About 18 people gathered in a semicircle inside Drybar’s new location in the meatpacking district of Manhattan. It was mid-December, and in the previous weeks they had been trained in the fine art of giving the greatest possible blow-dry. They knew how to create the beachy rumpled look of the Mai Tai blowout and the sharp, pointy, uptightness of the Straight Up; they knew how to make you look like an extra from “Steel Magnolias” with the Southern Comfort. They could twist your hair into an Uptini, if that was your need on a particular day. They knew how to turn around the salon chair with a flourish so that the customer, who up to this point had been too mesmerized by watching “The Devil Wears Prada” on a big-screen TV to notice what was being done, could see her hair, shiny and smooth, in the mirror on the wall behind her.
As Drybar’s founder, Alli Webb, sitting atop the bar to greet these new employees, likes to say: “We’re not selling blowouts. We’re selling happiness and confidence.”
The next day, this new Drybar would open. All the appointments — 200 blowouts — had been booked for days. This was Drybar’s 39th store. It would open its 40th within just a month, on the Upper West Side. A blowout is a diabolically ingenious product: it can be undone and destroyed simply by adding drops of water. The top three blow-dry chains — Drybar, Blo and DreamDry — have more than 100 locations in the United States so far. As recently as 2007, there was not even one. The feeling of “happiness and confidence” that comes with smooth hair is real, but it creates its own self-perpetuating need.
Ms. Webb didn’t invent the modern blowout, but Drybar is the largest chain in the United States. Its growth suggests something of a holy war on frizz, one neighborhood at a time.
Ms. Webb, who is 40, came to Manhattan from Irvine, Calif., where the company is based. She attends all of the store openings, to meet the new stylists, tell the origin story of the company and relate to them how badly she wants Drybar to keep its mom-and-pop feel. She sat cross-legged on the bar — that’s the counter where women sit to have their hair blown dry; everything in Drybar, from the coaster gift certificates to the Happy Hour shampoo is real bar-themed — and began by asking the new stylists what they would have been in another life. One woman, who would have been a “celebrity stylist and/or a ballerina,” came to Drybar because she had worked at a salon that forced its workers to wear khaki pants and white button-downs and where stylists weren’t permitted to talk to one another on the floor. At Drybar, you can talk to your co-workers, and you can wear anything, as long as it’s black or white or yellow or denim.
In just five years, Ms. Webb’s business has grown to a $50 million-a-year enterprise. (That was in 2014; the company says it is on track to generate $70 million in revenue in 2015.) This was not what she imagined growing up in South Florida. Back then, a young Ms. Webb (nee Landau), was forced to contend daily with her hair, which was wavy, and in humid Florida, very frizzy. She says her poor mother deployed all her upper body strength to blow it dry for her, running a brush and hair dryer simultaneously from crown to end, crown to end, but her mother didn’t excel at this. She left what Ms. Webb calls “ridges” near the crown of her head. “How could you, Mom?” Ms. Webb would ask, she remembered with a laugh.
Ms. Webb meandered a bit after high school. She dropped out of Florida State University after a year, and then worked with her brother for a while in retailing. She enrolled in a beauty school in Boca Raton and, after she graduated, worked for great hairstylists, like John Sahag, a pioneer in dry cutting, which is what it sounds like. “That was like blow-drying boot camp,” Ms. Webb said.
After trying public relations for a while, she married Cameron Webb, and they moved to Santa Monica, Calif., where he became a creative director at Secret Weapon and she says she was happy as a stay-at-home mother. But eventually Ms. Webb itched to leave the house. She started a mobile blow-drying business, posting an ad to her local mothers listserv, naming her price at $40. She was flooded with emails. Mr. Webb made her a website.
Soon, she was busy — overbooked, in fact. Customers were hooked. The experience was far different from a badly lit Supercuts with children on booster seats screaming through haircuts. And it was cheaper than salons that charged $65 to $85.
The idea started percolating. She went to her brother Michael Landau, who ran a commercial real estate company, and asked for a loan for a bricks-and-mortar shop in Brentwood, where most of her clients already were.
Mr. Landau, who is bald, was skeptical.
“I explained to him that there’s girls like me, who have curly hair, who have been figuring out this their whole life,” Ms. Webb said. “Basically, I was like, I think if the price is right, I think women will do this much more regularly.”
The Webbs put their $50,000 in savings into it. Mr. Landau put in $250,000. They teamed with Josh Heitler, an architect who was helping Mr. Landau with a hotel opening, for a “French, shabby chic” look. Mr. Webb took care of all the creative directing: typefaces, the buttercup yellow on gray background for all printed materials, the coasters.
Ms. Webb focused on the experience. She didn’t want clients looking into a mirror, because “you only need a mirror for cutting.” Otherwise, the mirror is just a way to feel bad when your hair is wet or pinned up in an awkward way for the duration of the blow-dry. “I knew the spin would be the thing,” Ms. Webb said.
She wanted everyone to be offered a drink, be it water or Champagne. She wanted the client to be pampered. And she wanted televisions, big screens right in the line of sight of the client, playing estrogen-soaked fare like “The Notebook,” with subtitles to counter the roar of the dryers. And then there was the actual blowout: Start from the front hairline, since the front is the first thing people see. About a week before the first shop opened in February 2010, a DailyCandy article about Drybar turned the trickle of appointments into a flood. That first day, she arrived at her new shop and called Mr. Webb and Mr. Landau, who were not yet there. She cried into the phone: “You’ll never believe what’s happening here.” The place was full, and the bookings were coming in quickly. The store was a hit.
That year, they opened three more stores in California, before expanding the next year to Texas, Arizona, New York and Georgia, and later to Washington, D.C., and on and on.
Drybar now has 3,000 employees. There is a line of styling products, hot tools and brushes, sold in the Drybar shops and at Sephora. The company has about 50 investors, many of whom began as clients, like the actress Rose McGowan, and Alexander von Furstenberg, who got in touch about investing after he picked up his teenage daughter from a Drybar shop where she was getting a blowout. “I was like, wow, this place is so well run, just the execution, you know, everything,” Mr. von Furstenberg said.
Mr. Landau, the skeptic, said that initially he had just wanted to support his sister and “would have been thrilled to get the initial investment back.” But he left his company to work with Drybar full time soon after the first shop opened. He is now chairman of the board, with John Heffner, previously of O.P.I., the nail polish company, replacing him as C.E.O. Ms. Webb’s whim had become a full-fledged business.
Drybar’s next move will be a return to its mobile roots. In May, Drybar will release an app called Dry on the Fly: A satellite will locate you and a Drybar-trained stylist will show up and give you a blowout for $75. The company plans to open 12 to 15 new shops this year: Locations in Houston and Beverly Hills just opened. The expansion to Toronto, and to foggy, frizzy London, will follow. On rainy days, Drybar provides customers with a free umbrella. “The writing was so on the wall my whole life,” Ms. Webb said. “It just took me a long time to figure it out. Because when you look back, oh my God, I’ve always been obsessed with hair.”