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Hair Brawl

It looked like the perfect match of style and vision: Joe Reuve's skill and popularity combined with John Vaillancourt's business smarts. But the combination was more like a tangled mess.



Every five years Joe Rueve, a Chicago hairdresser, likes to have a heart-to-heart with his female clients.

"We sit down and I ask them, 'Where are you going with this style? Do you like the old picture of yourself?' For example, everybody used to wear high bangs, with lots of teasing--that's very 80s, but not right for today. I don't want my people to look foolish."

The guys don't want to talk about their hair, but Rueve tells them what he thinks. "I'll cut off a comb-over," he says. "I cut one off my own brother-in-law right in my parents' kitchen, which made him fighting mad." He used to tell late Bears quarterback legend Sid Luckman, "Sid, you're a handsome man--lose the toupee."

Rueve is a tall, cheery man of 44 with a goofy smile and a balding scalp cropped short. He's a family man; his wife Pam is a realtor, and they've got a couple of kids. The Near North salon that Rueve used to run didn't put on airs; it thrived because he knew his trade and his customers liked him. "He's like a bartender," says John Carroll, publisher of Chicago magazine. "He's more like your brother," says Marshall Field's wife, Jamee.

But last year Rueve sold the place to John Vaillancourt, a stylist from New York with a flair for color. Vaillancourt ran a different kind of ship--more businesslike, he'd say; more despotic, others would say. Rueve worked for Vaillancourt awhile, then left. And Vaillancourt filed a $2.5 million lawsuit that accuses Rueve of trying to defraud him and steal his customers.

As Rueve was finishing high school in Cincinnati he began hanging out at a beauty school owned by the father of a girl he had a crush on. "I would sit in the stairwell and wait for her to come out," says Rueve. "Finally her dad threw a book at me and said, 'Go learn something.' So I went in and took classes. That's when I panicked--there was no way I could do this 'cause it seemed too sissified. I had played three sports in school, and I was a little homophobic then." The girl's father took Rueve aside and made a show of his enormous hands. "Do I look gay?" he asked. Rueve shook his head no. "Then get back to class," said the man.

Rueve's own father was a rep for a plumbing supplies manufacturer. He had 12 children, and Joe was sixth in line. When Tom Rueve found out that Joe had enrolled in beauty school, he summoned the boy to his office, shut the door, and said, "I want you to be totally honest with me. Are you gay?" Joe shot back, "Are you?" Joe reminded his dad that he liked art and working with his hands, and that styling hair was a natural extension of that. "I don't know anybody in that business," sighed Tom, who prided himself on helping out his children. To please his father, Joe spent one summer working for an insulation-blowing company. He hated it.

When he was 18, Rueve took a job as an assistant to Dan McCourt at Canned Ego, a prestigious salon in Shillito's, Cincinnati's oldest department store. "Dan was the top dog of Cincinnati," says Rueve. "He'd do 30 people a day, with two chairs going at any one time. I mixed his colors, shampooed the women, and made sure that everyone paid." McCourt, who still works in Cincinnati, took his responsibility to his apprentices seriously. "After three months, I wanted an assistant to see everything I did," he says. "After six months I wanted him to understand everything I did. At the end of nine months I wanted him to do everything I did."

McCourt transformed Rueve from Joey, a neighborhood kid, into Joseph, whose hair was coiffed, shoes were loafers, and shirts were white and button-down. After two years at Canned Ego, Rueve showed up for work one day and McCourt told him, "I'm finished with you--take that chair over there." He shifted from the so-called gourmet room, McCourt's province, to the lowly cutters' room. He started out doing frosts, perms, and sets on older women.

The owner of Canned Ego, Glenby International, operated salons in lots of department stores, and in 1979 Rueve put in for a transfer to Chicago. "I had a sister living there, and I loved the hustle-bustle," he says. He asked to be placed at either I. Magnin or Bonwit Teller; he got Carson Pirie Scott--"this place on the third floor with no windows," says Rueve. "The clientele was almost all black. It's kind of hard to break into that market when you're white and not used to doing that kind of hair. I was lost."

But undaunted. "When girls aren't eating lunch they like to shop for shoes," he says, "so I would go down to the Carson's shoe department at around noon each day. I'd say, 'I'm Joe from Cincinnati. I'll blow-dry your hair for free.' Then I got another idea, just for summer. I stood in a display window on State Street with barrettes and ornamental combs. I rapped on the window, and in sign language I'd offer to do free cuts." After two years at Carson's he left for a chair at Mark James, a shop on Wells Street in Old Town.

"I did Mohawks for people with orange hair," Rueve says. But he also did the hair of a girl from the neighborhood in Cincinnati who'd gone on to be a model, and through her such models as Cindy Crawford and Christina Kemper Gidwitz. "Christina sent me to Joe at Mark James," recalls Jamee Field. "She said, 'He's great, and he's young.'"

Rueve put in long hours at Mark James and enjoyed life outside it. "I dated," he says. "I dated a lot, if you really want to know. But Dan McCourt had told me, 'Joe, you have a choice. You can make a good living, or you can do this to be a gigolo. You have that option.' I chose to use hairdressing as a profession. I wasn't kissing and doing hair."

In the early 1980s Rueve, Mark Stein, who was a co-owner of Mark James, and a third partner decided to open their own place. They settled on a building at 808 N. Dearborn, in a stretch of Italianate row houses constructed in 1875. "The building next door, where the Alliance Francaise is now, had its front doors tied with big thick chains, and there were weeds coming out of the windows," says Rueve. "There was a gay bar on the corner whose customers would pick up tricks in Bughouse Square. But we could afford our building, and I had a theory--renovation was moving in our direction."

They signed a lease with an option to buy. Then the partnership fell apart, and Rueve, who wanted to go ahead on his own, needed to raise some $300,000 to buy and rehabilitate the building. He turned to a brother-in-law and to his father. "My dad took out a second mortgage on his house, unbeknownst to my mother," says Rueve. "We finished work on the building--the labor was all sweat equity by me and some friends--and we began. I was one chair in 3,000 feet of space."

Rueve on Dearborn--as a sign in one window announced--opened in 1983. A narrow, elegant wooden staircase connected its three levels. The color room was on the first floor, and hairdressers occupied the floors above. Rueve rented out the basement to a manicurist, a pedicurist, and a registered nurse who did cosmetic skin care. The art on the walls included collages by one of the stylists. At Rueve's second-floor station, set up to accommodate his left-handedness, he could look out through bay windows onto the elms shading Dearborn Street. Rueve loved working there.

Aside from the sign, the salon did nothing to call attention to itself. "When hype is good, you buy into it too much, and when it's bad--well, it's bad," Rueve says. "I also wanted my place to be one you had to be referred to, so that if you found out about it you would have a sense of being part of a circle." Rueve's clients seemed pleased by how he sailed beneath the fashion radar. "The shop was always kind of quiet," says Judith Kirshner, dean of architecture and arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It didn't have that buzz, that frantic quality that you find elsewhere."

After two years Rueve hired Rita DelMonte, who soon became responsible for appointments, the books, and the payroll. Other stylists came on, each with his own following. Marty Thompson, who wore his lustrous black hair braided down his back, prepared models for photographers Victor Skrebneski and Marc Hauser; Harry Helgeson styled models for fashion photographer Dennis Manarchy. The Chicago Bears' Keith Van Horne and radio host Eleanor Mondale, then married, were regulars of Russell Gustafson.

Victor Williams, a slim African-American who played basketball with Stedman Graham, attracted up-and-coming black women to his station. Maryann Kuehl joined Rueve as a stylist in the late 80s. "I was 19 years old, and it was amazing," she says. "We were always superbusy. I'd work from eight in the morning until eight at night. But that was before--"

Before people started dying. "Harry Helgeson came to me one day and said, 'I have HIV,'" says Rueve. "He wanted to know if I knew what that meant. He educated me. Marty Thompson didn't let anyone see him when he came down with the disease. But soon they were both gone."

Victor Williams was in his 30s when he died of a heart attack on the racquetball court.

Rueve regrouped. It was a slow process, not only because so many hairdressers had been lost to AIDS but also because hairdressers are never easy to hang on to. Rueve paid his stylists on commission--45 percent to start, then a 50-50 split, moving to a peak of 60 percent. "But if they offered 5 percent more down the street, my person was gone," he says.

Rueve's advantage was that people liked working for him. "I came to Joe in 1992, when I was still in beauty school, and stayed seven or eight years," says stylist Jennifer McCormick. "He was a good boss. He was down-to-earth, with no masks on, and he was always eager to show me a new technique." Rueve was free with advice. "A woman hates to be talked to in the mirror," he told McCormick. "Get in front of her physically, and look her in the face. If a woman wants to give you a tip, get on your feet and move toward her--don't let her walk all the way to you."

In 1999 Rueves decided to remodel. For six months he and seven other hairdressers worked in the basement ("We were elbow to elbow," says Rueve) as contractors upstairs installed maple flooring and cabinets, track lighting, new shampoo bowls, and granite hearths. In February 2001 Modern Salon named Rueve on Dearborn a "salon of distinction" and called it "the premier salon on Chicago's Gold Coast." Rueve was overjoyed. "It was a nice feather in our cap. But then the salon was doing well. The chairs were full, and the numbers were good."

In April of last year a developer contacted Rueve on behalf of John Vaillancourt, a hairdresser from New York searching for a salon to buy. "Name your price," said Vaillancourt. Rueve talked it over with his wife. Rueve felt he was at his professional peak, personally grossing $5,000 a week in appointments, but he was tired of being in charge. The hair business is precarious, its customers loyal to their stylists, not to their salons. "When a hairdresser goes home at night your assets go out the door," says Rueve. He wanted to spend more time with his two young sons, and he decided to sell.

Vaillancourt and James Poklop, his business and domestic partner, bought Rueve's building and equipment for $1 million and the business itself for an extra $100,000. Rueve signed a contract to stay on as an employee for a year; the contract stipulated that after that two years would have to pass before he could open or invest in a competing business anywhere within five miles.

Rueve kept the sale quiet until November 8, 2001, the day the deal closed. "When Joe told us it came as a pretty big shock," says one stylist. "It would have been nice if he had prepared us." Rueve presented Vaillancourt with a bottle of champagne and wished him well. "I felt like a grandparent at that point," Rueve says. "'Here you go, John--you can ask my advice, but those kids are yours, honey.' After the contracts were signed I walked to the Ralph Lauren store on Michigan Avenue. If I liked something I bought it, and I came out with three friggin' outfits for my wife and three each for the kids. I walked back by the salon, and everybody waved at me. How I must have looked. You'd have had to wipe the smile off my face, I was that gigglin' happy."

John Vaillancourt grew up in Middletown, Ohio, and attended college and beauty school in Houston. He worked in two Houston salons before moving to Chicago in 1989. "My sister was here," he says, "and I wanted to get out of the south and all that heat." He worked at Trend Hair and Fox Hair, both small shops in Lakeview, then in 1994 moved to Manhattan. There he worked in the Louis Licari, Jacques Lessange, and Patrick Garelle salons.

Vaillancourt acquired an uneven reputation. "John was very inventive with hair, but he was high-strung," says a Chicago stylist who doesn't want to be identified. "He'd get very upset when a client was late, and would perch himself by the door, staring. He sent one angry note to a client that the woman returned unopened. 'That's the ultimate fuck you,' he said."

A spokesman for Louis Licari says Vaillancourt left after three months "because he couldn't handle the job anymore." "I'd prefer not to say anything--professional secrets," says Patrick Garelle. "John didn't leave on good terms."

By 1996 Vaillancourt was employed at Devachan Hair and Departure Lounge, a 23-chair spa in Soho owned by Dennis DaSilva and Lorraine Massey. Both DaSilva and Massey praise Vaillancourt. "He's so creative, so open to new ideas," says Massey. Some of these were ideas about how to run a business. "When John came to work for us, his view was that all the stylists must compete with each other for customers," says DaSilva. "But our view is that if we all work together, we can keep our clients." Devachan holds a weekly staff meeting where problems can be hashed out and team spirit be fostered. It has codified dress and behavior. No jeans, sneakers or short skirts. Sleeves must cover arms. Gossip is discouraged.

"We are very warm here--that's who we are--but education is key," says Massey. "I educate all my clients about hair, like I'm discussing a garden that I think they should care for. What I do is teach--one head at a time." DaSilva adds, "You let the clients direct the course of the conversation, and sometimes they do raise their personal lives. But whatever is talked about, there is no bad news--you don't raise a killing or a murder or something awful mentioned in the news. We're located six blocks from Ground Zero, but we don't talk much about 9/11."

Vaillancourt became schooled in pintura, the Brazilian-born DaSilva's method of coloring hair that involves the application of an expensive German-made dye with a special comb and sheets of tissue instead of foil. According to Vaillancourt, pintura is quicker and less damaging to hair, and produces more vibrant color.

During the 1990s Helene Weiner was a production specialist for Evans Furs, a now dissolved Chicago firm founded by her family, and her duties often took her to Manhattan. She preferred to get her hair done there. "The stylists in New York are always working with models," she says, "and so they are more on the cutting edge style-wise." Weiner was referred to Vaillancourt when he was with Patrick Garelle. She was less taken with his personality than his ability. "Some people say he's surly, but then he isn't there to be your best friend," she says. When Vaillancourt did her hair "it never looked colored, though it was, of course," says Weiner, and passersby on the Upper East Side would stop her to ask how it was that it seemed to shimmer.

In 1995 Weiner persuaded Vaillancourt to travel to Chicago every six weeks to do her hair and that of some friends. She helped him rent a chair at Lincoln Park's Salon 1800, but he quickly wore out his welcome. "He was inconsiderate and very messy with towels and color tubes," huffs an 1800 stylist. He moved on to the Nancy Angelair Salon on Rush Street.

"Right before my 40th birthday I decided I wanted to buy both an apartment in New York and my own salon there," Vaillancourt told the Reader several weeks ago, "but I realized I could do only one or the other. I was in Chicago over the holidays in 1999, and for laughs I thought I'd look into real estate. I ended up putting earnest money down on an apartment which cost half of what it would in New York." Vaillancourt moved to Chicago in June 2000, and began commuting back to New York to maintain his practice there.

"But I was putting in seven days a week, 15 hours a day, which took lots of stamina," he said. "I had saved my money, and I had a plan to take my career to the next level, where I'd be working for myself and not for somebody else." He saw himself importing the latest trends to Chicago, which "is typically a year behind New York in hair."

A real estate developer referred him to Rueve. "He had a strong clientele, and if I was going to take on this huge responsibility I wanted that. My guess is that when I first contacted Joe he didn't think anything would come of our discussions, but then I offered full price. Joe wanted to relinquish his responsibilities. He had owned his salon for years and he told me he was worn-out--he said he wanted to just work and come and go."

John Vaillancourt is a trim man with blond highlights in his brown hair. Colorful snake tattoos mark both forearms, and dark-blue snake bones undulate up his neck. After two interviews with the Reader he decided he didn't like the tone of the questions and stopped answering them, but by then he had talked a lot about himself. "I've liked snakes ever since I was a kid," he said. "Actually, I used to have this big thing for snakes, bugs, and frogs."

"At first John and I had a pretty solid relationship, though we had different management styles," says Rueve. "I had been more hands-off as an owner, where John's concept was more cohesive. This was John's way, and I was interested to see where he could take the shop."

Vaillancourt's vision centered on color. Given the state of the salon business, it was the right focus. Salon revenues now top $50 billion a year, driven--according to The American Salon Green Book, a hair-industry yearbook--by a demand for coloring services that between 1995 and 2000 grew by 37 percent. Vaillancourt taught Rueve and the rest of the staff the pintura process, and he renamed the shop the Color Epidemic Salon. "I wanted something unforgettable," he said, "so you could call from your car phone--and not remember 'color' or 'epidemic'--and still somehow get the number."

Old Rueve customers who saw Vaillancourt for their color were delighted. "John just had an instinct for getting the mix right," says Susan Muller, a Rueve regular from Hyde Park. In January Modern Salon published a two-page spread on Vaillancourt and pintura, touting both.

Vaillancourt wanted to convert the hoopla into sales. He'd become a follower of Salon Business Strategies, a Connecticut-based company that publishes a small-circulation monthly magazine and runs seminars. "Hairstylists are good on the technical part of their jobs--the styling and cutting--but too few of them are business minded," says Keri Manuel, the firm's education director. Salon Business Strategies advises shop owners to make cash-flow projections ("A lot of them work right out of their checkbooks," says Manuel), tighten inventory and ordering methods, and base pay on performance, not commission.

Salon Business Strategies recommends not only weekly staff meetings but daily five-minute huddles. It encourages all employees, even the owners, to pitch in on whatever needs to be done around a salon, even the grubbiest tasks. "Otherwise it can get to be a prima donna situation," says Manuel. She thinks stylists should dress presentably and uniformly, and she's even firmer than the Devachan owners in her opposition to gossip. "We aren't the Dolly Parton hairstylist anymore," she says. "This industry is professional now. The talk should be about the clients and their hair, not about what they did last night."

Vaillancourt set out to march Color Epidemic in this more disciplined direction. He made sure a schedule was posted that listed every appointment. He stepped up staff meetings from monthly to weekly, setting them for Wednesday morning before the shop opened. He told stylists to show up at least 15 minutes before all appointments. And he banned blue jeans.

Vaillancourt offered complimentary visits to guests of nearby hotels. He did free color for the clerks at the Bloomingdale's makeup counter to intrigue and attract their customers. He reduced the lines of shampoo and conditioner that he carried from a half dozen to two, believing that by getting clients accustomed to specific products he'd increase sales.

Some of the changes impressed Rueve; he particularly admired the idea of doing up the Bloomingdale's clerks. But many of Vaillancourt's initiatives rubbed Rueve and the other old hands the wrong way. Stylists grumbled about being discouraged from bringing beverages upstairs, except for clients. Maryann Kuehl had considered Rueve so easygoing "that people took advantage of him"; she welcomed a little more structure. But Vaillancourt's demand that stylists sell more product to customers made her feel like a shill, and it irked her that clients who didn't like what they'd bought could no longer get their money back.

Frequently Rueve found Vaillancourt occupying his beloved styling station by the bay windows. "So I'd gather my stuff and move somewhere else," he says. He resented Vaillancourt's demand that he and the other stylists come to him before departing at night and ask, "John, is there anything I can do for you before I leave?" Rueve complains that he was asked to take laundry downstairs and wipe down mirrors. And why not? said Vaillancourt. "I try to do the best for our business, and it's the least they can do to say good night and ask if I need anything. I say good-bye when I leave. I can often be found sweeping the floor at the end of the day."

Kuehl found the weekly staff meetings so troubling that she began suffering anxiety attacks beforehand. "John was always talking about all these rules," she says, "and he was negative and mean. He would treat us like children." DelMonte was more affronted than upset. "John would tell us we weren't working together to treat our clients right. Now, I'm 55 years old, and I've been seeing some clients for 10 or 15 years. I know how to treat them."

DelMonte, who'd been Rueve's right hand, was shifted to lesser duties, including finishing off Vaillancourt's jobs. In the end she found herself with too little to do and dropped to a part-time schedule. Vaillancourt said DelMonte was simply resentful: "Rita had done everything for Joe Rueve, and when I took over she was knocked off her throne. She had alienated people for years, and now she was made an equal--that didn't sit well with her."

DelMonte, Kuehl, and Rueve all say that Vaillancourt frequently lost his temper. "I am a direct man," he said. "If I ask you to do something two or three times, I don't expect to ask you again. Absolutely I can get angry." He recalled his irritation on finding out that while he was in New York an employee had left for home an hour early.

Vaillancourt hiked prices 10 percent ("We have a mortgage to pay," Kuehl recalls him saying) and deducted $5 a month from salaries to cover a basement phone designated for personal calls. Kuehl, a part-timer raising two children at home, says Vaillancourt manipulated her pay so that "I was making less money but was expected to do more work." Vaillancourt said he charged Kuehl for color products that she used, "which is standard in our business."

More than anything, it troubled Kuehl not to be able to talk freely with her customers. "When you've been doing a woman's hair for eight or ten years it's strange not to ask about her husband or her vacation." She says that one Saturday last April she was styling next to Vaillancourt and he came over and said, "Maryann, can I ask you a favor? Can you not talk so much? You're distracting me. And you're not thinking about hair." Kuehl apologized to the next couple of clients for not being her usual voluble self.

By DelMonte's reckoning, between last November and the end of spring seven stylists, receptionists, and assistants at Color Epidemic either quit or were terminated.

Writer Craig Vetter, a longtime client, says that while getting his hair trimmed he heard Rueve express his frustration. "Joe said that there had been some delay in getting checks to employees and the new owner had told him, 'I'll get out the checks when I feel like it,'" says Vetter. "Joe said he'd have to check a couple of things, but he didn't like the owner's attitude and he said he might be leaving. He was ruminating about it."

Susan Muller was struck by the salon's "desperation" to sell nail polish and other products, and by Vaillancourt's attitude. "He was always saying how he'd done Erica Jong's hair," she says. "He seemed to think Chicago was a frontier town, and he was going to turn it around."

DelMonte had booked an appointment for Rueve at 8:30 the morning of Wednesday, April 24. It was with a couple who needed to get back quickly to chronically ill children. Vaillancourt didn't want DelMonte and Rueve to risk missing even a part of the 9:30 staff meeting, so he ordered his receptionist, Jessica Thornton, to cancel the appointment. DelMonte reinstated it, and Thornton canceled it again.

Another issue already had Vaillancourt and Rueve at odds. Their contract allowed Rueve to take clients on Mondays, when the shop was normally closed. This was both for the clients' convenience and to let Rueve log a workweek that gave him weekends off with his family. But Vaillancourt was unhappy with this; he wanted Rueve to work Tuesday through Saturday like everyone else. When Rueve worked on Monday, Vaillancourt said, support staff had to come in too and it was costing the salon money.

Rueve had an idea the April 24 meeting might be tumultuous. He woke up at 5 AM and took a seven-mile run.

Later, he and DelMonte offered their version of how the meeting went. The staff met in the stylists' space on the second floor. Vaillancourt began with a lecture on how to take care of customers. He wanted the hairdressers to leave not only the metered parking spaces out front free for patrons but also the bathrooms on the second floor. Then he distributed slips for the hairdressers to fill out for their clients, recommending a shampoo, conditioner, and styling aid and suggesting a date for the next appointment. The slips were designed to look like prescription forms, with an Rx on top.

"John, why do we have to pretend to be doctors?" Rueve asked. Vaillancourt said the forms were a way to increase sales. Rueve said, "It's taken me years to build my business. My clients either take my advice or not." Vaillancourt said handing out the forms was mandatory. "I don't think I can do it," said Rueve.

Then Rueve hammered Vaillancourt about canceling the 8:30 appointment "at a time when you say we are supposed to be doing everything for the client." Vaillancourt glared at Rueve. "What are you trying to do here?" he said.

Not quite finished, Rueve referred to an item in Ann Gerber's Skyline column a few days earlier. "Who is the arrogant hairstylist who insults his clients and his staff and has lost many fine colorists and stylists?" the item read. "We all know that beauty salons are like revolving doors, but he's so nasty and quick-tempered he's called 'Attila the Hun' behind his back."

Rueve looked at Vaillancourt. "Is that column about you?" (Gerber says it wasn't.)

"This meeting is over," announced Vaillancourt. "Joe, you ruined it."

Vaillancourt asked Rueve to join him downstairs. "Why don't you get the hell out of here?" Rueve says Vaillancourt told him. "Finish out the week and you're done."

Rueve climbed the stairs to his station. "I'm finishing out the week," he announced. "If you're out of here, I'm out of here," DelMonte said. Kuehl said she'd go with them.

"Joe stormed out of the salon," Vaillancourt said later. "Then he stormed back in and stood in the waiting area. He said, 'What do you want me to do?' I said, 'I don't want you to quit.' He said, 'You've left me no choice,' and he walked out."

A resignation was a violation of Rueve's employment agreement. The next day he wrote Vaillancourt what he considered a conciliatory letter. "I am convinced that you are trying to push me into quitting," it said. "Your response to my comments at the meeting was unnecessarily caustic, and [it] seemed that you were trying to embarrass me in front of the staff. While I am prepared to fulfill my employment duties, and am willing to work with you to develop a mutually acceptable arrangement for keeping the Salon open on Mondays, I am unwilling to work under conditions where I am being harassed on a daily basis."

Vaillancourt wrote back two days later announcing "some additional parameters that you must agree to before I will reconsider your resignation." He listed several provisos, including a move of Rueve's styling station to the first floor, an increase in hours, and a requirement that Monday customers pay in cash or by check, with Rueve responsible for making good any shortages in the cash drawer. Kuehl could come back, but not DelMonte. "This situation can be in both our best interests," Vaillancourt's letter said. "I cannot however tolerate the kind of behavior that you displayed in front of the staff on Wednesday. Think this over and let me know of your decision. I personally would like to see you rejoin our team."

Rueve replied by letter that he wanted to return, but only under the original terms. Vaillancourt said no.

On July 30, Vaillancourt and his partner James Poklop filed a $2.25 million suit in circuit court charging Rueve with fraud, breach of contract, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices. The suit alleges that although Rueve agreed to sell Rueve on Dearborn to Vaillancourt, he "never intended to carry out that promise, but, instead, planned to sell the business and the Building and then 'set up shop' in a new location, soliciting the clientele, and taking them with him." Vaillancourt says his evidence of this is

a conversation he had with Rueve that was overheard by Jessica Thornton. (Thornton couldn't be reached for comment, and Rueve says he has no idea what Vaillancourt is talking about.)

The suit further alleges that at the April 24 staff meeting, Rueve "without provocation pretended to become extremely agitated, and verbally attacked Mr. Vaillancourt in front of several of the [Color Epidemic] staff." After this "pretextual outburst," Rueve, DelMonte, and Kuehl

resigned, Rueve breaching his employment contract by not staying a year.

"When you sell somebody a business, you agree to go along with their wishes," says Vaillancourt's lawyer, Jeffrey Cole. "You don't have the right to quit on a whim. Was Joe Rueve beaten? Was he vilified? Joe knew the deal was contingent on his staying for a year. You can't quit because the person who bought your business is difficult to get along with or you don't like his managerial style."

The suit alleges that Rueve "misappropriated and caused to be misappropriated" files and records. It accuses Rueve of telling his old clients that he'd relocated to Molina Molina, a shop on West Maple, and inviting them over for appointments. Those clients apparently fled Color Epidemic in droves. Over the next two months, according to the suit, 214 clients of Rueve, DelMonte, and Kuehl failed to keep appointments--and without calling to cancel. "Joe Rueve," said Vaillancourt, "solicited business that I bought and paid for."

The suit also claims that in June either Rueve or someone acting on his behalf called the Cole Taylor Bank vice president responsible for the Color Epidemic account "in an attempt to interfere with Vaillancourt and Poklop's relationship with the bank." The anonymous caller allegedly told the banker, Robert Halverson, that most of the Color Epidemic staff had walked out and this was "something I think you should know about." (Halverson says the caller, a male, was "very derogatory, to the point of being bizarre.")

Rueve responds that he didn't sell Rueve on Dearborn to Vaillancourt intending to leave the salon. "I signed a deal, and I was going to fulfill it." Did Rueve stage a tantrum at the April 24 staff meeting? "My goal that day was to keep my mouth shut, listen, and nod yes," Rueve says. "But when John started in about the prescription forms, I started to get upset. But I had no intention of leaving the place." Rueve maintains that he didn't violate his employment contract because Vaillancourt fired him, and that he didn't leave with files or records. "I took my scissors, and that's it."

Rueve and DelMonte insist that they solicited no Color Epidemic customers; the news that they'd moved passed among their clients by word of mouth. Kathy Taslitz says she heard from Rueve's wife. "I can't remember quite how I learned about Joe leaving--maybe from one of my kids--and then Rita may have called and said Joe had moved," says Jamee Field. "It was very casual. Joe never sent out an announcement or anything." No way, says Vaillancourt's lawyer. "Joe Rueve was booked two and three weeks in advance," says Jeffrey Cole. "He must have called and told people where he was."

Rueve says he has no idea who might have phoned Halverson; he says he didn't even know the name of Vaillancourt's bank. "Who else would have known about the bank and the banker?" asks Cole. "Who else would have had the motive to make the call? This may be circumstantial evidence, but people go to the gas chamber on the basis of circumstantial evidence."

In early August, Vaillancourt's remaining stylists departed abruptly. "I came back from New York to find two letters of resignation," said the owner bitterly. "I was very sorry to lose them, with as much education as I gave them, and then they leave me high and dry." (Says one of the hairdressers, "Let's just say John is somebody I'd rather work with and not for.") All but one of the nail and skin specialists who rented the salon's basement also left. The Color Epidemic staff now consisted of Vaillancourt, an assistant, and Jessica Thornton.

"I'm devastated financially and emotionally," said Vaillancourt. "Imagine investing a million dollars of your money--and putting your credit on the line--and you find you have to support all this yourself. But I opened Color Epidemic to bring the best color to the women of this city, and I intend to keep the doors open."

During the summer the Commission on Chicago Landmarks proposed extending the Washington Square landmark district to take in another 33 properties, among them Color Epidemic. Vaillancourt joined two dozen other owners in protesting. "I've seen many salons outgrow their space," he told the Tribune, "and if my building were deemed a landmark, any change would have to be approved." The owners lost. An ordinance expanding the district passed the City Council on July 10.

"It's never easy being an employer," said Vaillancourt. He took comfort in the book The Street-Smart Entrepreneur by Jay Goltz, owner of Artists' Frame Service on North Clybourn. "Someone gave me a copy. If you own something, coworkers and employees are telling you constantly that you should do things in a different way, but the author's point is that you should not lose sight of your ideals, that you should keep moving forward.

"I know this--the people who left me are not of the caliber that I wanted to retain anyway. These stylists created a career for themselves based on part-time income. They had a tendency to work at one salon and then move on, to come and go at will. But I needed a higher level to maintain this one-million-dollar building."

Molina Molina is owned by Aquiles Molina and his wife, Mary, both friends of Rueve's. Customers who have followed him there remark that the salon lacks the elegance of 808 N. Dearborn, but they don't seem to care. "You can cut hair wherever, even on a park bench like they do in Beijing," says Jamee Field. "But I do miss looking out at the elm trees at the old place." Her devotion is to Rueve. "Joe has certain standards, and for what I need he can't be beat. I'm sticking with him."

He occupies a small, windowless station at Molina Molina and works Tuesday through Saturday. "I'm comfortable where I am," he says. "I can't own another salon for another year and a half, but I expect to. For now I'm raising my two sons. I used to be the guy who would say, 'Boys, I've got work to do,' but not now. It's the first time in 18 years that I don't want to be the leader. In my situation now I still get to be an artist, to sit there and sculpt something out of hair, and I do like helping people feel better about themselves. It's double bonus points, as always."

Rueve says his encounter with Vaillancourt has reinforced a couple of lessons about the hair trade. "My customers want a sense of belonging," he says, "and for that I believe in the concept of the boutique salon. Look, when my wife and I and our kids go out to eat at Dinotto's [a restaurant near their house], the people who run the place are happy to see us, and they say it. When we go to Topo Gigio, Tony the maitre d' says hi." Then he named a hot spot in Wicker Park. "I bet I could go there ten times and--though I don't know this for a fact--they wouldn't know us. That's the difference between being a boutique and a salon that just puts your butt in a chair.

"The other thing is that you can talk statistics and about hair being a business all you want, but you need people to work for and with you. You can't do this on your own. A hair salon is an ecosystem, and I can tell you it's a very fragile one."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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