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Rosemary and Mitchel Wilson, owners of Subterranean Hair. (photo: John Mattera Photography)

It’s a common Hollywood trope —the misfit protagonist gets a makeover, and voila! With a new haircut and wardrobe, all their problems are solved. But like many movie tropes, it’s not real. At least, not according to Mitchel Wilson. “We believe the haircut should fit the person,” says Mitchel. “Our goal isn’t to make you into someone else.”

Mitchel and Rosemary Wilson are the owners of Subterranean Hair, a hair salon located at 7th and Centre streets in Downtown San Pedro. In a world that views hairstyles and identity as tightly intertwined, the couple takes an unconventional approach to styling, believing that the haircuts they give must suit the customer’s appearance and personality equally. “Hair should complement what’s inside,” says Mitchel, “and it’s our job as image professionals to make people look outside how they see themselves inside.” 

Mitchel’s belief in hair as a reflection of the self came partly from his own bad haircut as a kid. “I wanted my hair bleached white and spiky like Billy Idol, and my mom took me to get a flat top,” he says. “I cried because I just didn’t look anything like what I envisioned.” The experience spurred a lifelong reverence for hair, and when he joined a punk band in his teens, he began experimenting with the hairstyles of his bandmates. “We’d walk through Del Amo Mall and see the hair salons where they were separating hair with foil. And I thought, ‘We want to do two colors in a mohawk… maybe we should try that foil thing they’re doing over there.’”

But though a lousy hairdo and passion for punk drove Mitchel to love styling, a lackluster corporate beauty industry experience compelled him to open his salon. He and Rosemary were living in Dallas and working for Toni and Guy, a hairdressing company, when Mitchel began feeling unsatisfied in his creative director role. Despite overseeing their Education Academy and traveling abroad to teach classes, he felt his work had little meaning. “I was nothing more than a glorified shampoo pitchman, and I started feeling guilty,” he says. “All the corporate beauty industry is trying to do is flip the coin so that you buy more of their stuff. And so, I really felt like, ‘Wow, this is not right. This is really, really bad.’”

The Wilsons decided to move to San Pedro, where Mitchel had spent his teen years, and in 2019, they opened Subterranean Hair as co-owners. They borrowed the name from Jack Kerouac’s book The Subterraneans, which Mitchel had read as a teen. “It’s about intelligence and motivation that comes from a different place,” says Mitchel, “and it obviously means underground, and underground culture has always sparked revolution.” In addition to being co-owner, Mitchel also serves as creative director — he’s both a licensed stylist and barber, and he dictates the artistic direction of the salon. Rosemary is the marketing director, although her role extends far beyond what her title would suggest. “I’m the branding guru, social media account manager, trend researcher,” she says. “I’m always asking myself, ‘How can we be different?’”

Having vowed to move as far from the corporate beauty industry as possible, the Wilsons strive to conduct business ethically. “Every product in our shop must pass our criteria,” explains Mitchel. “One, it has to work; two, it has to harmonize with our physiology; and three, it has to be responsible to the planet.” They also fill their shelves with local and organic merchandise, ensuring that even the complimentary beverages they serve to clients are locally produced. “We found our tea at Smorgasburg in downtown, and we got to know the owner,” says Rosemary. “We really pride ourselves on knowing the people behind every brand that we carry.”

They also commit to green practices. The salon is Green Circle certified, meaning that 95 percent of its waste is recycled and repurposed. Discarded hair becomes booms for oil spill cleanup or bioplastic. Excess hair color is transformed into clean water and energy. And foils and color tubes are repurposed into commercial materials, such as the metal in bicycle frames.

At the heart of all this effort is the client, and the Wilsons work to ensure that the salon experience serves every individual. Pricing is gender neutral, and new customers must attend a complimentary 30-minute pre-appointment consultation during which they define their identity. Aiding this task is a book of 12 personality archetypes that they developed, a tome filled not with text but images — the caregiver archetype, for example, features pictures of people engaged in caring for others. “What’s interesting about this — and we didn’t even intend it — is that every single one of the caregivers has their hair pulled back,” says Rosemary. The concept behind the book is that once people recognize how their hair and sense of self intersect, they can select a haircut that fits their lifestyle and identity.

When not busy with business affairs, the Wilsons are parents to a young daughter, and Mitchel is a musician in the band Mirrored Vision. “Subterranean is great, but ever since I could breathe oxygen, music is what I was supposed to do,” he explains. Many of the themes in his work at the salon also course through his music, including anti-corporate sentiment and the importance of carving one’s own path.

Inherent to this mentality is a belief that people come before profits. Though Mitchel admits that money is a necessity, he distances himself from the idea that a business’s sole purpose is to increase revenue. The salon is closed every Monday for classes, which the Wilsons open to all stylists in San Pedro. “It’s time to shake up the industry, to engage in a like-minded pursuit that is mutually beneficial,” says Mitchel. “It’s not just about beating the competition. Our job is to serve the community. And if you let that guide you, it becomes infectious. That’s the mission of it all.” spt

Subterranean Hair is located at 263 W. 7th St. in Downtown San Pedro. For more info, call (424) 287-0161 or visit subterraneanhair.com.

Nadia Nizetich