After years of working in cities across the United States, Rebecca Cleary is bringing chic cuts and a fresh style sensibility home to the Stockade.
“I want to dispel all the myths of hairdressing and I want to build confidence in new, up-and-coming hairstyles,” Cleary said.
The Rotterdam native is hoping to do that with Bex Salon, which she’s opening on Union Street in the coming weeks. Cleary, whose nickname is "Bex," co-owns the business with her husband, Peadar Cleary. She’s excited to get back to her roots after working in New York City and Austin, Texas, for the past eight years.
“It’s been really cool to watch how Schenectady has revitalized,” Cleary said.
More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019
Sandwiched between other historic buildings in the Stockade, the brightly lit bay window of Bex Salon stands out. Inside, the smart gray-and-white wall colors play off of the heavy wooden doors and the original intricately molded ceilings, reflecting both modern style and local history.
It’s right across the street from First Presbyterian Church, which Cleary attended as a child, and down the road from Paul Mitchell: The School, from which she graduated nearly a decade ago.
Cleary has known since she was in seventh grade that she wanted to be a cosmetologist.
“I think it was the people-to-people aspect of it,” Cleary said. Even a quick conversation reveals that she's a people person. She’s just as happy to talk as she is to listen -- and she has a good read on which makes people more comfortable.
When she was 14 and still attending Mohonasen High School, Cleary helped out her mom’s hairstylist, mostly sweeping and whatever else was needed. From that experience alone, Cleary knew she wanted to open her own salon. After high school in 2008, she went on to get an associate degree in business before heading off to Paul Mitchell in Schenectady. Cleary's was one of the first classes to graduate from the school in 2010.
She worked locally for a while before moving around. First, she traveled to Ireland — where her husband is from — and worked with her sister-in-law, a makeup artist. They did makeup for weddings and special events, and created a YouTube tutorial series.
But Cleary wanted to get back to hair.
“I knew that I wanted to be really good at it,” Cleary said. So she moved to New York City and landed an apprenticeship specializing in haircutting at Mizu Salon, a high-end shop on the East Side.
“It was grueling,” Cleary said, “My haircutting training alone was three years. It was a long road with [what felt like] no light at the end of the tunnel. . . . But it was the best thing I could have done for my career.”
Her training focused on precision cuts and up-and-coming styles. It gave her the skills and confidence to transform and translate for her clients what they were seeing on celebrities and in the world of high fashion.
“If you show me a picture of Jennifer Aniston, I’m going to give you Jennifer Aniston, but for you,” Cleary said.
With her training, both in hair and in makeup, she also began working on photo shoots for magazines, editorials and album covers, even working with groups such as Cirque du Soleil. She continued the work when she and her husband decided to move to Austin, Texas, in 2014.
“It’s a major startup capital,” Cleary said.
At the time, she was pregnant, and neither Cleary nor her husband wanted to raise their new daughter in New York City. She became an independent contractor in Austin and built a full list of clients, while also continuing her photo shoots, this time working with Rolling Stone magazine, a few celebrities and bands such as Midland.
But after the death of her grandfather last year, Cleary and her husband started thinking about moving closer to her family. Her mother tipped her off to 234 Union St., and a few months after Cleary and her husband first toured the place, they bought it and moved in.
“The Stockade has always been a little gem to us,” Cleary said.
Although she had been running her own business as an independent contractor for years, Bex Salon is her first brick-and-mortar. Cleary was cautious about opening a salon when she first moved back last year, but once she noticed how far the city of Schenectady has come since she last lived here, she decided the time to fulfill her lifelong dream was now, and the place should be the Stockade.
“If I can build a business in Texas without knowing anyone, I can do it here,” Cleary said.
Thus, the Clearys transformed the upper floors of the Union Street location into their home and the bottom floor into Bex.
“My husband worked with Tom Killeen, who does restoration work in the Stockade,” Cleary said.
The hardwood floors, chandelier lights and pocket doors fit well with the modern design Cleary was going for. While the front section of the salon is used for most of the haircutting and styling, there’s a secondary room with photography equipment and everything she might need for photo shoots, which she’s already begun working on.
Transforming the historic building into a modern salon wasn’t that difficult. However, Cleary is anticipating a challenge when it comes to changing local customers' expectations. Cleary’s clients don’t walk away with only a haircut. They walk away with an education.
“I’m such a hair nerd,” Cleary said. She asks clients to talk about styling issues and what she calls their “hair goals,” or what they want their hair to look like in the long run. Depending on their answers, she’ll help develop styling and care techniques.
Cleary uses the Kevin Murphy hair care product line and explains exactly how each product works, and what’s in it, as well as the ways it’s environmentally friendly. But she also asks what products they use, and tries to help them create a routine and a style they can recreate every day using products they already have.
From Cleary’s perspective, there’s no point in having a great haircut if you can’t style it the way you want.
She’s also taking gender out of the price, “which is new, especially for this area,” Cleary said. Instead, price is based on length. Her short haircuts are $55, mid-length are $65 and long are $75.
“The reason I started pricing my haircuts that way is based on frequency and the amount of time I spend [on each cut]. I spend just as much time on a men’s cut as a women’s cut,” Cleary said.
She’s also hoping to go a step further in incorporating the old with the new by creating a blow-dry styling bar or a dry bar at the salon.
“I want to have a blow-dry menu [where each style] is named after prominent women in the Stockade,” Cleary said. That would include Mary Cochran Ellis, who used to own the building in the late 1800s, among others.
In the meantime, she’s searching for a few other employees. Each will go through further education and an apprenticeship that will provide a solid foundation before they decide to specialize in either color, haircutting, etc. Even though she expects it might take a while to find employees, Cleary believes that with how much the city has changed, she’ll be able to find the right people.
“I’m really excited for where Schenectady is going,” Cleary said.
Until the grand opening in the coming weeks, Bex Salon is open by appointment only. For information, call 518-930-1201 or visit beautybybex.com.
More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019