I found Tom Zappala when I first moved to Melbourne. I've always been a lover of unconventional hairdressers, avoiding traditional hair salons. I can't stand them to be honest - I dislike having a million different hair styling products in my hair, overdone blow-drys (which I never manage to recreate myself anyway), and I'm way too lazy to spend hours styling my hair in the morning. So when I settled down in Melbourne I figured I might as well give Google a try to find the best hairdresser in Melbourne. It didn't take long for me to come across endless reviews of people going on about how awesome, dedicated, and personalised Tom's services were. I even remember people following him to Melbourne from LA just to get their hair cut.
Apart from being great at cutting hair and honestly explaining what's going to work (and not work) and why, Tom's also very interesting to talk to. Maybe I'm naturally drawn to unconventional thinkers, but I knew from our conversations that there was a lot of valuable knowledge and interesting insights to be covered. So, naturally, this led to an interview...
Tell us a bit about yourself - where and how did you grow up, how did you get into hairdressing?
I was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles to a Danish mother and a Sicilian father who were both born in New York. As the fourth of five children, things were indeed hectic and at times tumultuous in those early years. With an introverted nature, the home environment inexorably helped foster the independent personality traits that thrive today. From an early age I showed signs of creative interest which manifested in a pursuit of live performance both musically and theatrically. There were years spent playing piano, trumpet, drums, and bass guitar. Somewhere in there was a role in a musical, and an independent film. As my early 20’s arrived, the needs for financial stability and further independence took hold. Feeding a need to avoid typical career conventions, somehow the idea of hairdressing came into view. I think it ticked the boxes which represented a certain level of freedom, movement, and creativity. The hours, the aesthetic…the ability to choose my path, all resonated soundly. Ultimately, what lit my passion for it…what keeps it motivating to this day is something entirely different though.
What do you answer when people ask “what do you do?”?
When not at the salon, I’m pretty mentally drained so often it’s a question which is actively dodged. The answer ‘hairdresser’ typically leads down a very predictable and tiresome conversation path. In fact, I loathe the question so much, I do everything I can to not ask it myself. As with all interesting conversation though, all it takes is an individual presenting a unique and intriguing opening into a common conversation topic and it can all become enjoyably engaging.
I’ve read some reviews online - it seems that people are almost willing to follow you around the world just for your services. What makes you different and sets you aside from other hairdressers?
Sometimes I think it’s simply because there’s been substantial investment of time and energy. With reflection, it’s likely due to a continued obsession with excellence and refinement. Mine is different because I chose to be an independent 1:1 hairdresser. With that was a decision to directly question and ultimately go against the practices of the industry. I spent years listening to the things women repeatedly say they hate about going to the salon…and quite simply…have chosen not to do those things. I think and deconstruct what I do, a lot. I’m always questioning the methods and procedures to see if there’s a better way…often there is. Ultimately, it comes down to intention. While I have indeed developed, adhere to, and believe in an evolving philosophy, it still has to be about people, and making them happy. Effective communication is and should always be the entry point. The aim should always be transparent, honest, and collaborative. I strive to have my practice mirror those of a well trained and thoughtful practitioner. To quietly be an exceptional and reliable pillar of the community.
Can you share an important or big decision you made within the last 6-12 months that has had a real impact on your business? What went into making that decision, and why was it an important turning point?
The biggest shift of late has been switching away from being a ‘do it all’ hairdresser. Offering colour services in a one to one apprentice free setting presents too many uncontrolled variables which hinder efficiency. Early in my career the idea that a hairdresser offered every service was something I definitely believed in. Over the years though, I’ve found the sentiment “jack of all trades, master of none” to be very and alarmingly true…particularly in regards to cutting challenging hair textures. The shift was inspired by the idea of craftsmen, athletes, and dancers. Individuals who spend their entire lives in pursuit of specific excellence. Too, it was inspired by the massive amount of women booking in who due to their hair type have been extremely frustrated with their experiences in traditional salon. Being a solo practitioner who only cuts hair means I have the time and focus to meet and exceed their needs. This was the turning point. Realising that by offering multiple services that provided convenience to others, I was not performing at my highest level possible for those that need it most.
What do you believe is one skill that has helped you grow immensely both in business and life?
For me the two are quite connected. While I don’t believe it to be a skill, having the desire to challenge conventions while taking an actionable leap of faith has the ability to launch one into new, unexpected, and rewarding directions. Aside from that, I would say my tech background has a pretty significant contribution. I learned programming, networking, web development, and graphic design from the dawn of the personal computer era. The moment the internet went live I was active and had a web presence as a hairdresser within a year. It’s taken time but the investment in being tech savvy has absolutely benefitted my career now that our lives are so entwined with mobile gadgets and their screens. Creating and working in digital realms requires significant focus and obsession with details, and that transfers beautifully to hairdressing.
A lot of successful people have daily routines such as meditating, running, journaling, … Do you have any routines that you can’t do without, which have proven valuable?
Exercise is something I’ve found to be essential for mental and physical wellbeing. Over the years there’s been fits of obsession and complacency, but the focus thus far has been on 100m interval sprints, compound gymnastic ring movements, and body weight training. I actively invest in acupuncture and regular meditation. With a busy mind, taking steps to turn it off in the evenings is essential to keeping madness to a minimum and quality sleep to a maximum. It’s all an investment in the potential for a very long and prosperous journey. Aside from that, the only other oddity is I do subscribe to the idea of a dress code as a means of simplicity and efficiency.
How do you stay focused?
I set up my practice largely for the very function of focus, but there definitely a concerted effort to remain present and mindful in day to day living as well. To assist with this, I love to observe life around me, taking detailed notice of the environment which I am in. As technology increasingly commands attention and addictive tendencies, I resist and maintain vigilance in an effort to prevent the loss of awareness.
Who are your role models, who do you look up to and learn from, and why?
I learn from and look up to anyone whose path and mindset resonates. It’s typically individuals who in a pursuit of excellence have sacrificed to achieve. To this extent I draw inspiration from other practitioners whom I visit, performances I attend, and conversations I take part in. Life presents lessons and opportunities to evolve around every corner. I was somewhat recently inspired and re-energised by the story of Jiro Ono. I am immensely invested in the concept of finding something you love and are passionate about and doing it every day.
I remember we spoke about social media platforms a while ago - what’s your view on social media, especially visual networks such as Instagram?
While engaging with and relying on technology both personally and professionally, I am squarely anti social media. I utilise it to follow artists and understand the value for individuals within certain careers, but see no need to participate actively. It simply does not serve or improve who I am or what I’m trying to achieve in life or business. It’s largely junk food for the mind. For colourists in the hairdressing industry, I do see a point to utilise instagram. If one is trying to market a specialised service it can be helpful, but it quickly becomes rather redundant. Too, with a diverse clientele, visual social media has the potential to alienate those who don’t feel their aesthetic is well represented.
Can you share some of your core values and how they show in your life and business? How do you keep innovating and at the same time stay in line with those values?
My core values are simple. Lead with positive intentions. Strive for balance in terms of professional effort and personal joy. Effectively my journey is to make sure that I’m taking the necessary steps to maintain and develop a life which is always the best version of itself. Innovation happens when one maintains enthusiasm and curiosity for their craft. I’ve always observed what is around me, and paired it with what I find inside.
What drives you?
The pursuit of a sustainable, positive evolving professional and personal journey. The puzzle that makes us human. I aim to be worthy of the space I take up. It’s so easy to get caught up in the bullshit that is around us. The noise constantly tells us we are insufficient, breeds insecurity, and promotes a need for more than what we have. It’s all an attempt to keep lives distracted, complacent, and over-committed. A simple life is a good life. My mission is to remember to be grateful. To be kind. To be content. To be aware of the fact that this life, as it is, is so fortunate and lucky.
When it comes to making plans, ideas, and decisions - how do you make decisions, and how do you follow your gut (if you do)?
I’m wired to be much more spontaneous in regards to planning. As for general ideas and decisions, I’m much more analytical and methodical. I tend to ponder and then hold conference with those I respect. I keep a very small and very close inner circle. In the end, I do tent to trust my experience and instinct. Oddly, as life goes on I’ve found the most success in doing the opposite of what is considered the norm. As so long as life is happy and successful, I see no reason to alter the path.
Thanks for taking the time to honestly and thoughtfully answer those questions Tom!