It’s Rigsby’s world

As soon as I saw its green peak in the distance I knew exactly where we were headed. Part of this interview was going to take place in a teepee.

The dusty antlers mounted on the front of our golf cart took well to the steep decline over the cliff of the driveway and down 20 rocky feet through the mouth of this man-meets-nature oasis, the Casa de las Palomas—the House of the Doves. Me, I held on.

The wheels ground to a halt at the bottom of the hill and we were off. Zipping past sculpture gardens and mystical rock formations, a towering wood and metal cross topped with sleek, modernist dove emblems, a sandy, manicured riverbed and 13 different kinds of bamboo.

“Everyone needs to plant more bamboo,” says Rigsby Frederick, the 54-year-old hair stylist, sculptor and owner of Rigsby Frederick Salon Gallery Spa. During Hurricane Gustav, Frederick’s great walls of bamboo and a thick, tunneled-out greenroom of the perennial grass stood firm against the invading winds. They bent but did not break, giving him a new theory to add to his ever-ready quiver of quotes and motivational philosophies. Art is not simply something to look at, but something to inhabit. So Frederick not only admires his bamboo, he learns from it. “To stay on the cutting edge of fashion and art you need to be elastic, flexible—like bamboo,” he says.

A pond with a small peninsula sparkles in the center of the lawn where the Abbeville native married his wife Sarah last year. Minnows zig-zag just under the surface, bass emerge and plunk back down below, and Chinese grass carp devour hydrilla and other encroaching pondweeds. “They’re like goats, man,” Frederick says. “They eat everything.”

The pool reflects opal blue at night, a lit and shimmering jewel, the pride of the deep bayous wrapped like arms around it.

“It’s a culmination of project after project after project, so I really don’t ever have to look at anything other than what is mine, what I put there or what God put there,” Frederick says.

His bamboo may have bounced back from Gustav, but it took the rest of his tree-covered street much longer. With his salon closed temporarily, he took a chainsaw to a live tree to create a spontaneous totem sculpture named after the storm. It stands at attention near his driveway as a reminder. “It’s like Nike’s ‘Just Do It’—best ad campaign ever,” Frederick says. “When I get stressed, I get busy. Instead of worrying, I do. Much better for your blood pressure.”

If that’s true, Frederick must not have worried about a thing since purchasing the property near the Country Club of Louisiana in 2000. He approaches this serene, evolving landscape just like he does sculpture, with a great sense of urgency. He sweats in his garden three days a week and spends the other four doing what he does best: sculpting hair at the Perkins Road salon he opened 25 years ago this November.

He looked like a gunslinger in the Australian Outback with his crisp black collared shirt, brushed silver belt buckle and leather shoes, but as I watched Frederick circle a head of hair, he cut an image strikingly similar to an athlete, a therapist, and a sculptor not at work, but at play.

Frederick’s lean frame moved fast around the client as she poured out details of her recent separation and he consoled her. He weighs the same he did in high school. He hasn’t kicked smoking yet—doesn’t look like he’s trying, really—but exercises faithfully four days a week with a personal trainer so he can stay on his feet, hunched over hair, and talking clients through births, deaths and everything in between for hours on end. “It’s a full-contact sport,” Frederick says.

Spindly tree limbs curl their way across the wood decking toward the doors of the salon, where a dozen employees weave in and out of Frederick’s salvaged, handcrafted sculptures, and where, once inside, Rigsby’s clients are either “brother” or “darlin’.” That Cajun warmth comes through in Frederick’s attitude, but the salon’s earthy textures and modern gallery feel are a revelation compared to the tiled Miami Vice look it started with in 1984, and incomparable to Frederick Bros. in Abbeville.

In 1961, Frederick’s great uncles opened a barbershop next to a funeral parlor in the Vermilion Parish town. It was the kind of place that was once part and parcel of a grand American pastime, the kind stocked with straight razors and leather straps for sharpening them, and with men’s men who knew a hard day’s work and enjoyed their time under the barber’s blade all the more for it. “They were just an incredible barbers, but talk about old-school,” Frederick says.

Frederick’s younger brother Brian says they both did a lot of growing up in that shop.

“There’s just something about old barbers, something to be said for that, for guys just relaxing, doing nothing but reading the paper and getting a shave,” Brian Frederick says. “Everything changes, of course, and Abbeville has changed, but that barber shop? Not a thing. Same sign. Same lights.”

Frederick’s award-winning salon isn’t like Frederick Bros. at all. If you ask him, it’s more like bamboo.

Frederick was brought up in a devout Catholic home, a Cajun French family with a German name. His grandparents rarely spoke English, and his mother and father first learned the language at school. The second of five siblings, Frederick was named after his father, who owned a lumber and construction company. “He had an innate ability to figure things out,” Frederick says. “Everyone in town knew if you wanted something to fit you go find Rigsby.” His mother Geneva called him “Ricky” and worked as a children’s nurse before going into real estate. Her husband built homes, she sold them, and business was good.

Frederick worked summers alongside his father’s carpenters and roofers, and he went door-to-door selling a weekly newspaper called Grit. Rural Americans were the target readership for Grit when it began in the 1800s, and even by the 1960s, that had not changed. At a staff dinner, publisher Dietrick Lamade described the paper’s goals by saying, “Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Wherever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment into their hearts.”

Frederick never heard that speech, obviously, but his constant pep talks to employees and clients sound remarkably similar. For April Fool’s Day last year his staff showed up at the salon wearing T-shirts with his favorite sayings printed on them, like “Front row seat everytime,” “I won’t do your hair twice if you’re not fun,” and “Who loves you, baby?”A few years ago Frederick created the “Daymaker,” an award passed around at the salon in recognition of random acts of kindness.

Frederick is always creating something. He first used bamboo to practice pole-vaulting with a length of it at home. That was his best event on the Mount Carmel Vermilion Catholic High School track and field team, and he worked on his technique constantly. “The thing about practicing with bamboo was you couldn’t halfway plant,” he says. “It’s just like life; you have to go all the way.” There: another lesson from bamboo.

Pole-vaulting took Frederick to Lamar University on a full scholarship in 1972. But he only lasted a year in Beaumont before burning out on the sport. “I loved being the star in high school, but I lost interest when it became too much like work,” he says.

Frederick moved to Baton Rouge in 1973 and enrolled at LSU. With blond hair down to his shoulders, he asked around for the best local hairstylist to tame it. The name Sam Brocato kept coming back. Young, creative and just a year older than Frederick, Brocato was making a name for himself as a hotshot guitarist on the local scene and a talented stylist in a salon called Jim & Sherry’s. “Sam was the top dog, and the Brocato brothers were known then as real bad boys,” Frederick says. “They were just cool.”

After waiting tables and selling dictionaries door-to-door to support himself through college, Frederick had found his direction. He fell for a career in hairstyling. At the very least, he recalls, he knew he’d get to be around a lot of beautiful women.

“Rigs, hair is not going to be the only thing you do,” Brocato told Frederick back then. “But it’s a hell of a springboard.”

In the 1970s, Government Street and Florida Boulevard were the cultural and commercial arteries of Baton Rouge. With dozens of salons packed into those two corridors alone, competition was cutthroat. They were either salons with middle-aged women sitting under industrial sized dryers with their hair in curlers or no-frills barbershops feeling the long yawn of decline.

Then came Brocato, who opened Lockworks in 1977 in a shopping center across Jefferson Highway from the wide fields of Witter property where Towne Center stands today. His salon quickly attracted some of the best young stylists in the city. Many of the city’s current independent salon owners started as Brocato employees in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Alex Dugas of the Gallery, Lydia Economides of Garrett Neal Studio, and Ann James of Ann James Salon. Brenda Netzberger, Baton Rouge’s most prominent talent agent, served as Brocato’s personal assistant and salon manager for three years.

In 1978, color specialist Ursula Gordon kept noticing a tall blond standing with arms crossed by the water cooler observing her and the other Lockworks staff.

“I said, ‘Sam, who is that?’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s Rigsby,’” Gordon recalls. “He was in beauty school and wanted to learn everything he could.”

Lockworks was one of five salons Frederick studied that year, but Brocato hired him as soon as he graduated. Frederick’s outgoing personality made an immediate impression on the staff and his clients. And so did his daily mantra. Everyone who worked at the salon back then remembers the routine well. Frederick would stop what he was doing, turn to the mirror, look directly into those piercing eyes and command: “You good-lookin’ devil, don’t you ever die!” That went on for years.

“The thing that I remember the most was the way he greeted you every morning with that big smile and always said ‘Hey, baby,’” says Netzberger. “He is a really fun-loving guy, but a perfectionist who took pride in his work.”

Frederick says it took three years for his hair skills to catch up with his people skills, but when they did, his coworkers took notice. “I’ve seen a lot of hairdressers, and many are mechanically good, but very few put their heart in it,” Gordon says. “Rigsby has his heart in it.”

Things moved fast at Lockworks, with trips to London, Paris and New York City, stage shows with Vidal Sassoon, and meetings with Paul Mitchell. Once, at a massive stage show in front of Sassoon and the fashion glitterati, a saboteur slipped sugar into Frederick’s spray water bottle. “Suddenly his model’s hair turned to rock in front of everyone,” says Lydia Economides. “But Rigsby rolled with it. He worked with her hair and came up with this new ‘rock look,’ a new style, and people loved it.”

As the ’70s eased into the ’80s, Lockworks became a hotbed for creatives and trendsetters in a town not exactly known for them. Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh’s first job as a director was for a Lockworks spot with future CNN anchor Campbell Brown.

“Rigsby and Sam were setting that curve of the new,” says Rae Phillips, who was a competing salon owner then but now works at Rigsby Frederick. “They got men out of barber shops and into the salon. They moved hair forward toward fashion.”

Brocato and Frederick were the first stylists in Baton Rouge to use foil for coloring hair, and their progressive attitudes and big personalities drew large and faithful client bases.

“The only way [Sam and Rigsby] are actually the same is that they are each one of a kind,” says Andrea Tomasovsky, a painter who saw both stylists regularly as a teenager before modeling for Frederick and working with renowned New Orleans artist James Michalopoulos. “They both see hair as a true expression of their art. And good art doesn’t have to be in a box. I’d put both of them on a pedestal with Michalopoulos, at the same height.”

Despite their success in Baton Rouge, the brighter lights of New York guaranteed Brocato’s creative team would get the industry’s attention.

“Hotels were so expensive in New York, we’d have seven or eight people to a room,” Gordon says. “Of course no one was ever in it. They all partied.”

In 1981, Frederick even got some of the Lockworks artistic team into Studio 54. “I thought we had no chance, but Rigsby turns to me and says, ‘Watch this, baby,’ and goes right up to the doorman, and he let us in,” Economides recalls. “Rigsby had this incredible energy, a vivaciousness, that made him unique as a person and as a stylist. He was definitely full of himself, but in a very kindhearted way.”

In 1984, Frederick married longtime girlfriend Jeanette “JJ” Risinger—they took vows on the gondola at the World’s Fair in New Orleans—and felt ready to leave the Lockworks nest. But leaving was the one topic stylists never discussed in the open, Gordon says, though she remembers Brocato offering help to anyone who wanted to launch his or her own business.

“I was fortunate that I had a great mentor in Sam, but I couldn’t help myself,” Frederick says. “I was 30 and pretty opinionated, and if it wasn’t for my innate personality it would be great to have a good company to go work for, because all I want to do is practice my trade. But I need space to be able to create, and I can’t count on anyone else to set that up for me. Leaving Lockworks, I could have failed, you see. But I like getting into places where I can’t blame anybody but myself.”

The brain tumor returned. Four months after doctors had removed a tumor from Rigsby Frederick Sr., Frederick’s 56-year-old father was dead. It was 1986, and it seemed like yesterday that “Ricky” had launched his own business, a hair salon, with a stylish grand opening. Brian’s band even played. It had been a family affair, but now the patriarch was gone.

“I always wonder where we’d be as a family if he was still around, how he would have continued to affect us all,” muses Rigsby’s brother Brian. “But—we just kept going, kept keeping on.”

With his father’s passing, Rigsby, just 32 at the time, felt a stirring within himself. He wanted to make a monument to his dad. He’d never touched a piece of rock before. Hair was his art, and here and there, some photography. But working out his nerves, he started tearing up stone.

“Sculpture turned out to be a natural thing for me, because, just like hair, it is a subtractive art,” he says. “Whether I’m working with hair or stone, everything I do is a one-off.” Frederick found the art within a hunk of white marble, and named it “Unity.” It remains near his father’s grave at the Abbeville Cemetery.

Frederick’s mother Geneva started creating more after her husband died, too. She has done Lafayette-area art shows and still paints regularly.

After completing “Unity,” Frederick kept refining his work, eventually showing and selling pieces all over the world from California to Paris, even while his style shifted from well-manicured stone to the more rustic “wabi sabi” kind of wood and rock structures that celebrate transience and imperfection.

The year 2004 saw the completion of an expansive workshop behind his home, filled with chisels, compasses, workbenches, rowing oars, a zydeco washboard from Lafayette, a couple of massive sea turtle shells, and a hulking swing seat carved from a caramel-colored tree burl and suspended from the ceiling. He calls his workshop the “man cave.” There’s cold beer in the fridge, fresh air in the doorway, country ballads on the speakers and a little ’60s rock ’n’ roll, too.

“Rigsby has an intrinsic ability to marry nature and art together in his work, and that shows in his hairstyling and sculpture,” says Baton Rouge-based photographer David Humphreys.

Last summer, photographer Dede Lusk commissioned Frederick for an Asian-inspired maple, ebony and stainless steel mirror. She praises the work for its great sense of harmony.

And it’s the harmony between hair and his commissioned sculpture and furniture “one-offs” that has sustained Frederick financially and creatively. He calls the balance a fine marriage. He recently partnered with Kirsha Kaechele of KK Projects and the Life Is Art Foundation to begin producing outdoor pieces for New Orleans’ City Park.

He’s a Cajun at heart, so Frederick’s family is everything to him. All gussied up with brother Brian; cutting daughter Paris’s hair in Italy; and all smiles with wife Sarah in Amsterdam.

“I don’t believe in starving artists,” he explains. “You have all these creative people who can’t run a business and all these businesspeople who aren’t creative. And I’m not doing anything special. I’m just using both sides of my brain.”

Frederick and his first wife divorced in the ’90s when their daughter Paris was six. The process was financially humbling, but ultimately a peaceful separation, Frederick says. And things with his former wife are remarkably friendly now. After the split, Frederick co-parented their now 18-year-old daughter with ease. Frederick picked Paris up every afternoon to hang out, throw the Frisbee or kick around a hacky sack. Before school he’d cut her hair.

Now a freshman at LSU with her eye on graphic design, Paris Frederick laughed when asked about the antlers on the golf cart. Turns out her dad mounted them for the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade a few years back, and—surprise!—they never came off.

“Yeah, he’s not going to leave anything normal,” Paris says. “I guess he’s different than most dads in that he’ll be up at 5 a.m. making art. He’s not going to sit down and tutor me in math. That’s not his thing. But he always has good advice for my artwork. He’s always there for me.”

Frederick met his current wife, the former Sarah Stockwell, five years ago at a photography show at Red Star Bar. Although 26 years apart, they had some mutual friends, and before the college student could turn around to introduce herself, the stylist had his hands in her hair. Frederick invited her over for take-out sushi and to tour his new home and backyard.

“I showed up, and he answered the door in beat-up shorts and a tank top, and he was really dirty, and I was all dressed up,” she says. “But I walked in and was wowed. It’s funny, too, because now he will literally work in the yard until the minute he has to go somewhere.”

Sarah Frederick joined the salon while they were still dating and now oversees the spa and all of its marketing and advertising projects.

“Age was never an issue for me, ever,” Sarah Frederick says. “I’ve never had a moment when I thought I shouldn’t [marry him] because he’s the age he is. He never thought that about me, either. However, other people did.”

Sarah’s parents, being good Southern Baptists from Jennings, were apprehensive about their daughter’s older man—until they met him.

“Sarah is a sparkle in his life,” Rae Phillips says. “They are so compatible. She brings that organization and calm. I can’t tell you how much I admire her, because to live with someone with such a strong personality can’t be easy.”

Sarah admires her husband’s work ethic and creativity, but what may have attracted her the most, she says, was his passion for teaching. She likes to learn, and because she has an artistic background herself, they speak the same language.

“Rigsby could just be a full-time sculptor, easily,” Sarah Frederick says. “And that would be fine, but he’s always going to cut hair. If he can stand up and hold shears he’s going to cut hair.”

All movements, words, and expressions take on more significance inside a teepee. Somehow, even the wind meant more as it whistled through the curved openings in the sides of the canvas. So when Frederick sat me down and said he was about to give me his salon’s mission statement, and that after receiving said mission statement, I could take it to my pastor, I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

Wellness, fun, enrichment, change, empowerment, and pride. He rattled off the list like commandments, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that his career is not about himself anymore.

“I’ve got 20 of the best stylists in the country trained as sculptors, not hairdressers,” Frederick says. “Now, for a while it was all about the lead singer, right? But eventually, if you take care of enough people, you end up getting your own goals accomplished. But it’s a humbling thing because at 23 I had an ego. I was God’s gift to women and a fearless man at 23.”

He has spent the 31 years since cutting hair and creating art in the same city. He never once considered moving. For all his world travel, artistic renown and hairstyling accolades, Frederick is a Cajun boy at heart, and Baton Rouge is home. Frederick has never ruled out a second location for his salon, but he doesn’t seem too taken with the idea, either. “You can only be in one place at one time,” he says.

The future of the salon lies, then, with the young talent Frederick recruits and trains. With eight levels of expertise—and pricing—Frederick has cultivated and branded a unique culture with his business and trained dozens of young stylists to be his hands.

“He’s always been good about educating his employees,” says Sheila Phillips, who started as a Lockworks receptionist when she was 14 and now owns Liquid Assets, a hair product distributorship and salon consulting firm. “A lot of people see that as an expense, as something they can’t afford, but Rigsby sees it as an investment he can’t afford not to do. That’s why he has so many longtime employees, and sustainability in this high turnover industry is rare, believe me.”

As he approaches the age his father was when he died, both aging and thinking about it have affected Frederick’s outlook. For one, he talks about it a lot. More than bamboo.

“I’m okay with my age, because I know the urgency I want to approach everything with,” he says. “There are millions of people as talented as me, but I do everything I do with a sense of urgency. That comes from enjoying what I do. You do what you love, and if you love what you do, then you’re going to be good at it.”

No longer interested in selling work for credence, he only accepts commissions if they are fun and have no deadline. Once wary of having little kids in his salon, Frederick now gives children’s first cuts for free, complimentary photo included. His favorite kind of booking is a woman’s first post-delivery hairstyle.

And he does it all with an energy that even his brother can’t comprehend. “It’s off the hook,” Brian says. “I don’t know where he gets it from.” Frederick jokes that being married to Sarah keeps him young, and if he was a typical middle-aged American male, that’d be it, end of story. But he has too much of his father in him; too much unbridled energy not to squeeze every drop of joy out of his natural ability to build solutions to problems, be they found in a 30-year-old head of hair or a 300-year-old tree burl. Some days he’s working in his garden by 6 a.m. He says God whispers in the morning.

“The act of daily figuring something out is what keeps you mentally agile,” Frederick says. “It’s the chase, baby. And creative thought will keep you young forever.”

So maybe Rigsby Frederick has gone from 20-something lead singer to team builder in his 50s, but he has made choices that have bent his business—yes, like bamboo—into a more familial salon that cares for multiple generations of hair.

Frederick is planning a huge party to celebrate his business’ silver anniversary later this year. It’ll be at the salon just like the grand opening, and he’ll enjoy every minute of it, but as he likes to say, “It’s important what you’ve done, but it’s more important what you’re doing.”

Frederick has decided that laurel-resting isn’t his bag. And he is a firm believer that people are the sum of their choices. The conviction with which he approaches his art, his salon and his relationships proves he’s made peace with his.

“As you get older you realize there’s a cumulative factor of successes and failures behind you, you know?” Frederick says. “I’m just really fortunate now to be able to enjoy that cumulative factor while I’m still doing what I love. Not everyone gets to do that. Not everyone takes the time to make the teepee.”rigsbysalon.com

Click here to read a Q&A with Sam Brocato about Frederick.