At first glance, anyone can tell that Aura’s personal style is as exciting and eclectic as her impressive portfolio—with teal running up her dark hair and a pop of mauve lip stain brightening her pout, it’s obvious that Aura lives to play with colors. In fact, she’s made a celebrated career of it. From her humble salon beginnings in Northern Virginia to her recent editorial powerhouse hits for Vogue, W and Marie Claire, the colorist is constantly manifesting her craft and making it her own. “First you have to know the foundation of color, and then you can break all the rules,” said Aura. “Now I can manipulate color to make it do exactly what I want it to do.” Aura, who has been mixing and applying pastels years before it was introduced to the mainstream, is constantly being called on by the best photographers and publications in the industry to think outside the box of standard color formulation in order to achieve the perfect hair hue.
In between celebrity shoots and her time spent behind the chair at Sally Hershberger in New York City, Aura sat down with us to talk about the future of coloring, art as inspiration and a little Lady Gaga.
How did you get your start in the industry?
In the summer of 1992, my mom and I moved from San Diego to Northern Virginia. I was 15 years old and didn’t know anyone, so my mom suggested that I try to get a job to meet people and keep busy during the summer. I went to the local strip mall and applied at every store. I got a job at a salon, but I actually wanted the job at the pet store. I ended up working at that salon all through high school and then followed one of the stylists to another salon in the mall called Frizzles. It was very ‘90s—lots of perms going on—but it was a great job because I met so many interesting people. Virginia has an apprenticeship program that allows you to try your hand at everything—color, blow-outs, perms. I did everything but cut, and I didn’t even have a license. I was lucky because not all states offer that. I realized right away what a rewarding and creative job coloring is and that it was worth getting my license. After high school, I moved to Miami Beach, which always felt like home because my dad lived there, and got my license. My first job out of school was as a color assistant at the high-end salon Stella where I trained under Johanna Stella. The clientele at that salon was insane. Imagine all of the people featured in the W society pages—those were the clients coming into Stella. I assisted there for two years, moved to a new salon when I was 18, and by 21 I was on the floor.
I completely fell in love with coloring when I went to a Bumble & Bumble seminar. The people attending saw coloring as a craft, and I finally felt that I had people to relate to. I moved to New York City because I always knew I wanted to do editorial. Eventually, I was able to create this career for myself because it’s what I wanted to do…I just had to manifest it.
Tell us about one instance when you were inspired by something and used that inspiration to create an entire look.
I’m constantly inspired by everything and always use references, which I think is really important in this industry. In the hair world, I am inspired by Lena Ott, Tina Outen, Odile Gilbert, Bob Recine and Dennis Lanni.
One instance that comes to mind was when I used French Impressionist paintings to create pastel-colored hair for a show. The show’s theme was fusion, and the key stylist, Eugene Souleiman, wanted random spots of candy-colored tones erratically placed on the hair. The images I referenced matched the color palette I was envisioning, and the end result had a great blotchy feeling, just like the paintings.
You’ve done so many amazing editorial shoots. Which one was the most challenging?
I had the opportunity to do a European McDonald’s advertising campaign, which was shot at Milk Studios about six years ago. I was booked the day of the shoot, so I canceled my entire day and ran over there. The entire experience was crazy. The lineup of people who were working on it were icons—photographer Richard Burbridge, the God of wardrobe styling Bill Mullen, hairstylist Yannick d’Is and makeup artist Mark Carrasquillo. The story showed a male and female throughout all stages of life, which, of course, was translated through the look. I had to change the hair color for each stage. For the guy, we started with a painted surfer look, then used black hair powder for the middle-aged look and finished with a shaved head. The girl started blonde, then I made her red, followed by brown and eventually back to blonde. There were art directors and creative directors from Europe and the U.S., which meant there were many different people to please. There were also time constraints and people asking when I would be done, but color takes time!
What is your creative process when trying brave new looks?
Sometimes I just go for it and other times I visualize the concept and map it out in my head. Most recently, I painted the firebird wig for Lady Gaga’s appearance on the Howard Stern Show, which was then styled by Joey George. The idea was based off of the underlying pigment chart, so I had to make sure each color lined up. I did it freehand, which was pretty intense.
What do you do when a client wants a color that you know won’t work?
With a platinum blonde, I explain to them that it will be too damaging and it won’t turn out to be the color they want. I’m brutally honest. Color is chancey when it’s not right. You could sit there for hours going for platinum and end up with banana yellow.
Any tips for aspiring colorists?
Create a niche for yourself in whatever it is you want to do, and don’t listen to people who try to convince you not to do it. Remember that humility is important and you can’t please everybody. Also, if you make color easy and convenient to your clients’ lifestyles, they will keep coming back.
How can stylists use Instagram to their advantage?
I get so many clients from my Instagram @auracolorist. I just started posting images that I like or I believe in to showcase my tastes. I got lucky in that people started writing about my Instagram, which got me more and more followers.
Through Instagram I work on my creative direction and concepting, which is a direction I would like to move toward in the future. I love sharing with fellow colorists and hairdressers because there’s nothing better than teaching, inspiring and giving ideas. Of course, I’m also inspired by what others are doing as well.
What is your favorite color?
I have so many. It depends on the time and moment and mood—I have a color for every mood. But I do love a really rich teal, like a blue/green combo.
What would you be if you weren’t a colorist?
An art therapist or rock star…if I could sing. When I was a kid wanted to be an actress/model, but I was never tall enough.
What is your favorite Oribe product?
I love the Conditioner for Beautiful Color.
What do you think the future of hair color looks like?
The really great thing about what’s happening with color is that people aren’t as afraid of experimenting with something fun and different. Expressing yourself is the trend right now, so I imagine that idea will be even more evolved in the future. As far as the technology behind color products, I think we are working toward color products that will lift more without damaging, which will give us a lot more power and help the industry in a positive way.