French Cut Hair
written by Michelle Gant | photographed by Tim Sugden
For French Cut Hair salon owner Monica Marteau, it started with her grandmother. “She was a very tall, elegant lady,” says Marteau, her accent lifting the vowel sounds tall, dispelling any question as to how her salon got its name. “As a child, I loved to imagine what I would do with her hair, her clothes, her makeup. She was my muse.”
By the age of eight, Marteau was approving her aunt’s outfits before they went out and styling her cousins’ hair in elegant up-dos for family Christmas parties. Today, she and her stylists balance that child-like creativity with the active listening and client-customized versatility that has launched French Cut to the highest echelon of Portland hair salons.
But if fourteen-year-old Marteau knew she’d grow up to be a hairdresser, she’d be horrified. A rebellious but clever teenager, her only criteria for her future was this: “I don’t want to be somebody’s slave,” she says. When she started blowing off her expensive private education, her parents suggested beauty school, but in Marteau’s mind, “hairdressing was being a servant.”
It wasn’t until a cousin mentioned how transferable hairdressing could be that something in Marteau clicked. “She said, ‘You have an eye. And if you have that, you can travel all over the world with it. You can give to other people with just scissors.’ Suddenly, it was less like being a servant and more like doing a service,” she says.
From there, Marteau, never one to do things halfway, decided if she would be a hairdresser, she would be the best. At sixteen, she moved from her hometown in the South of France to Paris to apprentice under world-renowned names like Jacques Dessange and Toni & Guy, both closely intertwined with the Paris art and fashion scene.
While the rounded, bubbly shapes and minimal texturing of classic French hairdressing were the basis of Marteau’s education, she slowly learned to stretch and break those rules for a wider breadth of expression.
Early in her career, as many creative minds do, Marteau herself evolved several times; her diverse odd-job gigs in scriptwriting, fashion design, interior design, and journalism all made their way into the vision and function of French Cut Hair.
“Just like my haircuts, I wanted my space to be versatile,” she says. From the big, dramatic runway styles of its annual Haute Couture Hair Show to the photo shoots hosted in the salon itself, French Cut is much more than a place to get your hair done. Its latest project is a film, titled I Am Your Hairdresser, which uses interviews with stylists across the world to challenge the misconception that “hairdressers are dumb, that they couldn’t get into college — not that they came to it out of choice.”
“The film is about looking at the hairdresser for who they are,” Marteau says. “It’s a beauty industry, and I wanted to go deeper into that — everyone has a different experience of beauty. We also talk a lot about what it is to be an entrepreneur, especially as a woman…I think, because I’m French, I brought a little socialisme to it.”
But if one needs convincing as to the artistic depth and human connection hairdressing can offer, it’s hard to imagine someone better to talk to than Marteau.
“Haircutting is intimate,” she says. “It’s one of the rare jobs where you touch people. And I ask my clients a lot of questions: their lifestyle, what they get inspired by. I’m like a guide to help the person express herself. People come in here and say, ‘Do whatever you want.’ But then, I have to ask, ‘What do you feel like projecting?’ We all go through different phases.”
After going through many, even Marteau hasn’t landed on one discernable style. She says she’ll “ride the wave of a trend, but try not to get stuck in it,” adding that she recently learned how to surf. “Surfing is pure beauty, right there. In your face. Because you have to let go.”
Always underlying Marteau’s success in the field she loves is an essential part of her story, one that gave her practice in letting go: her permanent move to the States. When she goes back to France, she no longer feels fully French, and here, she knows she’ll never quite belong the way American-born people do.
“Maybe it’s my personality,” Marteau says, “but having a really deep connection with ‘home’ is not going to happen.”
What Marteau belongs to, now, is her career. “It’s the thing I can offer and share,” she says. “If I don’t cut hair for one week, I feel like a tree that is dying. It needs its water. I’m lucky to have found a job that rejuvenates me.”
The stylists surrounding Marteau come from an astounding array of backgrounds. One studied biology, one’s a Japanese piano virtuoso who speaks four languages, one’s from a wealthy family, and one’s from a long line of hairdressers — but all have found a place of belonging in hairdressing, and in particular at French Cut.
Marteau believes that “when you look at the perfection of this world, it’s incredible — how everything is so divine,” she says. “I am in alignment with what I’m supposed to do. We all have this in ourselves. And for me, that’s my home — wherever I am.”