In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
The average person has probably never heard of Chase Kusero, but they certainly know his handiwork. Jared Leto, he of the hommbre, man-bun and mraid, owes his hair triumphs of the past two years to Kusero.
Kusero, 31, is a Chicago native and has had a pretty incredible career styling the hair of celebs like Paris Hilton, Ozzy Osbourne, Ciara and Mena Suvari over the years, but the magic he's worked with Leto's locks has put him in the upper echelon of stylists. Everyone always asks Kusero about his most famous client, but I wanted to know a bit more about him and how he got started in the business. (And OK, fine, I also asked him about Leto. How could I resist?) Read on to learn how he got his start, his goals for Leto's hair and how he's building a hair empire.
When did you know you wanted to do hair?
When I was around 14 I started cutting all my friends’ hair and around 15 I started thinking about doing it for a living because I was looking for any excuse in the book to get out of school. I ended up getting a gift certificate to the most well known salon in Chicago and this guy was cutting my hair and I ended up asking him how to get a job and how to work there. They hired me and I started going there after school and sweeping hair and learning how to blow dry. Probably a year after I started working there I enrolled in beauty school. I did not graduate from high school.
Did you ever get a GED?
Never. I see a lot of people that did something young and then they grow out of it but I never did, which is good.
What did your parents think about you dropping out of high school to go to beauty school?
I grew up with just my mom and she was really, really supportive of it because I think she was relieved. She never wanted me to work in an office or have to go to college if I didn’t like it. I think I put her through enough trauma in school that she was just glad I found something to do that I was into.
What was your first job after beauty school?
It was doing a low budget runway show in Chicago. When I was around 19 or 20 I was looking at magazines and everybody that was getting written about in this business was in L.A., some in New York City, but L.A. mainly. I’d never been to L.A., but I just packed bags and boxes and moved here sight unseen.
What did you do in L.A. when you got there?
I was working for a hair product company called Sebastian. They hired me to be on the artistic team. I was one of the youngest ones to be teaching for them. I did that for a year or two and then the company was bought and they cut everybody’s pay so I had to find work in a salon. I went to a couple different random hair salons, no big name salons because I knew I wanted to build up my own clientele. So I did that and about five years later I went to work with Chris McMillan [Jennifer Aniston's long-time stylist].
Who was your first celebrity client and how did that happen?
Maybe Paris Hilton? She was referred to me by somebody. My goal and my dream was to work with a few people and to be loyal. In this business a lot of stylists do a lot of the same people. When I started working with Chris McMillan... he’s been with Jennifer Aniston for like 20 years. [Building clients] wasn’t a snowball effect. It took a long time. Even my relationship with Jared Leto, who I’ve been busy with consistently for the last two years, was built over time. I’d been cutting his hair for the last six or seven years before we started to work the way we’re working now.
How did you originally meet Jared?
In the very beginning he was just kind of confused about his hair and he wasn’t really into any of the haircuts he was getting. And he’s had everything over the course of his career and his life. He’s had almost every haircut. He actually asked three people that are my clients randomly who does their hair when he saw them, because he liked their hair and all three of them said me. Everything for me has been based on referral. They see somebody’s hair and they call. It’s sort of a snowball effect now because we’ve been working with Jared and what we’ve done with his hair has been so highly visible.
How do you feel about how scrutinized his hair is? How do you both deal with it?
He’s a super busy and super professional guy, so it’s one less thing he has to deal with. He kind of leaves it in my hands and he trusts me. It's funny because I’m a guy, he’s a guy. It was never the intention for him to end up on all these lists and best hair and with all this buzz. Now he’s just kind of accepted it, because what are you going to do? There’s nothing but good things being said about it.
Are there any plans to cut it? It's really long now.
Yeah, it’s really long. He’s got some things coming up that he’s going to be working on. We haven’t really discussed it yet but I’m sure when he starts doing movies he’s going to have to cut it for characters. But as for right now, at the SAG Awards was the length that he and I envisioned it in the beginning when we started growing it two years ago. If we end up having to cut it for something, it was great for now to at least get it to this point.
He’s going to break the Internet if you ever cut it.
Oh, big time. Big time.
Besides the work you do with Jared, what’s a typical work week like for you?
Right now I’m in the process of opening a hair salon in L.A., and I also own two other hair salons. I opened my first one in July in Miami and my second one in October in New York. All three will be called IGK and we have an IGK product line that will coming out in March 2016. So it’s a lot. I have a dog, so getting up and dealing with my dog is number one. I’m usually on the phone dealing with our products because that’s been taking up a lot of time. I’m working at a little temporary random studio while I’m negotiating a lease in L.A. The last two years I’ve been in and out of the salon because Jared’s been really busy but right now I’m seeing probably 100 clients in four days [when I can be in the salon].
Do you see many celeb clients now regularly or is it primarily Jared?
It’s a gift and a curse you know. It’s a dream come true to have this type of relationship with somebody. It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t happen everyday that you’re working with a famous person that everybody’s into. Now I have my hairdresser friends all over the world sending me pictures of their clients bringing in a picture of Jared. I get a lot of calls. I do work with other celebrities but with everything that Jared has coming up it’s tricky.
There are a lot of hair product brands out there. What is the goal for your product line? What did you see missing in the market?
There’s so much and when you really start to look into it, it’s all the same. What we’ve been trying to do is go back to a line that’s really simple. Ninety percent of hair product lines are water-based and we’re working with a secret ingredient that I just can’t talk about because of trademark stuff. It’s water, but the most hydrating water you can use. People are going to be able to use this line to naturally style their hair, as opposed to correcting something.
Do you think all the red carpet attention in the media lately helps the behind-the-scenes people like hair stylists?
To be honest it’s mainly beneficial for designers. It really is. But for behind-the-scenes people I feel like the recognition comes with the work. If you’re working with someone that people constantly see, you’ll get recognition. My personal opinion is that the hair on the red carpet just hasn’t been interesting in the last couple years. It was kind of exciting to me to do something so unplanned, to work with a guy, with a male movie star, and have the same type of attention that women were getting.
What would you like to see more of on the red carpet?
I’d like to see more celebrities work closer with one or two people. The hard part of creating looks for the red carpet is when you have certain celebrities that maybe had great hair at some point and the next awards show they use somebody else. You don’t know what you’re getting. When celebrities work with stylists and makeup artists, it’s tough because it’s a nerve wracking experience. So if you’re not working with somebody you’re comfortable with it’s going to affect the hair. Maybe because they have too much control or they’ve never really worked with you so they’re telling the stylist too much and the stylist is taking in all that information and trying to give them what they think they want. The best hair comes out of having a consistent stylist.
Where do you hope you are 10 years from now career-wise?
Ten years from now I hope to be healthy first of all, because it’s tough. It’s exhausting. I hope my salons are on fire. What I want to do is take what I’m doing right now and bring in stylists around me that I can give this to. I want to maneuver the next generation of Hollywood [stylists] through the hair business. It’s so key. Hair is the number one thing with star power. You’re not a star if you don’t have great hair.
This interview has been edited and condensed.