Getting a haircut can be a nail-biting experience for anyone, but for women with curly hair, it can be especially nerve-racking. Many stylists treat wavy locks just like straight hair, with lousy results.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of stylists who have no idea how to cut texture. They are not trained on how to work with curly hair," said Michelle Breyer, co-founder of NaturallyCurly.com, a site dedicated to curly hair. "They don't understand the nuances—that an inch off can turn into 3 inches in [lost] length because of shrinkage, that bangs can be a disaster."
Luckily for curly-haired women, there are now salons and stylists across the country marketing themselves as curly-hair specialists. We tested four, with varying degrees of success, in New York, Dallas and California's Bay Area.
At Christo Fifth Avenue in New York, the appointment started with a questionnaire, which included our likes and dislikes and asked us to rate our hair in three areas: volume, texture and color. We met Alice Yan, our "master designer," who asked what we wanted from our cut. In our case, it was less volume but retaining enough length so that we could continue to put it in a ponytail.
First, an assistant washed and conditioned our hair, which included a nice scalp massage. Ms. Yan cut it and threw in a free deep-conditioning treatment, which required sitting under a dryer. She then used two products from the salon's Curlisto line and a comb to create coil-like waves that were soft to the touch.
Ms. Yan recommended not pulling our ponytail too tight and really saturating our hair with product when styling. She advised against using products that are oil-based since these can make curly hair limp. She gave us a "prescription," with suggestions for creating frizz-free curls, as well as her email in case we had hair questions afterward. A month later, we're still happy with the cut.
In Dallas, at Michael Motorcycle Salon, the owner, Michael Koler, ushered us into his apartment-turned-salon. He sat us down in an old barbershop chair and began a "hairline reading," telling us what kind of person we were (analytical, emotional), what kind of diet we needed (fewer carbohydrates) and how we should wear our hair (naturally curly, never straightened). But he seemed to have little time to listen to what we wanted: some weight taken out of our very thick hair.
His cut, in which he tried to align our hair with our cheekbones, ears and bone structure, was choppy at first glance. We left with wet hair, and it wasn't until it air-dried that we saw just how big it was.
Mr. Koler said it takes three visits to create the best look for his clients, which he describes as "an art form, a metamorphosis." He said he gives clients what he thinks is the best cut, rather than follow their instructions.
"Otherwise, why would they come to me?" he said. "You come in and tell me what to do, and you don't know anything about hair."
Mr. Koler said he sometimes forgoes blow-drying with curly-haired clients, who typically have dry hair, since it can make the hair frizzy.
In Alameda, Calif., we headed to Twist Salon for a "Deva" haircut, in which the hair is cut dry and then washed and conditioned, a reversal of the usual sequence. Tami Quan, owner of the salon, said she spent two days training under Lorraine Massey, the founder of the original Devachan Salon in New York and author of "Curly Girl: the Handbook."
We were instructed to come with our hair clean and styled in its natural curl. When we got there, Ms. Quan asked us what we were looking to do with our hair. In our case, it was to get rid of the pyramid look—flat on top, puffy on the sides—and to take some of the length off.
Ms. Quan explained that by cutting the hair dry, she would be able to sculpt it the way it would fall and curl naturally. Afterward, she washed and conditioned our hair with a DevaCurl sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner. She styled it with gel, cream and some metal clips, sat us under a dryer for about 20 minutes, then used her fingers to shape our hair.
She never used a comb or brush and suggested we not use them either. Another recommendation was to use a T-shirt or a microfiber towel to dry our hair to avoid frizz. We really liked the results. Two months later, after following her instructions, the dreaded pyramid has yet to return.
In Walnut Creek, Calif., we tried Curlz Salon, a certified Ouidad salon. Ouidad is named for the founder of a New York-based chain of salons and products designed for people with curly hair.
Darla Fowler, our stylist and Curlz's owner, examined our hair and remarked on its dryness. She washed and conditioned it and threw in a free deep-conditioning treatment. Then she started cutting, using Ouidad's "carve-and-slice" method. Rather than snipping the ends, carve-and-slice involves cutting at the curvature of each curl, which Ms. Fowler said removes some of the weight and puffiness associated with curly hair.
After the cut, she applied Ouidad gel and a climate-control product. She raked her fingers through our hair, shook the curls out, then put us under the dryer. When we emerged, we were surprised to see our head a mass of ringlets. She styled them a little more and was done.
Two days later, we washed our hair and attempted the "rake-and-shake" method with limited success. Our hair still looked good but nothing like the head of ringlets Ms. Fowler had created.—Shelly Banjo and Laura Bird contributed to this article.
Write to Elizabeth Garone at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared January 15, 2013, on page D3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Testing Hair Salons That Cater to the Curls.