Some people have been groomed their whole lives to follow a career path. Professional football players talk about inheriting their father’s stories of college games and world-class artists remember being taken into their mom’s studio. For Ashley Zajac, L'Oréal Professionnel National Academy Artist, the journey started in her grandparents’ hair salon.
In the decades since, she’s mastered color techniques, taught a new generation of stylists how to make their clients feel beautiful, and jet setted between coasts on behalf of a major beauty brand. No matter how successful she gets, however, she never forgets the family ties that shaped her beginnings.
Growing up in the metro area of Detroit, MI, Zajac’s first exposure to the salon world came from her grandmother.
“My grandparents owned a salon outside of the Detroit area for over 35 years. When I was growing up, I always remembered being able to go into the salon and hang out there for the day. They would have me sweep hair or do little odds-and-ends stuff.”
Spending hours around the shampoo pumps, the swivel chairs, and the relaxed clientele left Zajac wanting more. In her words, she “fell in love” with salons and hair stylists—everything from the way they talked to potential clients to the culture of creativity they fostered. By her teen years, Zajac had begun working for her grandparents, cleaning the salon during her free hours.
When the time came to start thinking about her future, Zajac realized she’d already been nurturing the beginnings of a professional passion. At age 16, she applied for an apprenticeship at a salon in Novi, MI. Four hours a day, she’d attend class like any other student. For the remainder of the day, however, she’d be learning hair color techniques. Unlike most stylists, she completed her beauty certification without ever attending a separate school.
Nearly two decades later, Zajac can still be found at the same salon, Gina Agosta, but her title has changed a bit. She’s currently the color director, a far cry from the teen apprentice she was many years ago.
For someone who’s been pursuing the same passion most of her life, Zajac has had plenty of time to dig into the aspects of the industry that keep her invested. Above all else, she loves the technical aspect of hair and the way stylists keep learning.
The discovery came at an opportune moment in her life. Eleven years ago, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could last in a job that wreaked havoc on her body and weighed on her mind without the same creative payoff she once experienced.
“When you start out in the beauty industry, you’re super creative and you’re constantly pushing boundaries and doing new things and learning new things,” she said. “You get kind of busy behind the chair and then it starts to feel very robotic. You stop being creative and you start doing your go-tos.”
Rather than burn out, Zajac took a professional leap of faith. She joined the L’Oréal Professionnel artist team as an educator. Balancing the new gig with her continued tenure at Gina Agosta Salon, the pro finally found a career that fulfilled all of her needs.
“I think the balance is what keeps me grounded. I love being with my clientele that I’ve had and known for 16 years,” she says. “I love them watching them grow and that keeps me grounded. And then jet setting and being in this other world, this very glamorous—almost surreal—world keeps me inspired.”
As a L'Oréal Professionnel National Academy Artist, Zajac works on the color certification program for stylists at the brand’s academies in Newport Beach, CA, and New York City, NY. Everything from color theory to high-level correction happens under her watchful eye.
Although much of Zajac’s time lands her in the academies, it’s ultimately her love for color and the clients that keeps her in the industry. She ties everything back to the experience of giving a guest the best color of her life for the first time. That’s the moment that truly feels magical.
“I get the most excited when somebody new sits in my chair and I can see that the tones in their hair...are not compatible with their skin tone and they allow me to change and customize it,” she says. “When you have the wrong hair color for your skin tone, everything just melts away. When you actually make it compatible, you see somebody’s skin glow. You see their eyes come out, you see the color in their cheeks or their lips. That’s what makes me the most excited.”
These days, much of Zajac’s work in the salon is fluid, French-inspired color. She measures her time working in salons by remembering how many trends have come and gone.
“When I came in the industry, the first thing I remember doing a lot of—like this is a couple years in—was that [pop star] stripe. I remember being so proud of myself because I could get those stripes perfectly defined, they would not bleed or run onto each other,” she laughs. “ I think that it’s such an evolution from putting bold lines in to just very simple fluid lines. I do think that the soft, beautiful, natural is going to stay around for a little bit.”
As an educator, Zajac’s advice will always come back to the importance of stylists learning new techniques. While customers don’t always know if their stylist is learning, they’ll certainly see those results in the chair.
“I can always tell by looking at a hairdresser’s work what decade they stopped doing education,” she says. “Without going to somebody who continues education, you’re not necessarily going to be on the cutting edge.”
And while a good stylist’s technique will always be evolving, Zajac notes you should be prepared to see an increase in their prices as a result.
“The hairdressers who continue education actually continue education on their own dime,” she explains. “When you go to a hairdresser that’s constantly learning, you might—or you should—see price increases every year. Those type of things have to happen in order for them to be able to fund the education, be able to bring back to their clientele the most advanced or latest, newest look. I think that’s important for the average salon goer to really understand.”
With that advice in mind, you’re ready to book your next appointment. Thanks to Zajac’s work, the current generation of hair stylists are ready to give you the latest in color.