Let me level with you here: I’ve never dyed my hair (Emily says that’s why there’s “no red in it,” a distinction between real and 'enhanced' brunettes I was unaware of before becoming a beauty editor), and beyond that, I’ve never really wanted to. Which is to say, I may have wanted to, but not enough to ever actually do anything about it. (Blondes may have more fun, but I'm sure I, if blonde, would have significantly less; I had to face it long ago, blond and I are never going to happen. It's a skin-tone thing.) We’re pretty happy together, my hair and I, except that sometimes, out of nowhere—a really rad looking girl with washed out Crayola-colored ombré on the street/a masterfully done mag spread/sheer boredom—I get this nagging feeling, a sort of hankering to switch up what I’ve got going on above the neck, and my hair seems like the most obvious place to begin. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a streak of lapis, hot pink, clementine, who-even-knows color? It would be...'unexpected,' maybe in a good way! But then, it would also be 'unexpected' maybe in a bad way, in a your-boyfriend’s-parents-think-you’re-trouble(d) way. And as much as I trade in “I don’t give a damn” bravado, turning chunks of your hair colors favored by Lisa Frank and tweens is a one-way ticket to a lot of preconceptions about who you are as a person. Not to mention, of course, maintenance! And hair health! (Why toss that away on a whim?) So, when a press release slid across our desks for something called Balmain Hair+, well, I had to investigate. (Hyperbole aside, I actually had to; it was an assignment. Emily: "Balmain makes hair extensions?! Go get some.")
Balmain Hair + —yes, that Balmain (the hair line is a licensee of the French fashion house, and the pieces even have little Balmain labels, like the ones hanging at Barneys)—are 100% human-hair extensions that, in my case, were clip-ins and came with a spirit guide: the wonderful Michael Angelo of Michael Angelo’s Wonderland, a tinsel-strewn, mermaid-barbie-dwelling salon and shop in New York’s Meatpacking District. When I arrived, Michael patiently matched my natural hair shade, fixing a handful of different pieces from the "Couture Collection" up and under my (blown-out, lightly teased at the root and heavily Oribe Texturizing-Spray'd) mane for a swingy, sexy, full-bodied effect. In five minutes, I had bouncy volume straight out of a Pantene commercial. And somewhat scarily, the not-my-hair hair (I'd call it "faux," but it was from another human, so it's technically "real") felt eerily like my hair, when held in my hand. On my scalp? Well...let's just say I could tell it was there. “You feel them, for sure,” Michael said. “There’s something clipped to your head." Though, as he pointed out, they're designed to lie flat, to prevent "bulk.”
I grew up thinking that clip-in hair extensions were completely cheesy, the realm of starlets who roamed gas stations barefoot and bottomed-out on tabloid covers. Wasn't this kind of ironic, then: a storied French fashion brand entering the fray? Au contraire, Michael explained, store bought hair's been around me this whole time, thickening the up-dos and blowouts of actresses and models on the red carpet, models strutting down catwalks, and basically everyone on every photo shoot. They’re a “nice, safe solution" to get added length and volume without putting pressure on the hair or head, a risk associated with the more permanent types of extensions. “It’s not really fair,” Michael told me. “There are all these things that get used behind the scenes on fashion shoots and ad campaigns that women have no idea about, and they come in here and say, ‘Oh my god, my hair is so disgusting, I see all these pictures in magazines and the hair is so great, what am I doing wrong?’ I tell them, ‘Well, you don’t have a bunch of someone else’s hair stuck on your head!’” Until now?
Though the added oomph was neat, the Balmain clip-ins offered another, more tempting opportunity: stress-free color experimentation! Whereas it would take multiple processes (/stripping) to turn a streak of my natural dark locks to my requested "Disney-aquatic blue fading into hunter green” shade (what can I say? #YOLO, etc.), doing it to my new hair extensions was risk-free and took about half an hour. Michael grabbed a Scandinavian-blonde pack of hair and a paintbrush and got to work with a series of dyes while I browsed the beauty-product selection. Twenty minutes and a quick shampoo/conditioning/blow-dry of the clip-ins later, Michael staggered the Skittle-colored extensions along the left side of my head in two tiers and flipped my real hair over it. The color was subtly visible, fading in and out of view underneath my real hair. (I have to admit I clapped a little, like an excited seal. This is how limited my experience with hair color has been.) I left the salon and wore them around all day waiting for someone to say something. Nobody did. Nick, however, did tell me, “They're really not very you,” in a way that made me hate him a little (which isn't to say he was wrong)—but hey, that's the great thing about clip-ins! Try before you buy! No regrets, that's my motto.
Want some of your own clip-in hair bravado? You can DIY dye:
But Michael Angelo advises: “It's risky to dye it yourself—if you screw it up, you ruin the whole set of hair. If you can't find a color that matches your hair exactly, it's always better to buy clip-ins in a shade lighter and dye them darker, rather than the reverse. And if you want to go color-color, like candy colors, you need to get the hair properly pre-lightened." (This is true whether you're working with your own or extensions). He continues, "That’s really when it’s smart to use a salon. You need to bleach the hair to white, or at least as close to white as humanly possible, and then you can use Manic Panic or whatever you want at home. It’s just a matter of getting familiar with how different dyes take, and with different brands of hair... Trial and error. But going for a Crayola color is surprisingly idiot-proof, once you’ve had the bleaching done professionally." And as far as care goes, you take care of them like your real hair. If you kept your real hair in a box. Or as Michael says, "Good shampoo and conditioner, and brush them every so often."
Michael Angelo and Alessandra Codinha photographed at Michael Angelo’s Wonderland (418 West 13th st, New York, NY) by Emily Weiss on November 28th, 2012.