Cultivating Culture: Stevie Smith & Michael Davis

You know when you see someone in a crowded room and you say to yourself, “Who is that? What’s their story? Why are they here?” That’s exactly what I asked myself when I saw Stevie and Michael standing in the back of Chicago’s Revel Fulton Market.

You see, this past March, Justine and I were at Revel’s attending Wella’s Regional TrendVision Competition. When a young man named Pranith from Smith & Davis Salon in Chicago took to the stage with his model, an immense reverberation of joy and excitement bellowed from the back of the room. When I turned around to see who was celebrating this contestant, there stood Stevie Smith, Michael Davis and several members of their salon team. They were completely beside themselves. Michael was grinning ear to ear; Stevie was clutching her chest and seconds away from crying tears of joy. Their encouraging and supportiveness was contagious and before I knew it, I couldn’t keep my eyes off this group of people. At one point I even leaned over to Justine and said, “Look at these people. I want to know them.”

Once the winners were announced and the confetti cannons exploded, I hurried my way over to the group, introduced myself, handed Stevie my business card and said that we’d love to get to know them more. After digging around their website, reading their bios and stalking their social media accounts, primarily Instagram, we discovered that not only are they extremely encouraging of the staff and celebrate the efforts and talents of the team, but they are an extremely collaborative and creative salon team. Justine and I contacted Stevie and Michael and told them we’d love to feature and interview them, the salon and their entire staff. Stevie and Michael were happy to oblige and let us in to shoot and interview their team.

And on the last day of their staycation, Stevie and Michael let me pick their brain and get to know them on a more personal level, because up until this moment, all I knew about them was what was written in their individual bios. They also went into great detail about the collaboration process and why it’s so important to their brand.

Okay Stevie, tell me something about yourself that I haven’t already learned in your bio. How about you start with why you got into the hair industry and what brought you to Chicago.

It really started when I was a little kid. My dad raised me and he used to take me to a barbershop to get my hair done. When I was about 10 years old I decided I did not want to go to a barbershop anymore because it was stinky and they had terrible magazines and it was just filled with men. I just refused and put my foot down that I was not going to go to a barbershop to get my hair done anymore and I started doing my own hair. My dad was also very pragmatic so the idea of him spending money to take me to a salon wasn’t in the budget. So I was doing my own and from there I started doing other people’s hair, and then when I was in high school I moved from the small town I grew up in outside of Cincinnati, reconnected with my mother and moved to Atlanta. In my senior year of high school I knew college was not for me. I actually did not go to cosmetology school. I started working in a salon because I needed a job, and then the state offered me an apprenticeship because you could get licensed through an apprenticeship. Instead of the 1500 hours you need for schooling, I ended up doing double that through the apprenticeship. I moved to Chicago because I wanted to live in a bigger city and I chose Chicago because of my Midwestern roots and I had never been to the city before. That was back in 1994.

Have you always been a colorist?

Even though I do color in the salon, I’ve always been a generalist. I didn’t just train as a colorist. Concentrating primarily on color happened when we opened Smith & Davis due to us deciding to be departmentalized. I like being a colorist because I like being able to enhance shapes through color. Michael likes to build shapes and I like to enhance and decorate those shapes.

How about you Michael? What brought you to Chicago? Did you also go the apprenticeship route like Stevie or did you go to cosmetology school?

Michael: Part of my life I grew up in Florida and the other part in southern Illinois before I moved to Chicago in the 80s. I worked in a Chicago salon before I went to Pivot Point and then I did my apprenticeship at Vidal Sassoon. But I was even doing hair even before then when I was in college.

Stevie: At the time both Michael and I started doing hair, the circle of people we ran around with, the subculture we were both a part of was very punk rock, into music and extremely expressive. It was a lot of “do it yourself.” We would use Kool-Aid, Manic Panic, and markers to color hair because sometimes you didn’t have enough money to afford Manic Panic and when I was living in Atlanta, there was only one place you could buy it.

Michael: It wasn’t about money; it was about creativity and doing hair. From friends to artists to musicians, it snowballed. You start doing one person’s hair and then it snowballs into everyone coming to you.

Are you guys still into the whole punk rock scene?

Michael: We go to a lot of death metal show. We’re not really big metal fans. We just really like to go to the shows.

What have you both learned about yourselves since you opened Smith & Davis?

Stevie: I have learned that I have a knack for business and that even though I get very frustrated with numbers and accounting and all the little things, I actually really love the challenge of it. I have much more of an aptitude for it than I ever thought I would. It’s been a lot of trial and error.

Michael: For me it’s patience. I am much more apt now to just slow down and think about things. I feel like patience yields better results. I would say that’s the big one for me.

When it comes to having a strong salon team, what is the most important quality/character trait a team member should possess and why?

Michael: Passion. Absolute passion.

Stevie: I agree. You can teach people technique and you can develop skillset, but you have to have the passion. You can’t teach that.

Michael: And you can tell, especially when we’re interviewing people and even seeing how active they are on social media. That also gives you a good idea about how into it they are. We’ll ask them who some of their favorite hairdressers are or have them mention some of the people they’re following on Instagram. You can tell who’s into it and who’s not right away. At this stage in the game, anyone who is really into his or her craft has a page up on Instagram.

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Besides each other, who is your partner in crime in the salon and why?

Stevie: Adriana our salon manager. For one, if I have any sort of delegation to do, I’m going to delegate that task to her. Also because I think it’s important for Michael and me to get another person’s perspective and she is the liaison between the staff and us.

Michael: I am going to say the same—Adriana. She always adds a good perspective and her heart is always in the right place. She’s been really good for us.

If you could bottle up the Smith & Davis culture and sell it, how would you describe it?

Michael: It’s spirited, really. Everyone’s heart is very passionate and really into what we’re doing. It’s a relaxing and chill and very creative, stress-free easy place to be. It’s relaxing yet energetic at the same time.

If the Smith & Davis salon was an actual person, how would you introduce me to it?

Michael: Gosh, what kind of person would we be?

Stevie: Oh, umm…quirky.

Michael: It would be Ben Franklin.

[Laughter]

Stevie: Ben Franklin is pretty quirky.

Michael: Yeah, he’s totally out there.

Stevie: Ben Franklin is pretty cool and I think he was pretty fashionable too.

How would you describe the team environment you work in using only 3 words?

Michael: Supportive, Creative & Motivated.

Michael, How would you describe Stevie in only 3 words?

Creative, Ambitious & Intelligent.

Stevie, how would you describe Michael in only 3 words?

Determined, Talented & Funny.

The salon as a whole is very collaborative. Why is creative collaboration so important to the two of you and to the growth and success of the team and the salon?

Stevie: Because it’s what identifies our brand.

Michael: It’s the continuity and the consistency in the brand.

Stevie: And the uniqueness in our brand and it has to evolve as we bring in different talent and personalities. It’s imperative that everyone has a contributing voice in that because they are representing our brand. It’s not just “Smith & Davis” as people. It’s not just me and Michael and what we do and say; it has to be everybody.

What do you two think are the challenges and benefits of collaboration amongst a team that has various degrees of skillset and personalities?

Stevie: It gives people not only the opportunity to learn, but also to lead.

What is your role in this collaborative dynamic? Are you usually the project manager/team leader? The organizer? The peacekeeper? A workhorse? A racehorse? The person with all the big ideas?

Stevie: I’m the organizer. I am going to be the one to set the time for the meeting and take the initiative to initiate the conversation. As far as the ideas, everybody brings those and pitches in. It’s usually a conglomeration of ideas and then we as a group expand on that. But the consistent role I play is the overall organizer.

Michael: I’m more of the workhorse, but I wear all the hats as well. We have a really, really good young group of creative people working at Smith & Davis right now.

Stevie: It’s usually up to Michael and me to figure out all the logistics like finding the makeup artist, the clothes, etc.

Walk us through a Smith & Davis collaboration process – from concept to end result. Are you using whiteboards, mood boards, any specific technology or apps to make it streamlined and effortless?

Stevie: We have a morning meeting with fruit salad and snacks. We always have to have fruit salad. I started this thing with the fruit salad and now it is demanded.

We don’t make anything mandatory so the people who come to the meeting are the people who want to be involved in some way. Then we ask if anyone has any particular models or anyone, in particular, they want to shoot. After that, we start shooting around concepts and we bounce ideas off each other. During the meeting we nail down some keywords, pick a date when the photo shoot is going to happen and then we start a mood board. The mood board will then grow over the next few weeks. We usually have a physical mood board where people will email me their images and I’ll print them out, but this time around I was having technical difficulties so I created a digital one.

What qualities do you feel an effective project manager should possess?

Michael: They should be patient, organized and empathetic.

How does your team stay calm during the collaboration process?

Michael: We have a lot of food on hand so that helps.

[Stevie & Michael Laugh]

Stevie: I don’t want to sound like everything is always rosy but we really have not had any challenges and I think that’s because we don’t make it mandatory so people are there because they want to be there. That in itself eliminates challenges.

What are some conflict resolutions strategies that get used in your salon that has proved to be the most effective?

Stevie: We check in with our staff on a regular basis, usually 3-4 times a year. We sit down with each person as an individual. We’ll give our feedback and see where they’re at.

Michael: We’re also very transparent and we are as open as we can be with them.

Creating collections through collaboration is a great way to showcase your team members’ strengths and talents. What strength/talent (in addition to the fact they are either a stylist/colorist) does each of the following bring to the creation of a Smith & Davis collection?

Alicia

Stevie: She is a great all-around support and has a great editing eye. Alicia is the person who will notice a wardrobe malfunction.

Michael: She has a really good editorial eye. She helps out a lot for ideas for photo shoots and she is always very active on the shoots. If someone needs their model flat ironed, she’ll step in and be a team player and help out.

Bria

Stevie: Bria is up for ANYTHING and will take on any challenge headfirst.

Michael: Even if it is something out of her comfort zone, she won’t shy away.

Stevie: She takes it on and is a total do’er.

Pranith

Stevie: He has a fashion background and worked for Michael Kors and Surface magazine so he brings a refinement and a polish. He’s very meticulous.

Michael: He’s also extremely passionate.

Katie

Michael: She’s extremely talented and creative.

Stevie: And she is a hustler.

Abigail

Stevie: She has a crazy creative brain. Exceptionally creative. She is never short of ideas.

Michael: The last photo shoot was actually her idea.

Chad

Michael: He brings a very solid technical addition to the team. His work is extremely solid and his eye is very developed. He taught at the Sassoon Academy prior to coming to Smith & Davis.

Samantha

Stevie: She’s actually still an apprentice, but was the beacon, the visionary if you will, to the shoot prior to the last one. She wears all hats because she is an apprentice. On that shoot, she actually did two models. Samantha is always up for anything. From steaming clothes to being the idea person, she’s there.

Michael: Yeah, Samantha is always up for whatever.

Adriana

Stevie: She has done some makeup on the shoots and definitely helps in the organization of the preliminary stages of the shoot.

Getting a team to effectively collaborate with each other does require a bit of direction and training. What are some strategies and methods you have both implemented to ensure your team stays cohesive and able to come to the end goal of the project and work effectively with each other?

Michael: We are so collaborative throughout the day, just by the nature of the business and being departmentalized, that when we do things outside the everyday nature of the day, it just flows because it’s what we’re doing all day already.

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One last question for Stevie: One thing I noticed about you at first glance at Wella’s Regional Competition is your unique and distinctive style. In an industry that is very heavy on head-to-toe black attire, you add a refreshing amount of color. Let’s talk about your love of color, and not just in respect of hair color.

I recovered from attending Catholic school and having 11 years of uniforms. And the first salon I worked in we had to wear another uniform – all black and white. Socially, being into the punk rock scene and all that crap, it was like you had to wear the punk rock uniform so I think I just got to the point where I craved color.

I feel like it’s been a million years since I’ve worn all black.

Anywhere I go, any new city, I always go to a vintage clothing store. I like the idea of dressing for my particular mood or for my personality that day. It’s like I’m giving my personality or mood its own uniform.

 

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