Baldness cures are nothing new. Ancient Egyptians used hippopotamus and crocodile fat as hair growth stimulants. The Romans burned donkey genitals and mixed the ashes with urine in an attempt to grow luscious locks. Various types of animal poo have also been used. Early wigs were made of horsehair and Regency ladies often used strips of mouse-skin glued on to replace balding eyebrows.
Fast forward to the start of WWII and a Japanese dermatologist extracted hair-bearing skin from one area of the scalp and transplanted it to another part affected by burn injuries where he punched a hole and replanted it. This work was replicated by a surgeon in 1950s New York and became the first form of hair transplantation. It was also realised that side and rear scalp hair was often more resistant to baldness making it good for harvest sites. However results could be uneven, with bad scarring and continuing hair loss exposing the plugged areas, so that patients could end up looking worse than if they had had no surgery at all. It was only in the 1990s that the process evolved into a more densely packed and realistic replication of the hairline.
On the prosthetics front only toupees and wigs tended to be available until a young man, Sy Sperling, found himself losing his hair aged 26 in the mid-1960s and, wracked by depression and a bad divorce, feared he would never date again unless he did something about his premature baldness. He was particularly concerned about hair solutions liable to slip or fall off, spoiling intimate moments, and visited a stylist who recommended weaving. a process involving the knitting of human locks into his existing strands. However the first time Sperling shampooed it, it collapsed into a knotted ball of hair.
There HAD to be a better way, he thought. Over the succeeding years Sperling met and married his second wife, Amy, a hair stylist who was ironically not bothered about his disappearing locks. Together they set about devising a new ‘stay put’ solution which would enable men to regain their confidence, and just as importantly, live normal lives.
Eventually Sperling left his job in swimming pool sales and rented a New York salon using credit cards. He and his wife perfected a new technique which used breathable nylon mesh woven onto hair around the scalp. Existing hair could be teased through the mesh with matching hair added to fill in the gaps with all hair then cut and styled to blend together. Though the technique was time-consuming and required regular salon visits to maintain, it was considerably better than anything else on the market and achieved that all-important goal of enabling their male clients to live normal lives without worrying about losing their hair on windy days or at crucial moments in the bedroom. They could also exercise and shower as normal. Polymer adhesives were added for extra strength and the first ‘hair systems’ were born.
The idea quickly took off among New Yorkers and celebrities alike with Sperling rather indiscreetly claiming that even Jimi Hendrix had visited for a fitting in 1969. For ten years Hair Club For Men, as it became known, thrived before business slowed down. The problem turned out to be that although customers were happy they were too embarrassed to tell anyone else leading to a problem winning new customers. Sperling decided to embark on an advertising campaign. Sperling started off using testimonials from happy customers. A back up film featured him discussing how he himself was both president and client of his own company. The official film failed so the back up was used, and aired late at night when TV advertising was cheapest. Within the first month the company had received more than 10,000 calls.
Viewers could call for a discreet brochure discussing various hair-system options and why Sperling’s approach worked. By 1991, there were 40 franchise locations across the US. By 1993, the commercial was airing 400 times a day, costing Sperling $12 million annually in advertising. But it was drawing up to $100 million annually in sales. In admitting what most men wouldn’t, Sperling inspired trust – and profit. Reporters were even encouraged to tug Sperling’s hair to prove that it was realistic and scarcely moved.
Later the Hair Club for Men would drop the word ‘men’ as more women began seeking help too as well as child cancer patients. Sperling sold the business for $45 million in 2000 to a group of investors who turned around and sold it in 2005 to the Regis hair company for $210 million. Today, Hair Club continues to offer refined versions of the original solution, as well as topical treatments like Rogaine (minoxidil), laser treatment and the latest transplant surgery. Their pioneering work has also inspired a host of hair loss businesses across the world.
Sperling also inspired a certain CEO of Remington razors with his similarly trust winning TV adverts proclaiming ‘I liked this shaver so much I bought the company!’