LA is getting cooler. Benjamin Mohapi, hairstylist and owner of Benjamin with Negin Zand, confirms it. “People are moving here from all over, and the vibe of the city is coming together in a new way that’s not as focused on perfection, but individuality,” he says. The moment I stepped into his Melrose Avenue salon—which is hardly a salon, but rather a sanctuary of well-dressed, chiller-than-thou stylists scurrying around—I knew I had discovered something I believed was otherwise lost in Los Angeles: unyielding authenticity. The salon itself is covered with local art you can purchase (including a floor-to-ceiling piece made of hair extensions), old books, ceramic tea cups, and trinkets picked up during his travels. Benjamin, a British transplant in the city, who dresses from head to toe in black with a bowler hat and wire-rimmed retro glasses every day, opened the salon in 2012, and one year later, master colorist Negin Zand jumped on board. Now, he’s added Selects, a boutique apothecary, onto his salon, which is essentially Benjamin’s very own, life-sized playground for products.
“I fall in love with things probably more than I fall in love with people,” he says. His desk has a toy horse, a wooden sailboat, vases, and picture frames. But it’s not the décor, necessarily, that sets the salon apart from others—it’s Benjamin, his outlook on art, and the stylists he surrounds himself with that give him a hell of a leg up in the beauty world. “I like the randomness, and I strongly champion being eclectic—difference in concepts, ideas, people...” In the past, he explains, “LA has been a place with a fixed, synthetic idea of beauty, which I think—I hope—is coming to an end.” He revels in the idea that his salon can, even in the smallest way, impact the aesthetic of a city.
But before we fully jump down the rabbit hole of art and philosophy, he says, “Let’s talk about your hair.” Oh, that…Well, I don’t like hairbrushes, or flat irons, or regular trims. In other words, I’m a hairstylist’s worst nightmare. But Benjamin seems to like a challenge. “It’s quite good hair, actually,” he says, running his fingers through the maze of split ends. Only problem: It’s two different colors. My ombré had grown out, and I was simply too lazy to do anything about it. He has Mischie, one of his very talented colorists gloss it over, bringing it all to one shiny, happy color. Then he begins trimming, and I begin firing questions his way. He answers everything with ease, and I imagine he has no idea what it means to “lose your cool.”
Why hair? I ask. “Hair is never just hair if you have a cultural understanding of style,” he says. “Coming from an editorial background, you get to understand that there are no new ideas, just new contexts—so I have my artists take art history classes.” Once a month, Benjamin brings artist Igaël “Iggy” Gurin-Malous into the salon to teach an in-house art history course. Each course is different. “We learn about everything from cave paintings to Los Angeles architecture to general photography. Pretty soon, we’re doing an ‘Album Art’ course, which we’re all excited about,” Benjamin’s assistant Anna Dunn says. “Creativity is about a series of choices,” he explains. “The more you know, the more choices you have, and the greater your work becomes.”
The salon is a haven for creatives, and you can feel and see it when you walk in. “I’m trying to build a team and have it be part of the culture of our salon that we do things together. Movie nights, art history classes, yoga…” That’s rare, I note, and he agrees. “The norm in this town is to try and make friends with a celebrity, do their hair as much as possible, hope they get famous, and then ride their coattails,” he says. But his strategy has always been simpler than that: “just become really good.” He tells me that cutting or coloring hair is like playing an instrument (or doing anything art-based). “You’re never there, you never achieve it. You just create a goal, and you run toward it for the rest of your life,” he says.
After my trim, he takes me over to Selects, which opened last year. It’s like stepping into Benjamin’s medicine cabinet. Wall to wall, shelves curated to perfection—indie brands such Davines, R+Co, African Botanics, Rodin, Paul and Joe, and Marvis (among others) are housed in the well-lit salon extension. “I always wanted a place to curate the products that could leave the salon with you and transition into real life,” Benjamin says. “And my neighbor, Genevieve, was having a hard time keeping a business open in this space, so together we agreed to design and curate a store full of the products she would see traveling—products she wished she could get more easily in Los Angeles. When you’re traveling you start thinking ‘What is this fucking toner that everyone is using in France, and why is it not here?’ So we created a space where we could buy all of the cool products we encountered in faraway places.”
Aside from selling art, curating apothecaries, traveling, and cutting hair—Benjamin is also working on an exciting collaborative art zine with illustrator Albert Reyes, which will be sold at local art shows and in the salon in the late summer. The salon and the apothecary occupy a space in beauty (and in Los Angeles) that is so unique and special. It is a beauty institution, but more accurately, it is a cult—a wonderfully groomed, forward-thinking cult of talented artists. I could spend the entire day here pretending these people are my friends and poking around the shop, but the outside world calls. Back into the LA traffic I go, with new hair and a newfound respect for, as Benjamin calls it, this little town.
Photos courtesy of the author. New York's 'Extension Girl' Amoy Pitters talks about starting off as Odile Gilbert's assistant and doing John Galliano's hair before opening her very own salon.