an outstanding experience that will last for the next six weeks of their life."
The finished product - 6,000 square-feet of re-designed space at a cost of $300,000 - is the combined result of Hemphill's creativity and the needs of his clientele. Six rooms were re-created, infusing a kaleidescope of new lighting, leather chairs imported from Italy, cloudand-sky ceilings from Los Angeles, and over 20 individual work station pods to promote privacy. In addition, clients now have the ability to access the internet or communicate with their office through the use of laptop computers stationed throughout the salon.
"I wanted to sew a common thread through the whole experience of being at Michael Christopher Designs," Hemphill says. "When you're ripe, you're rotten, but when you're green, you grow."
- The Reinvention of Michael Christopher—Again
- The cutting edge
- The Knot Dream Wedding Makeup Artist Talks Bridal Beauty
- Sanctuary in Greenville
- STYLE MAVEN GETS NEW LOOK OF HIS OWN
- THE KILLER COOL RE-EMERGENCE OF A SALON
- When and how to let go and go for the gray
- Relaxers-Straighteners-Keratin Treatments "Oh My"
- Two types of Hair loss - Internal and External
- Michael Christopher Hemphill, salon pioneer