“We try to do things differently here”

Lorenzo Colangelo sits down with Eileen Leahy to tell her about why his successful salon The Gallery is shaping the future of hairdressing by relying on traditional values and cutting-edge techniques…

he Gallery on London Road in Southborough is something of a hairdressing institution. It was established in 1982 by Toni Colangelo, a trained barber and tailor who left his native Italy in 1957 to work in England. He and his family eventually moved to Tunbridge Wells which is when Toni opened a small salon, then called Barnet Fair. He ran it until the mid-1990s before his son Lorenzo took it over.

Since then it has tripled in size – in terms of both its premises and also its team – had significant refurbishments, a name change and won countless prestigious industry awards – all of which has put Lorenzo at the cutting edge of not only the local but the national hairdressing scene too.

“We try to do things differently here,” he reveals as we sit down in his office to chat about The Gallery’s ongoing success. “I like to think we offer so much more than just somewhere you go to get your hair cut or coloured.

“We take a genuine interest in all our clients – whether they have been coming here for years or are new. I think that connection between the stylist and their client is very important and I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make our customer experience better. If you’re going to spend money on yourself – whether that’s only once a year or three times a week – you want to ensure that it is well spent.”

Having passed a couple of hours in the salon with Lorenzo and his team for our SO shoot and interview I can certainly testify that what you get here is something very special. While we’re there every person stepping over The Gallery’s threshold is greeted by name and immediately made to feel at ease courtesy of the salon’s friendly staff. While clients wait for their appointment they’re offered hot drinks and cookies. It’s clear that famous Italian hospitality is well and truly thriving in this corner of Tunbridge Wells.

The salon itself, which is located in a very smart double-fronted building on London Road in Southborough, is very attractive. It boasts a super chic interior – think smart herringbone flooring, funky statement lights, classic leather swivel barber-style chairs and oversized mirrors – with lots of smart Perspex shelves packed full of the premium products used at The Gallery including Shu Uemura, Kerastase and L’Oreal. This is certainly a place where your tresses will be treated royally.

“Attention to detail is important to me,” explains Lorenzo as he shows me around the impressive and very spacious salon, revealing that the stunning brass mirrors and decorative wall light sconces dotted around were imported from Italy, his parents’ homeland.

“My father worked very hard – even at one time with Lord Astor at Cliveden House. He built up many contacts so when he opened his own salon he had people driving down from London to see him as they knew he would give them a really great haircut. He brought a lot of love to what he did. People who could afford to go anywhere in the world were coming down here to Southborough to get their hair cut by my dad. I remember as a kid seeing Bentleys parked up outside the salon!”

Lorenzo tells me that his father, who still lives in Tunbridge Wells, thrived on providing good customer service and quality – and these key hallmarks are what have guided Lorenzo ever since.

“I remember first working in Harrods and I took a customer’s coat from her and then helped her put it on afterwards and people were amazed. But it was my dad who taught me that level of personal service.”

After having worked mainly in London, Lorenzo took over the reins at Barnet Fair in 1995 when his father decided to retire. Eventually he would go on to change the salon’s name to The Gallery and buy the adjoining properties over several years in order to expand the business and own the site outright.

Lorenzo says that although the salon now looks incredibly high end, it is the staff and the exceptional service that are the real lynchpins to The Gallery’s ongoing success.

“We are able to offer so much more than a haircut here. It’s a bit like coming into a family when you visit us. We have clients who have been here with us since the beginning but equally we are always seeing new people too so we must be doing something right!

“The reviews we get online and via word of mouth are phenomenal. It’s always centred around what a lovely place it is to come and how good experience is. The latter is always something I am thinking about and my team and I are constantly looking to improve it further,” explains Lorenzo.

He then proceeds to tell me about a series of professional affirmations that are regularly written down by members of staff and then displayed in Lorenzo’s office. On the day I visit these include the words ‘compassion’ ‘loyalty’ ‘communication’ ‘enthusiasm’ ‘professionalism’ and ‘family’. So I guess if you were to concisely sum up the essence of what The Gallery does so well then one glance at this would certainly inform you.

Lorenzo adds that without his dedicated team – which currently stands at 25 – none of the above would be possible. In an industry where high turnover of staff is common, The Gallery stands out by having a team who are incredibly loyal to Lorenzo.

“Some have been with me since the beginning and the overall creative skill set is really good. I’m not going to say that it’s easy all the time – you have to work on ways to keep people motivated and engaged – but the majority of people really do grow into their role.

“One of our directors, Jade, will celebrate her 20th anniversary with us this year and Becky, our salon manager has been with us for 17 and now works part-time due to having small children. Then there’s Richard, our director and colour specialist, who’s also been here for 17 years. Another salon director Jo has been with us for 23 years. We’ve got such amazing loyalty amongst our team and I believe that in turn breeds loyalty from our clients. They know they can trust us.”

Lorenzo, who is married to wife Sian with whom he has five daughters, says that being able to provide all their own in-house training contributes to this and makes a huge difference. “I would say the majority of our stylists have trained here.”

“Every Tuesday we close off half of the salon to clients in order to carry out this training which is headed up by Charlotte who has been at The Gallery for 10 years and is our Head of Education,” he explains.

Lorenzo adds: “We are here to guide people and to advise them on what will look best – for their skintone, their hair texture and their face shape. It’s about trusting us and our expertise. Someone recently asked me ‘how do you keep a client for 30 years?’ and I responded saying that it’s simply about consistency. Having said that, no matter how well you know someone you must never assume that what they want is always going to be the same so we will always have a consultation with clients as if they were coming to the salon for the very first time.

“That’s what people are paying for: to be looked at and to be listened to. And that’s where our values of compassion, professionalism and communication, are really important.”

Lorenzo explains that he works two to three days in the salon but that the rest of his time is dedicated to ‘thinking’.

“I’d say I spend around 75 per cent of the time thinking and working out how to make things better – for our customers and also for our team. I’m always thinking of ways we can improve.”

And one big rule is to never make people feel intimidated when they walk into his salon.

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