how masami hosono’s genderless haircuts quietly changed the game

The owner of NYC's Vacancy Project believes "[everywhere] will be all gender-neutral in the future."

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Jun 13 2018, 3:27pm

It’s not unusual for hair stylists to become icons in their own right. The wizards behind Kelsey Lu’s sculptural masterpieces, Lily Allen’s Pepto-pink bob, and the Kardashians’s butt-grazing sew-ins have attracted their own share of the spotlight. But Masami Hosono of Vacancy Project doesn’t do hair for famous people — she doesn’t even do color — and her headquarters is a neon-accented nook in the East Village. Her rise to NYC icon status came when she casually posted an ostensibly non-sexy Instagram about a new pricing structure. “Starting April, I am equalizing women and men's haircut. They will both be $80,” she wrote. “I always wondered why we separate our hair styles based on gender? It's really diverse in a spectrum of preference! Many of my clients also identify gender neutral or transgender so...the aim is a gender neutral salon. Cheers!”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, when gender and identity were hotly debated topics, the initiative resonated hard with Hosono’s queer and trans clients. And a Masami makeover has never just been about hair. Her punky crops and nouveau mullets are done mostly on who the stylist calls “major change” clients, people who have experienced something in their personal life — a breakup, a relocation, a gender transition — that calls for a fresh aesthetic. Hosono doesn’t want to just be a hairstylist either. She’s also modeled for Helmut Lang and Sandy Liang, launched a zine, and spearheads the monthly queer-friendly dance party Ladylike, to raise money for women’s organizations. Most recently, Hosono launched a cooking Instagram account, @cashonly.jp, which she describes as a “gaysian cooking channel.” i-D talked to Hosono about why hair is so much more than that.

Why did you start Vacancy Project?
I was cutting hair in Tokyo for almost six years, and I moved to New York City in 2012. I came here for sightseeing and I really liked NYC because it’s such a vibrant city, so I decided to move here. I worked at two different hair salons before I opened Vacancy Project. I didn’t really care whether or not I had my own hair salon but I had a lot of creative people, clients and friends, and I just realized that a lot of hair salons divide by gender, and I wanted to do a gender-neutral hair salon. I think [everywhere] will be all gender-neutral in the future.

How has your relationship to your own hair changed over the years?
My hair was always short. I just love going to hair salons. I go to hair salons too much, so I’m always going short, short, short.

What’s the first haircut you remember getting?
I really wanted to go short. The first time I got a short haircut I asked my mum, and it was really bad. Short haircuts are really difficult. Now I know because I do them, but it was a bad experience [laughs].

What was the initial reaction when you first announced gender-neutral pricing?
I posted on Instagram about it and I was not really planning for the announcement to reach so many people. I used to have men’s haircuts and women’s haircuts. I realized so many creative people followed my Instagram, and they were like, ‘I’m so happy you’re doing this.’ It wasn’t just about the hair salon. It was right after the election and people were thankful for this small thing. The attention from online magazines was surprising but good. Young transgender clients follow me because of those stories.

You became NYC-famous quite quickly, and have also done modeling work. What was that transition like?
I love doing modeling. As branding it’s just interesting. I want to be a kind of icon. But I like that the fashion industry is not just using young, skinny, white girls any more. It’s more important how unique they are. They use real people of different ages. I was in a street campaign for Rachel Comey last year that was really interesting. I worked with Sandy Liang for her presentation at Mission Chinese, and how she styled people was very interesting.

What is the first step when you’re consulting with a new client?
That’s the most important part. I want to know who they are. It’s not just about hairstyles. They also have experiences in the past. I have ‘major change’ clients every day who want to go from long to short. So first I want to make sure that they’re actually ready to change. I also want to know why they want to change, and if they’re excited about it. I don’t want to give someone a hairstyle just because it’s trendy.

You must get a lot of post-breakup clients.
Yeah [laughs]. A lot. They look so much nicer.

Why do you think your short haircuts have become so popular?
It’s not conservative for women to get a short haircut. It’s very strong and edgy. I’m actually not doing color any more, but people aren’t actually [requesting] color any more. Now it’s more natural. [It’s the same] with skin care and food — people don’t want chemicals. But it’s also not about trend — you can be confident with what you already have.

Are you still doing the Ladylike parties?
I am! It’s been really busy and fun. I met Oliver [Stumm], who owns Better Days and Café Select. He used to have a record label and is friends with so many older, cool musicians. Then we have my friends who DJ, JD Samson, Silvia Prada… We started very small but now it’s big enough that we can do benefit events to raise money for women’s organizations. I want to do more.

What else do you want to do? How else do want to keep fostering positive vibes at Vacancy Project?
I don’t just want to be a hairstylist. I get so bored and I love partying. In New York everybody is doing different things. Artists work at restaurants and bars. I like to find new things all the time. I’ve been doing a cooking Instagram recently. But I love cutting hair.

Who would be your dream client, alive or dead?
I really wanna cut Jenny Shimizu’s hair because she’s really hot. I really want to cut Patti Smith’s hair. I see her all the time downtown, and I hope she will be in my hair salon one day.