The number of keys that hang from André Richard Baldini's key ring is almost comical; dozens clang together as he hurries throughout the Gayborhood from one salon to the next, unlocking doors, opening closets, the weight of the keys doing nothing to slow him down.
Baldini, 41, is the owner of three Gayborhood hair salons: André Richard Salon, ARS Lab and ARS Parlour, his latest venture.
Mirrored by the ever-growing weight of his key ring, Baldini's enterprises have been steadily, and organically, growing in the past few years — putting him on a career path he wouldn’t have envisioned for himself even a decade ago.
Baldini, a native of Upper Darby, has long had a flair for style, hosting Halloween costume parties at his home as a child. As a teen, he got a job at a local gay bar and a Halloween drag show he performed in at the venue ignited his already-budding stylist passion.
But for many years, his day job was quite removed from the industry; until 2001, he worked as an IT professional for a Center City brokerage firm.
But, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Baldini said he threw caution to the wind and decided to pursue his dream, enrolling in and earning his teacher’s license from Empire Beauty School.
“The whole world was falling apart in 2001, and I thought, I need to do what makes me happy,” Baldini said.
He went on to become a hair and makeup artist for television shows and other ventures and, in 2007, opened his first salon. His namesake business was originally located in a 200-square-foot space in Camac Center. But, after a few months, demand necessitated his moving the salon to its current location at 1218 Locust St., and bringing on new employees.
“I started by myself,” he said. “It was a lot of work getting it off the ground, and I planned to just work by myself. But then I won a few awards and started getting good reviews and it just kind of grew from there. My assistants started to see clients of their own because I was busy and we all thrived off of one another’s creativity. I had no idea it would go this direction; it wasn’t the plan, it just kind of took me there. And once it was built, it was fun and exciting.”
André Richard Salon now houses nine stations.
In 2013, Baldini returned to the Camac Center, 201 Camac St., to launch ARS Lab, which focuses on cutting-edge hair solutions, offered in an upscale, private space. And late last year, Baldini opened the Parlour upstairs at the center, a cozy, boutique-style salon.
Baldini's salon group now employs 20 people.
He spends two days behind the chair, seeing about 16 clients per week.
When he’s not working on his own clients, Baldini's workload is steady but varied. Some days he’ll take inventory and order the products each salon needs, and the following day unpack and organize the shipment. His salons carry 10 product lines, and Baldini ensures that his stylists are up-to-date with their education regarding each line. Other days he works on payroll or represents the businesses at functions and in media interviews.
But much of the time he’s jetting among the three salons, checking in on his staffers.
“I have to be sure that the staff has everything they need because you don’t want to let your staff down,” he said.
While he wants his employees to trust his oversight, entrusting his properties to his staff also takes a good amount of faith on his part.
“I have a lot of trust in my staff. You have to have good people in the jobs to do that — everything from accounting people to cleaning to operations. I usually do three to five interviews before making a hire because I really want to make sure they’re the right fit.”
Baldini joked that the personalities in the hair-stylist industry can make for challenging work environments, but that’s not the case with his businesses.
“I’m really lucky, I have a great team. But this industry can be wild. Hairdressers are a little nuts, we are,” he laughed. “I think anyone who’s been in this industry long enough could agree. We’re artists and we have flexibility in our daily lives that a lot of jobs don’t have. My nightmare is that I hire someone and they don’t show up for work; if you’re not disciplined or professional, things can go in a totally different direction. It’s all about integrity.”
While he didn’t initially envision himself in such a position, Baldini has become a teacher and mentor to many of his stylists, which he said has become one of the most prized aspects of his work.
“I love watching them grow. We had one stylist who was a lifeguard at the time and he said he could only give us a few hours but I took it because I needed the help. I watched him graduate school, get his license and one day I looked at him and said, ‘I’m busy, you have to do these people,’ and all of a sudden he was just soaring,” Baldini said. “He’s moved on since, that’s a natural part of this industry, but watching them start and really climb up is just the best part.”
The salons have three levels of stylists — master, senior and stylists. Baldini explained that the trio of businesses grew naturally in correlation to the diverse staff and client base.
“Last time I walked into Locust Street [André Richard Salon], I looked around and it was all younger, trendy staff and the clients were all people in their 20s, getting highlights — foils and long hair all the way down the row. Then, [the Lab] is more private, quiet; we get news anchors, people who kind of want their own individualized experience here. And then the Parlour is kind of the middle ground between the two; it’s a little bigger than the Lab and allows for a little bit different of an artform. Our three levels of stylists attract so many people from different demographics, and these different spaces kind of grew naturally from that.”
Baldini said his salons draw a vast cross-section of the neighborhood — professionals, students, LGBTs and allies, with the client base about equally split among men and women.
“Everyone gets to play here,” he said. “We’re really well-rounded.”
Richard’s salons are among a number serving the Gayborhood.
But, he said, he doesn’t see that as a negative.
“I couldn’t do 10 percent of all the people who come through this area every day. There’s enough to go around. And if you’re professional, you’ll always do well,” he said. “When people say, ‘Oh my God, another salon opened,’ I say that it’s good. We have a Jeweler’s Row and a Fabric Row, let’s have a Salon Row. I don’t feel like I’m trying to compete with anyone; I love to see what other people are doing, and I think there’s ways for us to emulate one another and remain individualized at the same time.”
While his three businesses keep him plenty busy — Baldini joked he hasn’t seen a normal 9-to-5 day in years — he acknowledged he’s likely going to have to expand his venture again in the future. In keeping with his history of opening salons with distinct atmospheres, Baldini said he’s eager to add a barbershop to his repertoire.
“I have a feeling that more salons will open. We’re an education-based salon so as long as we keep that, we’re not going to have any choice but to keep expanding,” he said. “I’m at a place right now where I do what’s right in front of me when it kind of reveals itself. I don’t know exactly what’s coming next, but we’ll see when we get there.”
For more information, visit www.andrerichardsalon.com.