Celebrity salon innovators Ted Gibson and Jason Backe are onto their fifth — or is it their sixth? — act as they close the industry’s first “smart” salon, LA-based Starring by Ted Gibson, to free their schedules and focus on new projects.
“The move has untethered us from everything,” said Backe. “There is a whole new kind of freedom that is inspiring and fun.”
Like many salons during the pandemic, their business took a beating, but Starring weathered the storm. However, once the writers and actors strike hit, the duo, who have operated four successful salons in as many states since 2003, decided that running their own salon was no longer an ambition.
“When everyone went on strike, it gave us a minute to think about where we were, what we wanted to do, and who we wanted to be,” said Backe. “We started to feel that the salon had served its purpose, it was a great experience in LA, we met amazing people, and had a good time. But it was something we didn’t feel like doing anymore.”
Starring by Ted Gibson officially closed right before Thanksgiving, and the couple is now settled in a home in Palm Springs. Gibson travels to LA several times a week to meet with clients (his celebrity roster includes Jessica Chastain and Lupita Nyong’o), while Backe is catering to a fledgling Palm Springs client base, working out of a salon called Saloniste.
Starring, built in 2019, was the first of its kind in the industry, leveraging Amazon technology to cater to a steady stream of high-net-worth clients (Gibson’s haircuts cost $2,400; a single process with Backe will set you back $450). The salon launched innovations such as virtual try-ons where clients could see what a new hair color would look like pre-treatment. It also debuted a reception-less check-in, custom made private workspaces, and iPads for clients to shop for products on Amazon, which would then ship clients their orders. Jason recalls approaching professional hair care brands with the idea of making QR codes available for clients to shop in the salon “instead of keeping $30,000 worth of inventory” in a back room.
“People laughed at us,” Backe said. “Now, QR codes are everywhere. There was a tremendous response and we got so much positive feedback,” said Backe. “We tried a whole bunch of different things, and it was a great petri dish for innovative ideas.”
The first Ted Gibson salon opened in New York in 2003 on Fifth Avenue across from the Flatiron Building. An outpost in Washington DC followed in 2008 (which coincided with reality TV appearances), followed by another salon in Fort Lauderdale. The couple closed all three salons in 2018 to move to Los Angeles, where they opened Starring.
Post-COVID, Gibson and Backe decided to start renting out chairs in their salon to stylists.
“When we opened our first salon, we were micromanagers, and it was a learning lesson for us about not being so controlling. After COVID, things were moving right along. We filmed a reality show with Paramount+ UK, ‘Blowing LA.’ Everything was good and then the strike hits, and everyone who worked at our salon was affected; they were able to pay rent because of [steady] gigs, but it got hard for everyone. It made us reevaluate if the work was really worth it.”
Over the years, Gibson and Backe have leveraged their decades of experience as salon owners into mentorship opportunities; they founded Worth Up Alliance, a non-profit that provides grants to beauty entrepreneurs to start or elevate their businesses. The idea for the organization came on the heels of COVID, when Gibson and Backe saw that other industries had mechanisms to survive, but that “the professional beauty industry never banded together the way it should have.”
Backe said he is invigorated by the idea of starting over.
“I’ve been at Saloniste for two days,” he said on Monday. “I’m slowly building a clientele here in Palm Springs. I looked into as many Palm Springs Facebook groups as I could and in three days I booked six appointments. I’m enjoying being back to the origins of why I fell in love with the beauty business, to connect with clients, to get new wind in my creative sails, without all the responsibility of rent, payroll, sweeping floors, and making sure the lights are turned off.”