Bushwick Musician an Underground Stylist for Hasidic Women's Wigs

By Meredith Hoffman on September 18, 2012 8:39am 

BUSHWICK — In her makeshift salon stuffed with hair color vats, vintage mirrors, a swirly leather chair and a helmet-style hairdryer, Sarah Nowicki juggled multiple clients to kick off the week. As Faigy's highlights dried in the kitchen, Nowicki thickened Shaindy's mane while inhaling a breakfast burrito and prepping for the next set of locks.

But none of the stylist's customers were there in the St. Nicholas Avenue apartment — they were all in synagogue, for Rosh Hashanah.

"I've never met any of them," Nowicki said of the Hasidic women whose wigs she has styled for nearly four years in basements, sheds, and now in her own home before stylists in Borough Park sell them in their shops. "But I've been walking around and noticed which ones have my highlights," the 26-year-old smiled at her secret artisanship.

Since she moved from Cleveland to Bushwick nearly four years ago, Nowicki has made a lucrative income coloring and sewing wigs for Hasidic women, who traditionally cover their heads with synthetic hair once they marry.

And for Nowicki — an aspiring musician who writes and records "psychedelic industrial soul" in her apartment — since she stumbled upon the wig work on Craigslist, the unexpected field has enlightened her about a world she never even regarded.

"I didn't even know what kosher was," laughed Nowicki, who grew up in a born-again Christian family with no Jewish friends.

"I remember eating a tuna sandwich in this woman's kitchen and she freaked out and had to get a rabbi to bless the place… I didn't understand what was wrong," she recalled about her first wig job in a Hasidic woman's basement.

Music is still her main passion — her band Opal Onyx is gearing up to release its second album — but the wig styling business has bolstered her dreams.

"It was nothing I ever expected to do…I figured I'd get a job in a salon here," admitted Nowicki, a trained stylist who said she studied at Paul Mitchell cosmetology school.

But the wig business was more profitable "than working in a SoHo salon," she said, since wig shop owners only took a small commission, leaving her $100 or more in profit for each style.

"These aren't new wigs… they're revamping them, maybe the woman thinks it's not thick enough, or wants a different color or longer bangs," Nowicki explained, surrounded by boxes and bags of human hair to sew onto wigs. "I just stayed up for three days straight and ordered $4,000 worth of human hair from China," she said of her work, which especially picks up in demand before Jewish holidays.

"Hopefully I'll be able to cut down my hours at some point...I really want to work on making music, not just wigs," she said, noting that she often writes lyrics while coloring hair.

Still, she said she takes her wig work seriously because of their constant role in her clients' lives.

"I really do try my best because they're going to wear the wigs, they're not going to grow," said Nowicki, who cuts her friends' hair as well, and has unabashedly chopped her own hair short with a side-shave. "Plus, they spend anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 on these wigs, when they first buy them."

Still, the lack of interaction with her clients presents a challenge, since she can get confused about which head demands which hairdo.

"There's a [name] tag on each one…but one time I got the tags switched," she cringed. "I dyed a wig the wrong color…it was horrifying, the women had to return the wigs and I redid them. My boss gives me a sample color and it has to be exactly like that."

Even though she never tells her clients who she is, Nowicki occassionally visits the Borough Park store and watches the women try on her creations.

"Sometimes when they change wigs you see a two-second glimpse of their bald heads," Nowicki said of the women, most of whom shave their scalps as part of their tradition. "And there they are in a conservative black dress — the combination is so punk rock looking."

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