July 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Hair apparent

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Mr Abe Lourie is 81, and tells me that he is in perfect health. Every morning he walks up two flights of stairs to open his store. The lift has been broken for quite some time and yet customers continue to come up, because for half a century he has helped fill a lack in people’s lives. Stacked from floor to ceiling with over a thousand heads of real and synthetic hair, Creative Wigs is one of those places that reminds you of a time before the merged business – a time of the butcher, the baker and the wigmaker.

Though Mr Lourie does not make the wigs he sells, he talks about hairpieces with a reverence otherwise reserved for miraculous modern drugs, paracetamol and gentle herbal balms to alleviate persistent aches. Mr Lourie used to be a pharmacist 50 years ago, on the corner of Swanston and Bourke streets. “Around that time, exciting people were beginning to arrive in Melbourne,” he says. “Entertainers used to come down from the Southern Cross Hotel.” His business changed forever when a Hong Kong supplier came into his pharmacy with two human-hair samples. One was a ponytail and the other was a black hair-switch. Mr Lourie put them in the window and by the end of the week they were gone.

“Look at this,” he exclaims, as he shows me a bobbed synthetic wig with a handmade monofilament front. “This is the difference between an ordinary wig and a good one.” I see that the hair is handwoven, four strands at a time, through the transparent lace mesh at the front of the wig. When I put my hand beneath the wig, the mesh between the hair is invisible, showing only skin. Exactly like scalp. A person wearing one of these wigs could part their hair on any side of their head.

Mr Lourie’s daughter, Diane, is attending to a woman sitting in front of the mirror in the middle of the showroom, offering her wigs of different lengths. Nestled between the wings of her new hair, the lady’s expression is one of quiet astonishment – she cannot believe this is fake hair. “My real hair has never looked so good,” the lady jokes to me. Diane helps her part it in the direction she prefers; it feels more like being at the hairdresser than in a warehouse.

“Although we are generally a wholesaler, every day we will have about four or five people come in who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment,” Diane tells me later. “People who’ve never worn wigs before tend to ask for human hair, but a human-hair wig needs to be taken to a hairdresser to be cut and permed. So I advise them to get synthetic wigs, which already come styled and are much easier to manage.”

Each wig has a different name, labelled on the hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked neatly around the store – Felicity, Shilo, Tatum, Miranda, Angelica, Ryan, Leah – like little folded personalities in hibernation. Sylvia, Mr Lourie’s longest-serving employee, has been working at the store for more than three decades. She shows me a box of tiny wigs for children with cancer and alopecia. “Usually the kids come in with their mums and dads. Girls come in more often than boys, because losing their hair affects them more.”

There are also ringmaster moustaches and Salvador Dalí moustaches, mutton chops for the sides of the face, toupees to be pinned onto thinning hair and even chest hair made of human hair hand-sewn into a lace mesh, to be adhered with liquid adhesive. “Who would buy chest hair?” I ask. “People in the movie business,” Mr Lourie replies. Over the years, hair from his store has graced the heads and bodies of the casts of Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Moulin Rouge! and The Matrix, as well as the Australian productions of musicals such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera.

“I never thought this job would get so interesting,” Sylvia says. “Back in the ’80s, Jon Bon Jovi came with his crew and all their girlfriends. They wanted to visit Brighton Beach and so needed disguises. We gave them big moustaches and caps with hair hanging down the back.” Pictures of celebrities adorn the place but they are stuck on the walls more like thank-you cards than advertisements. Many are signed, and Mr Lourie points one out to me. “Vivien St James,” he says with sincere affection, “was a great lady.” Mr Lourie then tells me about meeting her when she was a shy young man who came into a wig shop for the first time. The original Les Girls and Danny La Rue, BABBA and Björn Again have also been regular visitors.

Yet this is not a place of hyperbole. There is none of the “you-look-fabulous-darling!” flamboyancy of the glass windowed salons and wig stores of the suburbs. Mr Lourie has a chemist’s care in labelling and shelving his stock, and the gaze of a doctor with an untarnished history of accurate diagnoses. When not tending to customers, the Louries keep busy doing other things, such as filling in wig orders for hospitals.

“Sometimes,” Diane tells me, “we will get Jewish ladies coming in for sheitels, though not that often. Some of them will have no problem sitting in front of Dad to be fitted for a wig.” And who wouldn’t feel at ease here, in this quiet upper-storey warehouse in front of a man who takes as much attentive care with his transformative stock of human relief as the pharmacist he was trained to be? The cabinet next to Mr Lourie’s desk is stacked with photographs of his grandchildren, one of whom works with him in the store. “I have no intention of retiring,” he finally tells me, “because there is no one in Australia who knows more about wigs than I do.” When I leave, Sylvia is adjusting a wig to fit the size of the wearer’s head – cutting out tufts of hair and sewing it with a needle and thread.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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