Cheryl and Mario Tricoci today
Cheryl, Michael, Mario, and Mario Jr. in a family photo from 1988
Mario and Cheryl Tricoci in their first formal photo following their marriage 41 years ago
The Tricoci family on a trip to Italy
Mario Tricoci Jr. and wife Traci in Italy on their wedding day
Mario won an award for this model’s hairstyle in 1965.
by paige wiser
photography by simon perry for factor photo | January 16, 2012 | People
Mario with the staff of his Michigan Avenue salon
Mario Tricoci starts his days in a cashmere robe that makes him look like Obi Wan Kenobi, according to his grandsons. He nibbles a bowl of fruit, sips a double espresso, and swims 20 laps in the pool. Very civilized. Very European.
But there is one area of his life with no sense of order whatsoever: his hair. For a man who built his career on precision cuts and impeccable styling, his own coiffure is chaotic. Naturally Mario uses his own hair products, but makes no attempt to tame his mane. He scrunches his shock of white hair, and “then I let it be,” he says.
He claims to have ties—Prada, Hermès, Etro— but more often he drapes himself with one of his signature scarves. He says he has between 30 an
d 40 of them; surely he’s underestimating.
Big Man on Campus
Like his army of hairstylists, Mario often wears black. But he rarely does hair anymore, unless it’s for his wife, or maybe for charity. Once he charmed his personal clientele with magic scissors and his Italian accent. Now he’s the “keeper of the brand,” a beauty ambassador.
“I love this haircut on you,” he tells a client at the Norwood Park campus of Tricoci University. “You look fabulous.”
When he visits his schools, Mario is regarded with something more than awe, but short of worship. Some students start their studies without realizing that Mario Tricoci is an actual person. Now he is a celebrity, their patron saint. Stylists with black smocks and neon hair line up to get their photos taken with him. The halls are lined with lockers, stray strands of hair from model heads trying to escape through the cracks.
Mario greets everyone he sees, thanking customers, and dispensing advice to his students. “Look your guest in the eye,” he says. “Tell them, ‘I love to cut hair. Send me your friends. I’ll take good care of them.’”
Mario likes to pop in to his salons spontaneously, too. His stylists get air kisses; his customers get handshakes and more thanks. At the Michigan Avenue location, one woman, mid-pedicure, has to settle for a wave—her nails are still wet.
John McDermott, a stylist who’s been with Mario for 30 years, still works at the Schaumburg salon. “He’s the mentor for everyone here,” he says. “We’re very lucky.”
This is an industry in which 92 percent of new salons fail within two years, but Mario’s have been successful from the get-go. His Arlington Heights location, the first day spa in the Midwest, just celebrated 25 years.
The Foundation of Tricoci's Empire
Mario says he wouldn’t be who he is today without his wife, Cheryl, by his side. And Cheryl wouldn’t be by his side if it weren’t for Tom Jones. In 1970, Mario asked out the young model manager who wasn’t interested—until she learned that Mario had seats to one of Jones’s concerts.
A few months later Mario and Cheryl were married, launching a formidable team that would bring everyday Chicagoans their first taste of European glamour. “He had all this creativity, but she was the one who got things done,” says Mario Tricoci Jr. of his parents.
It was 35 years ago that the name Mario Tricoci became synonymous with one-stop chic. With Mario’s vision and talent and Cheryl’s business smarts and passion, they built an empire that today includes a total of 50 Mario Tricoci Hair Salon & Day Spa and Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa locations. And the Tricocis haven’t finished. They have close to 1,400 employees, growing product lines, and a Tricoci University flagship opening this summer on State Street. But Mario’s most important daily appointment is at their lakefront penthouse, which is filled with carrara marble and follicularly blessed grandsons. Mario, 70, likes to cook and begin stories; Cheryl, with her bracelets jingling, usually finishes them, for the simple reason that she talks faster.
Mario grew up in Cosenza, Italy, where his brick-maker father insisted he take an apprenticeship at the local barbershop. Young Mario swept floors, sneaking peeks at the beauty salon a few doors down. During his first visit to Chicago in the late ’50s, a teenage Mario entered John Edward’s, a venerable Michigan Avenue salon, and announced he was a hairdresser. Then he proved it, changing the receptionist’s pin curls into a chic flip. Mr. Edward offered Mario a job on the spot.
“He came here with a pair of scissors, a comb, a brush, and talent for guts, and this is what he did,” says Frank Gironda, president of the board of directors of Cosmetologists Chicago. “He was an innovator.”
Mario and his brother Franco built their reputations with salons in Villa Park and Des Plaines, and by winning every hair competition worth winning. In 1966 Mario was named Best Hairdresser at what has since become America’s Beauty Show. In 1967 he won the Grand World Supreme in New York City for evening style. Paris, Belgium… He was difficult to ignore.
“In the early ’70s, the hairdressing industry was going through a huge transition, from roller sets and comb-outs to precision haircutting,” says Marty Rizzo, former styles director of the Chicago Cosmetology Association. “Mario and Frank were two guys on the leading edge of that.”
Inspired by the work of Vidal Sassoon, Mario introduced his clients to the concept of unconstructed hair. “It didn’t look like it was fixed by a beauty salon,” he says. “If the wind blew the hair, it didn’t matter, it looked great.”
Mario has seen endless hairstyles come and go: the Mia Farrow, the Dorothy Hamill, the Farrah, the shag, the mullet, the Rachel, the Blagojevich. “I always did hair that made people feel good about themselves,” says Mario. “If they really wanted something trendy, we modified it for them.”
Women wear hairstyles, Mario believes, not the other way around. “We were truly liberating women to take care of their own hair,” he says. “They could shampoo it, dry it, go to work or go partying. That was our attitude. We feel the same way today.”
With Cheryl to believe in him, Mario was unstoppable. He was running a salon with partners when he came home one night around 10, restless with ambition. “He said, ‘I found this location for a new salon—can I show you now?’” Cheryl remembers. So she packed their sleeping sons into the car to go glimpse the future. He led her to Schaumburg’s new supermall, Woodfield Mall, with dreams of opening a salon under the Tricoci banner. “The mall people thought he was out of his mind,” says Cheryl. “There were salons in the department stores, but not in the mall. They said, ‘You can’t make money that way.’” But only one opinion mattered to Mario: his wife’s. “I thought he was brilliant,” she says.
After much pestering, the mall management relented—sort of. They gave the Tricocis a small spot in a dead-end corner of the mall. “We really turned a lot of lemons into lemonade,” says Cheryl. “We’d tell the guests, ‘We did this for your convenience, so you don’t have to walk all the way through the mall. We’re right by the parking lot!’”
“He took a big risk,” says Gironda, “and he opened a salon right inside Woodfield Mall when that was unheard of.” When the mall executives saw how many shoppers Mario Tricoci could bring in, they moved the salon to a high-profile, high-traffic spot. “We started with 900 square feet and a lot of debt,” says Cheryl.
At the time, salon owners depended on their equipment vendors for décor. But Mario had a vision and they ended up spending scandalous amounts on the salon’s interior. Cheryl remembers, “Everybody was telling us how nutty we were, and we just kept backing each other, saying, ‘This is brilliant. Why doesn’t anybody else think so?’”
Not only did the Tricocis shock the industry by hiring an interior designer, but they hired the best: Richard Himmel, who was renowned for designing residences for Muhammad Ali and Irv Kupcinet. At first, Himmel’s assistant refused to even put their calls through. But Cheryl was persistent and piqued the legend’s interest. “He thought it was so hysterical, he wanted to meet these two people. We met him for a half-hour on his way to Milan, and he said, ‘You know what, you two are so crazy and so passionate, I’m in.’”
Mario knew that if you wanted to feel good, you had to look good and applied that philosophy to his salon. The late designer taught the Tricocis an important lesson. “He wanted to use pale colors, and I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” says Cheryl. With all the wear and tear ahead, the smarter selection would be vinyl in dark colors. Himmel was appalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘You intend to be busy? Just let me tell you something, young lady,’” remembers Cheryl. “‘This material won’t last even two or three years, but if you don’t do this whole salon over in two or three years, you deserve to be out of business.’ He said, ‘If you’re in this fashion glamour business, you replace the seats!’”
The Hair Force Academy
“There’s not a salon like it,” says Annie Murphy, who started working in the Woodfield location in 1979. “The buzz was just so high-energy. You’d feed off each other. We had camaraderie.” Murphy still does hair color for a loyal clientele in the Arlington Heights salon. “As a rule, you’re not going to find people who have been with a beauty company for 30-plus years,” she says. “That’s very unusual. It’s such a sense of family… The Tricocis were your extended family.”
The Christmas parties were legendary. “The first one I went to was at Mario’s house,” says Murphy. “He was big on black-tie. One year he took us all skiing in Wisconsin. One year we had a ‘Battle of the Hairdressers,’ where there were sport activities like in the Olympics.”
Those weren’t the only perks. Mario brought in peers from Europe to train the staff and sent his stylists abroad. “He sent me to Europe three times,” says Murphy. “Once he traveled to South America and found this little village where artisans were handcrafting their own wooden combs. I still have that—it’s my favorite tool.”
Training at Mario Tricoci never stopped. “When he had something to say, you’d hang on to every single word,” says Murphy.
“More important than getting to the top is how to stay at the top,” says Mario. “You have to continuously be a student. I have been a hairdresser for over 50 years, and I am still a student.” In 2003, Mario established the Tricoci University of Beauty Culture, which now boasts seven Illinois locations. The State Street campus will be the eighth.
During a vacation to Montecatini, Italy, in the late ’70s the Tricocis were inspired by the region’s health spas. “We said, ‘We can’t bring our guests to Montecatini, so let’s bring the spa to them,’” says Mario. They knew their Midwestern clients would never go for a decadent week of pampering— but a day? Maybe. “In Arlington Heights, we had a Vichy shower, a hydrotherapy room, a lovely place for lunch,” says Cheryl. “We were fortunate to have [French restaurant] Le Titi [De Paris] next door. We had beautiful robes, everything was private, quiet, and tranquil. We said, ‘This is the future.’”
“He changed the way we all did business,” says Gironda. “If you wanted to compete, you had to get into the day-spa business. That brought it to a new level.”
By 2001, when Mario Tricoci merged his company with Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spas, a marketing study found that the Tricoci brand had the same name-recognition level in Chicago as Nike and Coca-Cola. In 2010, Mario and a small group of investors bought back a stake in Red Door; he’s used to being in control.
Some of his latest passions: bamboo bodyfusion massages, no-chip manicures, and individually attached eyelash extensions. “You have to keep moving,” says Cheryl. “Right now we’re working with lasers that can help creams and collagen penetrate into your skin.”
The methods and ideals may change, but Mario’s motivations never have. “I just love to create something beautiful,” he says. “I get to make people feel good about themselves. And I get paid on top of it all!”
September 14, 2018
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