Balayage 101

By Kadi


I am obsessed with hair color. I stare at everyone’s hair color at the airport, on the subway, even when I get my morning coffee.  It began when I first started beauty school as practice for my consultations. I would search for the worst hair color I could find, and in my head I would silently practice what I would say to the client if he or she needed to fix it, and then I would try to formulate a solution as fast as I could. (Little did I know how much this weird habit of mine would help me as I progressed in my career. Most clients REALLY appreciate a firm and decisive hair colorist. It gives them assurance that you know what you’re doing.)

Within the first minute of a client sitting in my chair, while they give me their backstory, I assess the situation, formulate a plan, and try to determine if what the client wishes for is a reasonable possibility, and how many sessions it will take to get to their desired goal. With clients that highlight their hair in particular, the first thing I look for is whether their hair was done by foil or balayage. I can quickly determined if foils were used by spotting a strong uniformity in color pattern and unfortunately at times by a harsh demarcation line at the root. Let’s just say, sometimes, it ain’t pretty.

Balayage is the most popular hair coloring request in many salons today (the hashtag alone yields over 16 million posts on Instagram), but the technique has been around forever. The term comes from the French word meaning “to sweep”, and was developed in the 1970s by the French as a freehand technique where the color is applied by hand rather than foils. In basic balayage, the hair is painted using one of three (or a combination) of three paint designs. These designs are singles, slants, and V’s.  As we explore more intermediate and advanced balayage techniques, I’ll review even more patterns and approaches that can done with your paintbrush.  The sky is truly the limit.

Because I went to work for a French salon directly after beauty school (Frederic Fekkai), the last time I picked up a foil was almost 20 years ago. I had to completely unlearn everything that I was taught in school, and was forced to approach hair from a completely different perspective. It was no longer about applying color in a pattern, but now about seeing every head of hair as an individual canvas that could be painted according to need. The entire picture had to be visualized and customized. It took me years before I was confident enough to say that I had mastered this approach. Everyone who knows me can vouch that I am NOT a natural Francophile. (That’s a whole different blog post;)). However, when it comes to hair, I have to admit, the French know what they’re doing. Interestingly enough, my former boss and forever mentor, Serge Normant, is also French, but his approach to hair is the polar opposite of Frederic. Even with the newfound freedom to explore hair that I had at Fekkai, there was still a textbook “Fekkai” approach to hair.  And for the better part of 4 years while I assisted color legends such as Constance Hartnett, my skills were honed and tested and refined with weekly classes that were a requirement for any assistant who dreamed of one day getting their own chair.  It was a combination of boot camp and a masters degree in all things hair color.  Now, many years later, I recognize what an amazing privilege it was to get such intense hands on training, as there are truly not many scenarios that end up in my chair that I don’t feel like I can solve.  (To be clear, I still will always decline to do a client if they are set on something that I don’t think their hair can handle, and as a general rule I’m not a fan of bleach and tones. More on that later though..)

In NYC in the early 2000s, it was easy to spot a Fekkai client. Chic, sun-kissed color, but “done”. Over time, my work has become decidedly undone. No two clients are ever the same. I truly believe I got to that comfortable place because of the freedom that balayage has given my coloring style. Balayage is also a very economical way to color your hair as you never have a solid demarcation line or regrowth, so if you can’t afford to get it done for another month it won’t look atrocious. However, if your balayage isn’t done correctly you can end up with excessive overlapping that can cause damage. The process varies depending on the length of the hair and the desired result.

If I had to say one thing (or two) that does frustrate me when seeing how balayage is represented on social media, it is that there is sometimes a repetitiveness that is present in many of the posts.  Everyone looks the same, which is mind-blowing considering the amount of freedom and customization that balayage allows.  I was also taught that the first rule of thumb is, because balayage is supposed to mimic nature’s most natural highlight, there should be a soft beginning.  The beginning of the highlight should be so delicate as to be undetected.  A whisper most definitely more than a shout, yet, in so many images tagged with the hashtag #balayage, bold stripes and strong starts exist.  I find that all my balayage clients are going for different looks and need to maintain it at different rates. From ombré to the most natural sun kissed highlights, to highlights that mimic an all over color, it can all be achieved with just a paintbrush, and the more years the client sits in my chair, the more tailored and individualized and nuanced her color gets.  Without fail, the photos that are most requested by new clients are those of clients that I have been doing for at least 3 years, and I always have to explain that their color looks that way because of commitment and an agreed upon long term game plan between them and myself.  Don’t be mistaken though, this still allows us a ton of room for changes down the line, but there is always a baseline that exists in their hair, my canvas, that allows for seamless transitions.

As I gear up to start teaching color classes and workshops again, I would love to get your feedback on what kind of things you would like me to focus on.  Because others took care and time teaching me, creating color and painting workshops is something I take very seriously.  When I do it, I hope to do it right, so  I encourage you to leave comments on our Instagram page, and as I prep lesson plans, I’ll try my best to keep all your thoughts and requests in mind.  Let’s paint!


photo 3-3


Author: Kadi

Celebrity hair colorist at Serge Normant at John Frieda NYC and 454 North Los Angeles, champagne drinker, future Senior LPGA tour golfer, part-time yogi, loyal friend & fearless dreamer.


  • Kadi,
    I just came across your article .. and reread it twice . First off.. thank you so much for reminding me of the greatest times of my career , also a time that required focus and determination with a no quit attitude. I had the pleasure to come up thru the ranks with you .. and I appreciate what you said .. we knew we were working towards that day when we would be given our own chair in the tower of Chanel , working side by side with our idols and the true influencers of the beauty industry . These were the days when you knew you were in the presence of a celebrity Hair Colorist .. who was just as famous as many of the celebrities that sat in her chair . You felt honored and privileged to be known as Constance new assistant. . And like a true celebrity , she only needed to be referred to by one first name . At the time we were there ..we saw many of our fellow assistants brought to tears due to the pressure we were put under by clients and by the volume that the worlds top salon of that time was pumping out . We also took care of our mentor as we moved up through the ranks as an assistant with care and respect .. and always wanted them to appear to their clients as calm and as on time as a colorist could be while doing 20-30 clients a day . That schedule went out the window.. by 9:01 am , when clients would show up on the wrong day , call and plead to get in , or Frederic would call for you to come to his floor and escort one of his clients down to your colorist to be squeezed in after he just finished her cut .. but wouldn’t let her leave until the color was spot on to match his cut . How on earth would we squeeze her in .. our colorist was already overbooked .. but we did what we could do to lessen the load off our colorist . We made many calls to the spa to tell them that our client was going to be late for one of their many appointments in the salon that day . Then our next call was to the Stylist to beg them to still take our client for their scheduled blowout.. even though they were an hour late to their chair . We also ordered lunches for our colorist and their clients .. we did all of this while managing 2-4 clients at a sink and greeted the next client and draped them .. often mixed the color , and went to check on them as they were finished with their new look with the blow dry they were an hour late for . As we did that .. how many times would we wait for that client .. and be one of the only people left on that floor for the evening and still have our cleaning and prepping the colorist station for our next morning shift . It was at that moment you realized I haven’t eaten today .. because we were too busy . We were proud not angry .. we were lucky .. but we earned it ! Frederic Fekkai was not just the only Salon to work to hone our skills with Color .. it taught us how to conduct big business behind the chair . We knew who ran in what circle .. we knew who the big players in Nyc were .. and the world . We knew if we wanted that persons friends to be our client also and get the whole group of clients .. who we had to squeeze in , who to never say no to , who we forgave that their flight was delayed and would show up 4 hours late and just sit down in the chair . . All while we were slammed the entire time , often our colorist didn’t realize how busy they were .. as they got ready as a group to go out to the new IT spot for dinner .. we were exhausted . We were proud and humbled .. and we still would help them finish their own blowout for their dinner plans after work . We would run to the store , pick up dry cleaning .. and never really felt out out .. because you wanted to show that person how you respected them . The classes on a Tuesday night after work ..were always nerve racking as we rolled our carts on to the elevator and headed to assigned floor .. and were judged , had our hands and ego slapped by our teacher of that class .. always in front of our peers .. and we also received praise in front of our peers . We were proud of the assistant who got the chair before us . This has been a very wordy email .. but just thanks for the memories didn’t seem enough . We never forgot or took for granted our journey .. I know every day every client you still do .. you’re brought back to 57th st.. and I guarantee.. if Constance , Frederic , Kimberly, or Serge would walk into a room today.. you’d get up and give them your seat, you’d make sure they had everything they needed .. and straighten their jacket or dress if it needed it .. because they will always be the greats .. and we will always show respect for the people who allowed us all to be a success in this business! And in closing .. I’m very proud to say I worked with you back in the day .. and I’m proud of your career .. I hope you are ! Here , take my seat ! Your old friend , Todd Fox

    Todd Fox on

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