NEW YORK — One morning this month, three women, all over 40, were perched in the cushy gray chairs at the Yves Durif hair salon, on 76th Street off Madison Avenue in the Carlyle hotel.
Given the address, you might have expected the mood to be reverent. Instead, the room rang with one-liners, while salon owner Durif, an energetic Frenchman, and David Johnstone, the unflappable, bespectacled color director, assessed each client.
“Don't you dare give me that boring Upper East Side hair," Dawn Bennett, 61, told Johnstone. “I want it rude, and I want it rock 'n' roll."
Bennett, an arts administrator at the Brooklyn nonprofit organization Urban Glass, once had long dark strands down to the small of her back. Now she does what she pleases, including, on this day, magenta streaks, three blunt tiers of bangs and an undershave that could turn her short hairdo into a Mohawk if she willed it with strong gel.
“Some of the young artists in the program have said, 'We have the coolest art administrator around,'" Bennett said proudly.
A chair over, Sunny Bates, an entrepreneur (her age was “somewhere between 49 and 100," she said), started the morning with the sedate above-the-shoulder bob in a cool blonde she had had for the last six years. Durif snipped the ends until a sleeker look emerged. He also gave her a fine undershave, albeit on one side.
“It's like playing hide-and-seek if she runs her fingers through her hair," Durif said. Johnstone then brushed on a gingery tint and the finishing touch: chunky white-blonde highlights befitting a comic book heroine. “I don't ever want to be plain," Bates said of the change. “The worst thing is to look too suburban."
But perhaps her friend Linda Holliday, chief executive of Citia, a book-digest company, was the boldest of the bunch. She chose semipermanent, swimming-pool-blue streaks that gave her usual sunny hue a punkish cast. “It's like my last summer fling," said Holliday, who is in her 50s, though she was slightly in shock after she emerged from the color room.
“I was at my stepdaughter's high school graduation a few months ago, and every one of those girls had the same straight long hair with the $30 blow-dry," she said. “It's oppressive. I know a lot of it is about attracting men, but if you're cookie-cutter, what kind of man are you going to attract?"
Wild colors and innovative hairstyles have resonated with a subset of the young and carefree, but in the salons of major cities like New York, London and Los Angeles, women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and up have adopted the trend. Often, they are ditching their classic Bergdorf-blonde coifs (aka Park Avenue blonde or Madison Avenue blonde) in favor of loud and dramatic statements.
Michael Van Clarke, a stylist in London who has tended to several royal families at his salon, has had requests for “crazy color flashes around the hairline, dip-dying or unusual temporary color tones," he said. “It wasn't us suggesting this. It was these very vibrant 50- and 60-year-olds who still want to compete, in a sense, with trendy young women."
He often uses temporary color (he particularly likes Wella Perfecton, a newish technology that won't stain blonde manes, he said) in wide streaks or all-over washes. It's best on well-dressed, well-groomed women, Van Clarke said, “because only if the rest of the package is quite refined and confident does it work."
“It's about the contrast of elegance with this shock of hair," he added.
Edward Tricomi, a partner in the chain of Warren-Tricomi salons, has been performing what he calls “hair pollination" at the Plaza hotel location. The free-form method ditches the coloring brush in favor of hand-splattering strands with hair dye, perhaps, as he showcased, in light aqua.
“Our older New York clientele is very progressive," Tricomi said, pointing to the intersection of art, fashion and music in the city. “Besides that, you have these 60-year-olds — my generation — who are healthy, going to the gym and feeling young. I certainly don't look like my uncles and aunts when they were that age. These women are living full and wonderful lives."
Even in Southern California, the land of long locks and sun streaks, women are edging to edgier. “It's not being driven by celebrities," said the colorist George Papanikolas of the Andy Lecompte salon on North Almont Drive in West Hollywood. Most of Papanikolas' famous clients, including the model Miranda Kerr, have natural-colored strands, he said.
“The Hunger Games," with characters sporting a rainbow of hues, may have influenced a wider audience, he said.
But in and around Los Angeles, “the cuts are still classic," Papanikolas said. “And it's a temporary color accent like an ombre effect with the ends dipped."
For example, he has doused the ends of Gela Nash-Taylor, a Juicy Couture founder, in mint green. Wives of rich show-business executives have also asked for the look. “It's more of a 'I don't care' or 'I'm having fun' energy," he said.
Yet according to the stylists, this is not a case of mothers imitating their daughters. “Actually, the young women are all requesting the same boring long cut," said Durif at the Carlyle.
“It's probably the economy," Johnstone added. “Young people are feeling vulnerable in their jobs, and so they go conservative with their look."