Last of New York’s Master Wigmakers

At a time when wigs are increasingly popular, the artisans who make them by hand are a vanishing breed. -By ANNIE CORREALAPRIL 7, 2017

Nicholas Piazza keeps 600 pounds of hair in his Staten Island garage.

He stores it in plastic bins and cardboard boxes, opposite the fishing supplies. “Got grays, got browns, got blonds,” he said. “Got everything.”

Inside one bin, shiny brown bundles nestled around one another like snakes. He picked two thick braids and lifted them from the bin. Uncoiled, they were three feet long and nearly reached the ground. “This is all Russian hair cut right off people’s heads,” Mr. Piazza said.

Mr. Piazza, 69, is the grandson of Sicilian immigrants, the son of a detective, a tournament fisherman. He does not look like a man who would have an exotic hair collection in his garage. But for decades, Mr. Piazza was one of the most sought-after wigmakers in New York City. He made custom wigs and hairpieces for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Brooke Astor and Lena Horne at Kenneth hair salon. He also made the closest thing the world has seen to mermaid hair, creating the long tresses Daryl Hannah wore in “Splash.”

Much of his hair came from this stash, sourced from around the world, and which eventually outgrew his studio. “I couldn’t close my closets,” he said. “I had more hair than I knew what to do with.”

Mr. Piazza is one of the last Old World wigmakers in the city, men and women trained mostly by Italian and Jewish immigrants in the centuries-old trade of hand-tying wigs, a fussy affair that on the patience spectrum falls somewhere between tailoring a jacket and counting the stars.

These are not the hot-pink bobs at Halloween stores. They are made from human hair and have intricate hairlines that blend into the skin. To make one requires weaving hair, a few strands at a time, to a lace mesh cap with a small needle, a process known as ventilating. Ventilating a lace wig, which may have as many as 150,000 knots at its roots, takes about 40 hours.

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Wigs at Nicholas Piazza’s studio in Manhattan. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
For a quarter-century, Mr. Piazza had a studio on 57th Street in Manhattan, once the hub of high-end hair, along with master wigmakers such as Bob Kelly, who for three decades made wigs for “Saturday Night Live” and died in 2011, and Raffaele Mollica, who long ago moved his atelier to the Upper East Side. These days, Mr. Piazza rents a few rooms in an unmarked salon in Midtown, where he moved when his old building became a luxury high-rise and where he works just three days a week, mainly doing maintenance on his clients’ wigs, which start at $3,850.

“I’m done,” he said. “Just coasting.”

This may appear to be yet another case of an antiquated craft disappearing from New York, one artisan at a time. But wigs are far from being swept into the past. The demand, it turns out, hasn’t been as high as it is now since the wig craze of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Mr. Piazza and his fellow wigmakers entered the field. Wigs are part of the boom in the human hair trade that began with extensions.

According to Emma Tarlo, an anthropologist who wrote “Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair,” hair extensions reignited “a frenzied global trade in hair” in the early 1990s. Last year, human hair imports to the United States were valued at $685.3 million, according to the Census Bureau, up from $51.6 million in 1992.

Hair — human, synthetic, animal and sometimes secretly a mix of all three — has become a billion-dollar industry, and as Chris Rock explored in his 2009 documentary, “Good Hair,” the driving force is the African-American market, which has embraced wigs along with extensions and weaves.

It began with celebrities wearing lace wigs (the term of art) — Beyoncé, Brandy, the Kardashians, Nicki Minaj. And it’s difficult to think of bigger movers in the market. “It’s the cool thing now, whereas before it was something that everyone was trying to hide,” said Hadiiya Barbel, who was Wendy Williams’s personal wig stylist and now has her own line of wigs.

This is not a new phenomenon; it is just more public. During one interview, Mr. Piazza pulled out a magazine with the star of a long-running daytime TV show on the cover and said, “She’s got five of mine.”

The world of wigs in New York is vast, and various. In Midtown, Korean-American wholesalers sell them in bulk in the human hair district, and a roomful of wigmakers weaves hair for the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway musicals. At the hair emporiums along 125th Street in Harlem and Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn, women sort through styles with names like Senegalese Twist and Peruvian Bodywave. In parts of Brooklyn and Queens, among the few public places you’ll find Orthodox Jewish women not wearing their wigs is the swimming pool.

Most of the wigs on the market, though, are made in China, where thousands of factory workers do the painstaking work that New York’s wigmakers once did: plucking short and splintered hair from bundles, baking curls, stirring hair in vats of bleach, hand-knotting wigs. “A lot of the people who call their wigs ‘custom,’” Mr. Piazza said, “they just write up the order and send it to the Orient and then when they get it, they’ll do some tweaking.”

There are only about 200 trained custom wigmakers in the country today, and a majority work in theater, film and television, said Michael Meyer, the director of the Wig and Makeup Design Program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, one of the country’s only programs for custom wigmaking. “There are people who take an online class watching YouTube videos,” he said. “But it’s a far cry from the people who have been trained and whose work can withstand an HD camera.”

One measure of a good wig is its hairline. It’s the most difficult thing to imitate, which is why a lot of wigs tend to have bangs. To achieve a naturalistic look, wigmakers stitch hair individually at the hairline, often even adding baby hair.

A worker at Raffaele Mollica’s studio hand-knotting a wig. Credit James Estrin/The New York Times
Another mark of a superior wig is the quality of the hair. Hair of the kind Mr. Piazza has in his garage — long, European and “remy,” which means cut from one head, lined up roots to ends — is the most valuable. It is $4,000 per kilogram, roughly the going rate of truffles. High-grade Indian hair sells for $2,000 per kilogram.

And that is where things get strange. Hair is unregulated, a largely hidden economy open to abuse.

“There are a whole lot of people living off of hair,” Ms. Tarlo, the anthropologist, said.

Wigmakers are only one stop in a long supply chain. Merchants scour the earth looking for hair, which they buy from peddlers who travel, usually alone, through poor, remote regions. In Myanmar, villagers untangle hairballs that will be sold to make extensions. In La Parada, a Colombian border town, hair stands recently appeared for women who enter the country from crisis-stricken Venezuela to sell their hair.

There is a ban on the international sale of skeletal remains, but human hair is treated like any other raw material, say, hardwood or textiles. It is delivered to the customer by courier, its provenance unverifiable.

The hair industry has expanded deliriously since Mr. Piazza started making wigs. It’s filled with stories of fraud and theft and hair obtained from countries in upheaval. In that sense at least, he says, not much has changed.

Mr. Piazza was not born with a passion for hair. He grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he met his wife, Beverly, when he was 16 at an Italian street festival. “I came back from Vietnam, and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said. “I became a hairdresser because my wife was a hairdresser.”

The late 1960s was a good time to get into wigs. The fad had begun with the bouffants popularized by Jacqueline Kennedy and the Supremes, which were nearly impossible to achieve without added hair. Hairpieces were clipped to the back of the head; big headbands had hair attached to them. In stores, hat departments became wig departments.

And the hair trade had exploded. In 1966, the United States banned the import of “Communist hair” from China. The same year, a new source was discovered: Hindu temples in India, where pilgrims had their heads shaved. “Hair of High Quality Plentiful There, American Says,” The New York Times reported; “$22 Million Deal Made.”

By the end of the decade, the United States was the biggest importer of hair, re-exporting it to more than 60 countries. Hair was marketed even to men — even to those who weren’t bald. Men were encouraged to wear fake mustaches and mutton chops, which Playboy magazine referred to as “short-order shrubbery.” Soldiers who were off-duty wore wigs over their buzz cuts.

Mr. Piazza apprenticed himself to a German wigmaker after hairdressing school, then went to work for Enny of Italy, under Ernesto Capparelli.

Many of New York’s wigmakers were Italian. For much of the 20th century, Palermo, Sicily, was the drop-off spot for hair harvested far and wide, and Italy had become the center of the hair trade.

Mr. Piazza remembers this as a time of creativity and drama. When synthetic fibers like Japanese Kanekalon appeared in the late 1960s, they drove down the price of wigs and caused the price of human hair to plummet. Some of New York’s wig purveyors were incensed.

In 1968, Murray Kaye, a Manhattan salon operator who called himself the Ralph Nader of the beauty industry, staged a “burn-in” of synthetic wigs. He said he wanted to show that they were a fire hazard.

Often, it wasn’t clear what was real. By 1970, human hair mixed with synthetic or animal hair was so common that the Federal Trade Commission reminded wigmakers that “‘true hair,’ ‘natural hair’ and ‘genuine hair’ should mean human hair.” That year, it issued regulatory guidelines. (They were rescinded in 1995.)

Mr. Piazza started working for Kenneth Battelle in 1973, and he invited him to start a wig business under the Kenneth salon name in 1979. As the wig craze faded, Mr. Piazza diversified.

Wigs on display at Apollo Beauty Land in Harlem, Manhattan. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
He made falls, slides, clip-ons, topknots and toupees, a mustache for an open-coffin funeral. In 1976, he said, he was called in to make an emergency merkin for a Penthouse model who didn’t have enough coverage. He made a line of hair ornaments that appeared in Vogue and looked suspiciously like fishing lures.

And before long, Mr. Piazza began hunting for hair.

“When Kenneth first put me in business, it was very difficult to find European hair in this country,” Mr. Piazza said. “Everyone always said the finest hair comes from Italy.” So he got a list of hair suppliers from the Italian Trade Commission and for the next several summers flew to Italy.

“I’d grab a suitcase with like two T-shirts and a pair of jeans, and I’d come home with about 80 pounds of hair,” he said.

Soon hairdressers and other wigmakers started requesting his services. “They’d say: ‘Pick me up a couple pounds, I don’t care if you make a few dollars. You’ve got good hair.’ So all of the sudden, I was a hair dealer.”

The three-foot braids in Mr. Piazza’s garage came into his possession in the mid-1990s. One day, two Russian men appeared in his shop carrying suitcases. “Natural blonds, natural reds, straight off people’s heads,” he said. It was the kind of hair known in the industry as “liquid gold” — Caucasian hair untouched by Western chemicals, long and remy.

“I say, ‘Whoa, fellows, you don’t have to go no further; let’s talk.’”

Of his Russian dealer’s shipments, Mr. Piazza recalled: “Sometimes it came stitched in pillows. Sometimes he would ship 20, 30 kilos of hair at a time. Sometimes I’d be going to an apartment in Brighton Beach at 2 in the morning or meeting a plane at Kennedy. He’d hand me a suitcase, and I’d hand him an envelope.”

Hair from Nicholas Piazza’s collection. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
It lasted just a decade. As capitalism spread, so too did Western hairstyles, hair dye and rapacious competition. Virgin hair became harder to find. The hair in the suitcases went from 36 inches long to 22, then to 18 and then to a barely usable six. “It got shorter and shorter,” Mr. Piazza said. “Then they couldn’t get it no more.”

But he figures he is pretty much set. “I still have two lifetime supplies.”

Fortunately for Mr. Piazza, hair decays very, very slowly. An Egyptian mummy on display at the American Museum of Natural History was put through a CT scanner, and the images revealed the outlines of what look like flattened pin curls on her skull.

Standing in Mr. Piazza’s garage among boxes and boxes of hair, I couldn’t help wondering whether the hair, harvested decades ago, hadn’t started to smell.

“Do you smell anything?” Mr. Piazza asked, handing me a braid.

The hair was clean and soft and had a faint, medicinal scent. Before I could answer, he announced: “Mothballs. Sometimes someone will come in and say, ‘I smell like mothballs.’” He smiled and took the blame. “I didn’t wash it good enough. And I’ll say, ‘It’s your imagination.’ It’ll come out.”

Claire Grunwald makes wigs and beards for the Orthodox Jewish community at her studio in Brooklyn. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
“Sheitel” is the Yiddish term given to the wigs that many Orthodox Jewish women wear, obeying the Jewish law to cover their hair in public after marriage. Claire Grunwald, of Claire Accuhair, is the grande dame of Brooklyn’s sheitel machers.

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Ms. Grunwald, 85, learned to make wigs from a German wigmaker while living in a displaced person’s camp outside Nuremberg after World War II. (She details this on a blog called Wigs, Poetry and the Holocaust.)

When we met at her home in Midwood, Brooklyn, she wore an apron over a sweater. Ms. Grunwald lost the lease on her salon on Coney Island Avenue, and for the moment she is working out of her basement.

Among the usual wigmaking bric-a-brac are items specific to her Orthodox Jewish clientele: black hair tightly coiled around sticks that are baked to make curly, prosthetic payot (the traditional Orthodox side locks); a head form with a fluffy white beard for an Orthodox man with alopecia. “It’s made of yak hair from Tibet,” she said.

Her own sheitel is shoulder length, gray and wavy. Orthodox women traditionally wear sheitels that are the same color and texture as their own hair, she said. Her custom wigs, which start at $3,800, are meant to be as close to an exact replica of their hair as possible, down to the part line and cowlicks. “Every one is like a fingerprint,” she said of her wigs.

When Ms. Grunwald arrived in New York, in 1949, her skills were in demand. Hats were going out of fashion, and sheitels were coming back. She immediately found a job with a wigmaker, and in 1960, after beauty school and marriage, she struck out on her own.

Curling sticks at Claire Grunwald’s studio. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
A lot has changed. One doesn’t have to know how to make sheitels to order and sell them, Ms. Grunwald said. She faces competition from every little neighborhood salon and from glamorous options like Shuly Wigs, a wig emporium in Kensington, Brooklyn, where hundreds of ready-made wigs cover the walls.

The owner, Shulamit Amsel, acknowledges that she is in a different category than Ms. Grunwald. “I’m not a wigmaker,” she said. “I’m a wig manufacturer.”

“It’s like a couture dress that you go to Dior and they make it for you versus the ready-to-wear collection,” she added. “That business is dying.”

Brooklyn’s sheitel machers came to the attention of the wider world in 2004, when rabbis in Israel issued a ruling that Jews could not wear hair from India, because of its possible association with Hindu religious practices considered idolatrous.

In the wake of the ruling, women rushed to buy synthetic wigs as well as cloth head coverings at the Uptown Girl Snood Factory Outlet in Brooklyn. Burning the wigs was declared the only acceptable way of disposing of them.

The Times described the scene in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a few days later: “By 7:15, several piles of wigs had been strewn about and ignited. A ring of people formed around one fire, fueled by a cardboard box filled with wigs, and pressed so close that two officers stepped in.

“Then a man darted inside the ring of people to throw yet another wig on the fire.”

Ms. Grunwald said: “I thought it was ridiculous. Crazy, meshugas. It was the zealots that caused it to happen. There’s nothing wrong with Indian hair.” Ms. Amsel, of Shuly Wigs, said, “It’s all connected to beliefs that we don’t want to comment on whatsoever.”

Sheitels eventually returned, some of them with kosher labels, but the decision had lingering consequences. India’s exports were affected. “There were a lot of wigmakers,” Ms. Grunwald said. “The men were sitting and learning Torah. The women were working as wigmakers to put food on the table. And that ruined a lot of women.”

She paused.

“We were all happy when it was over,” she said. “Now no one asks about Indian hair.”

Raffaele Mollica will tell you he is the last wigmaker. He will tell you loudly. He will shout and wave his arms and dismiss his competitors, even the deceased ones: “That hairpiece finagler?”

“I’m the only wigmaker who can make a wig from start to finish on earth all by myself. If anyone thinks otherwise, I accept,” he shouted, standing in his 84th Street atelier. “We can go into a room, bring our fabric, our hair, our ventilating needles, and we can make a wig.”

Mr. Mollica, who goes by Raffa and Ralph, was born 71 years ago in Sicily and grew up in Astoria, Queens. His wigs start at about $5,000 and are known as Ralphs.

They are so popular in international Orthodox Jewish communities that an impostor has been making imitations that he advertises around Israel, trading on Mr. Mollica’s reputation. “He’s a worthless scurve,” said Mr. Mollica, showing me a flyer for the so-called Ralph Wig Collection. The real Mr. Mollica is the one who gets a call when they fall apart.

Wigmakers known as "ventilators" hand-knot hairpieces for Broadway productions at the Wig Studio of Tom Watson and Charles LaPointe. By GUGLIELMO MATTIOLI on Publish Date April 7, 2017. Photo by Guglielmo Mattioli/The New York Times. Technology by Samsung. .
Like Mr. Piazza, Mr. Mollica was a hairdresser who shifted to wigs during the wig craze, trading haircuts for wigmaking lessons from a retired ballerina from Italy. He was inspired by the naturalism of “the Vidal Sassoon revolution,” he said, but after stints at salons including Vidal Sassoon, Kenneth and Elizabeth Arden, he opened his own studio in the 1980s, inspired by another revolution. “The chemotherapy revolution,” he said.

Mr. Mollica said chemotherapy changed his approach. Wigs for everyday use had to be both undetectable from a yard away and durable; wigs for film, TV and fashion don’t have to be routinely washed or handled.

Marcia Glikas, 65, found Mr. Mollica nearly 40 years ago, after trying injections and braided-in hair and falls to cover her rapidly thinning hair. She now has 20 Ralphs. “I can’t go in a convertible with my hair blowing in the wind, with my scarf blowing in the wind; I would love that,” she said. “But I have hair, I have hair thanks to Raffa.”

His wigs are as soft and light as he is brash. “In real life,” Mr. Mollica told me, meaning if I were his client, “you would only want a wig to look like you do now. Naturally, sloppily correct as opposed to plasticized at the beauty parlor by some insane hairdresser.”

Ms. Glikas came in for some upkeep on her wavy wig not long ago. “I was shocked to find he was bald,” she said. “He had lymphoma, after helping so many people.” The cancer is in remission, Mr. Mollica said; he has no plans to leave the business. “I’ll retire when I die,” he said. “There will never be another custom wigmaker after I die.”

New York’s Old World wigmakers have not systematically passed on their knowledge to apprentices, though they have taught countless immigrant women to weave hair for them. And when Merria Dearman, a wigmaker for theater productions, wanted to learn how to make wigs for the public, she said, she had to come seek them out.

She was working at a salon and making wigs for companies like the Berkeley Repertory Theater, when one day she realized the wigs she was making for performers were higher quality than what was available for people with alopecia and cancer. “There is a gap in our market,” she said. “It clicked.”

She moved to New York from the San Francisco Bay Area. She sought out wigmakers like Mr. Piazza. “Imagine, I move here to learn this, and these are the guys I meet,” Ms. Dearman, 40, said. “They’re kind of a dying breed. They’re the Italians everyone goes to.”

She opened her studio three years ago, on 58th Street, and the clients rained in, mostly young women with hair loss. “They find me after they’ve had their hearts broken by other wigs,” she said.


Wigs on display at Araya, Hadiiya Barbel’s wig studio in Manhattan. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
“Forget about this supposed ‘I’m a single black woman woe is me’ epidemic,” a writer for the news site The Root named Yesha Callahan wrote on her blog one day in 2010. “The real crisis sweeping the nation are lace-front hairlines that start at the eyebrows!” Her tongue-in-cheek sendup of celebrities with imperfect wigs concluded: “I blame Tyra and Beyoncé for this lace-front wig epidemic.”

Celebrity culture is credited with — or blamed for — the sudden popularity of wigs. But Hadiiya Barbel, the former wig stylist on Wendy Williams’s talk show, said the real instigator was technology. Celebrities had always worn extra hair. But in the 2000s, high-definition cameras created the need for a more convincing illusion.

“We really had to make it look like it was coming out of her scalp,” she said of Ms. Williams, who is vocal about her love for wigs. “We had to perfect the hairlines and balance it — add denseness, take away fullness.” Like Tokyo Stylez, who has worked with Lil’ Kim and Rihanna, Ms. Barbel became part of a new phenomenon: the celebrity wig stylist. The wigs in her line, Araya, run from $750 to $3,000.

“I started converting my clients from weaves to wigs,” said Ms. Barbel, noting that they were the latest development in the so-called natural hair movement, which encourages black women to forgo harsh chemical treatments like relaxers or perms.

Ms. Barbel, who shows off big, dramatic wigs on Instagram, recently got a feverish request from a Brazilian Carnival queen who had seen a video of her dancing: “Give me that hair.”

Hadiiya Barbel, a wig stylist, at Araya, her studio in Manhattan. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Egypt Lawson, whose wig company Hairline Illusions operates in Harlem and Atlanta, said the big shift was that people spoke openly about wearing hair. “Vivica Fox took off a piece of her hairdo on TV — it’s not so secretive like it used to be,” she said. “It’s like the Jewish wigs.”

But it can get heated. When Kylie Jenner claimed to have started the wig trend last year, there was a fierce reaction.

For people who can’t afford their own wigmaker, the problem with wigs remains the quality. Lace-front wigs can be found for less than $100 at beauty supply stores or on Alibaba, the Chinese, which now sells directly to consumers. But they’re made from processed hair — stripped of the cuticle, bleached, dyed, dipped in silicone — and can fall apart after a few washings, once the chemicals are gone.

D’Wanna Randolph’s solution, like Mr. Piazza’s so long ago, was to go find good hair herself. “I got tired of getting bogus hair in the mail,” said Ms. Randolph, a model who lives in Detroit and recently started Infallible Luxe, which sells hair online. She had been in two Delta Air Lines safety videos and took a job in customer service for the carrier so that she could travel free, inspecting small hair factories.

She flew to Seoul, South Korea, and traveled through Southeast Asia with a fixer. Now she receives shipments of hair by courier — mainly extensions, from five countries. “I got hair from Burma yesterday,” she said. “I get excited just thinking about it.” She added: “I keep it in the freezer 24 hours. I wash it and condition it with my own hands and hang it out to dry. I put all my hair in the freezer first, just to make sure there’s no lice, no nits.”

It shouldn’t be surprising, given the abundance of raw hair, that black women are also hand-knotting their own wigs. Stephanie Park, the general manager of Apollo Beauty Land in Harlem, said sales for wigs were down at the hair supply store during the winter, when they usually peaked. “People are doing it themselves,” she said. “People are getting crafty.”

Wigs on display at Apollo Beauty Land in Harlem, Manhattan.
Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
They are learning the once-rarefied art of wigmaking.

Whereas in the past, apprentices had to sweep workshops and learn to sort hair for months before they could touch a ventilating needle, now people can simply watch YouTube.

“Hi, you guys, this is Jacquee,” says the voice on a video from 2013. You only see Jacquee’s hands, a purple towel and a Styrofoam head form with lace mesh and a wig in progress. “Today’s tutorial is ventilating a wig,” she says. “This is my little wig head.” It had been nicknamed Wigna.

For the next 11 minutes, Jacquee demonstrates the ins and outs of weaving hair to lace. “Grab the hair, pull, let it engage and then like so,” she says. The video has nearly a half-million views.

“So there you go, I hope you like it,” she says. “Very simple. Very easy.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 9, 2017, on Page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: Last of the Master Wigmakers. Order Reprints| Today's Paper

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