Horst Rechelbacher and Rocco Altobelli
In 1964, a 22-year-old Horst Rechelbacher was on a first date with a German beauty. He was squiring her in his brand-new Jaguar XKE—they had been to dinner at a happening restaurant off the old Cedar Highway called Camelot. He was driving the young lady home to St. Louis Park when a drunk driver slammed into the Jag’s driver’s side door, crushing Horst’s second and third vertebrae.
It was the best thing that would ever happen to the Twin Cities’ beautiful people.
We tell our favorite origin myths over and over: We’re proud of our historical contributions to society-at-large, whether it’s the post-funk of Prince, Hubert Humphrey’s impact on the Great Society, or the notoriety Garrison Keillor has brought to life on the 45th parallel. Horst and the early Aveda is another one—he landed here like an alien superbaby in a wheat field and would go on to sell his shampoo empire for $300 million almost 40 years later. But it’s those first two decades that are remarkable, when he was stuck in the middle of nowhere, determined to find out just how beautiful nowhere could be.
Horst Rechelbacher: I had an agent from Minneapolis, Vera Slater. She discovered me. She was scouting for this big organization, and she was there when I won the championship of hairdressing in Paris in 1962. My ticket to fame in those days was doing a lot of competition hairdressing. Each country has its own grand prix: France, Germany, Austria. Now they have one in Moscow, Madrid. Italy has Milan. So it’s this hairdressing circuit. So then you win a grand prix, and L’Oréal and all these big companies will hire you. Not just to be on their platform to demonstrate their products, but also for product testing and development. And once you’re on the team of a big company you get paid really, really well.
Vera was so good to me; she organized events, I toured America for two months, and I made so much money. I was paid $500 a day. That was a lot of money for me. I didn’t make that kind of money in Europe at all. I had a roll in my pocket. So two months, then I was going to go back, because I liked Europe. Minneapolis, the only building you could see was the Foshay Tower. And then I bought a Jaguar XKE.
In February 1964, Horst was hit by a drunk driver. He had $7,000 to his name and had to pay his hospital bills with the money he had planned to use to return to Europe. He wouldn’t work for two months.
Horst: It was just a freaky thing. All of a sudden I was laid up, and by the time I paid my bills I decided to go back to work. So I started working at a local salon called The Golden Door. It was at the Sheraton Hotel.
Jon Oulman (graduated from Horst Education Center in 1980, worked for Horst in the early ’80s, present owner of the 331 Club and 501 Club): Bob Cummings owned The Golden Door. He was a Canadian who played hockey. He owned another couple of salons . . . that one on Hennepin in Uptown [Scissors Circus]—the old duplex with the mural of those women jumping up in the air.
Horst: I was charging $7 for a styling and $7 for a haircut. And that was expensive for Minneapolis. There was a salesman from the beauty supply house that used to come in, and he used to say, “You’re amazing!” Because I used to do 20, 30 clients a day. And everybody else did seven—one an hour. I did four in an hour. Because I was fast—I was trained to be a competition hairdresser. I was also an editorial hairdresser. I was also a photographer. You have to be very fast. I became instantly successful. I’m telling you, you know, I was booked. Booked!
I had a rich client, Mrs. Charlene Ward, who owned an advertising company. She came about three times a week for comb-outs and hairdos. She would ask me about my plans, and I told her I was saving up so I could go back to Europe. And she said, “Why don’t you open up your own salon?” And the beauty supply store owner came in and said, “I have a shop for you.” It was in the basement of the Calhoun Towers. There was a salon that was bankrupt. And it just happened when Mrs. Ward was sitting in my chair. She says, “Buy it!” I said, “How much is it?” He says $4,000. I said I didn’t have the cash. I didn’t want to make a loan—that wasn’t a European thing, at least not in those days. If you don’t have the money, you don’t buy. I’d never heard that you could buy on credit. But I bought it. I took my three assistants. A year later, there were 10 of us, and we were sold out.
Rocco Altobelli (worked with Horst at his original Highland Park salon and now owns Rocco Altobelli Salons): I’m a second-generation hairdresser. My son Nino is third generation. I worked in Fargo, but I was born and raised in Minnesota. When my grandparents came down from the old country they lived down by the levee in St. Paul, and then they moved to this small town next to Moorhead. They worked right next to the railroad. My mother was the first one who was a hairdresser, and I had an uncle who was a barber, and another uncle that I worked with was a hairdresser. He had about six salons and a beauty school.
But I didn’t like what was going on. We were still doing sets and putting them under the dryer—all that stuff. I wanted to get out of Fargo-Moorhead. I went to Chicago to interview there and my wife didn’t like Chicago or its salons. I started looking in Minneapolis, and Horst was the hot salon there, so I wanted to try to get in.
Horst: Rocco came from Duluth. I said no to him. Because Rocco didn’t appeal aesthetically to me—he didn’t look like a hairdresser. He was, you know, clumsy. It wasn’t smooth. But he had these sad eyes. And he was really sad that I didn’t let him come to be my apprentice. Because I didn’t hire anybody without being my apprentice first. It took about three to six months. If they weren’t catching on I would let ’em go. I always had three assistants. And Rocco begged me. I turned him down and he shows up again, and I’m going, “Man, that’s pretty cool.” He didn’t take no for an answer. I finally brought him in, and he turned out to be one of my best students. Because he practiced day and night—he was so determined to be good. Then I opened the St. Paul shop and I put Rocco over there.
Rocco: My wife stayed back with my mother and my dad and our oldest son, Rocco Jr., while I apprenticed with Horst and eventually went on the floor, and then I brought my wife and child to Minneapolis. I think the only reason he hired me was because he needed people for that St. Paul salon. In those days we were just setting hair and combing hair. He was phenomenal at that. He was probably the best pure hairdresser I’ve ever seen. And he brought a lot of people from Austria with him, and he was really cooking.
After Calhoun and Highland Park, Horst opened salons in the heart of the affluent homemaker belt—Edina and Deephaven.
Horst: I did a lot of hair shows on weekends. You go traveling around, you do hair shows, you do photo sessions. You party. Wild. I had an apartment in New York. The ’60s were wild, even in the Midwest.
Well, the minute I started having children, both my parents started to visit [from Austria]. My dad was a shoemaker. He made sports shoes and ski boots, all kinds of custom-made shoes. Orthopedic shoes. He was a very good craftsman. My mother was an herbalist in Austria. She had worked in an apothecary. So she used to come to visit. “Your salons smell terrible,” she used to always say. And I didn’t realize. If you work in a chemical factory, you don’t know it stinks. And salons are chemical factories.
I didn’t do cocaine. It was around. I just didn’t like it. Later on, I started smoking marijuana. But what I did do for about three years was diet pills. I got it from my clients. Amphetamines. Speed. And then it was very chic. I had a Deephaven salon on Lake Minnetonka. We had a wine container. And around three or four o’clock we started opening bottles of wine for our clients. So I had to come down from the amphetamines, and some of the people that worked there were smoking dope, and I tried a little of that.
Every time my mother came here she was really worried about how I was behaving and how hard I was working and traveling so much and coming home and being really burned out and then having to go back to work because I was booked for six months in advance. And if you cancel on a woman who has been waiting six months, you haven’t heard anything. It was in 1967 when it hit me. I got so sick. I think it was liver poisoning. I started cleaning up my act, because I was scared.
My mother was the nettles queen. Not only drinking nettle teas but giving me enemas. After about two weeks, I started feeling really good. My eyes cleared up. But I still had the shakes—it took me a while to get rid of the shakes. There was this U of M professor who taught Sanskrit and held meditation and yoga classes in his attic on Thursday nights and Sundays. I went to those and that helped me get my hands steady. Then I went to India with my wife in 1970. All I was doing was yoga all day long and meditation. That’s all I did for two months. And I came back and I was totally zapped. Zapped. I took the wine out of the salon. And there was no more smoking in the salon. I took out the cigarettes. I was so whacked-out that all the employees got together and left at the same time. I said to them, “If you guys aren’t going to clean up, you have to leave. You can’t stay here.” And they all left. (Laughs.) I was like . . . oh shit. So I had three assistants with me. I had to start all over.
Oulman: When I met him, Horst didn’t really party anymore. But he had this Swami Rama character coming around—and he liked to party. Girls loved him. [Swami Rama] would take your hand in his and say, “Tell me a story.” [I’d think], Yeah yeah, I know how good you are, dude. I’m just trying to learn.
In 1971, Rocco left Horst to study for a year with Vidal Sassoon in London. He returned to open his own salon in St. Paul on Cleveland Avenue in 1972.
Rocco: My relationship with Horst just kind of fell apart. Nothing real serious, it just started to fall apart. I remember Horst calling me and asking me how many people I was going to take, and when I told him none, he was stunned. And I told him I wasn’t going to call the clients either. I figured I was going to get enough PR and publicity because I was the first to work with Sassoon, that I would be okay. If you’re going to be great or have a chance to be anybody, you can’t do it off the back of what your employer has. I just felt like I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without doing it myself.
In 1977, Horst founded the Horst Education Center on LaSalle in the Van Dusen Mansion. He no longer would fund his apprentices’ training; they would pay to learn from him.
Horst: People were stealing my hairdressers left and right. A lot of people used to work for me to open the salon and start taking people with them. And I got sick and tired of training people, paying them, and then you build a bit of a clientele and some schmuck offers them 65 percent. You can’t afford to pay them that. At that time, I was doing well in business, but how much can you afford to pay a hairdresser? If you pay them more than 50 percent, you’re in trouble. Rocco was the only one who didn’t [steal]. Rocco is a very honest, loyal person. I have great regards for Rocco, because he never took from me. I never took from him and he never took from me.
David Wagner (graduated from Horst Education Center in 1977, VP of Horst Salons 1983–1986, present owner of Juut Salons): When Horst opened the Education Center in 1977, I was in the first class there. There were 13 of us. I grew up on a farm in Hastings. I had a cousin that had married somebody that had worked for Horst and had told me about the school. I grew up on a farm, but when I was 14 I went to my first salon, and I had decided to be a hairdresser at that time. The tuition at the Education Center was $1,400 for 10 months.
In the beginning there wasn’t much of a curriculum or a clientele. He was really into yoga at the time, so we began every day with yoga. I was 18 and from the farm, and then I was doing yoga at a beauty school, so that was different. Around noon we started taking clients. Most were from the university—which was very different for beauty school. He really focused on advertising in the Reader and City Pages rather than going after the typical beauty school client, a roller-set older lady looking to save money.
Denny Kemp (graduated from Horst Education Center in 1979, worked for Horst and then Wagner 1979–1997, present owner of Denny Kemp Salon-Spa): I was an art student in Iowa and I moved up here with friends. We wanted to get out of Iowa. We needed a change. So we just packed up and moved here without jobs. And I actually started painting walls, and to survive I always cut everybody’s hair. And I charged, because I didn’t actually like doing it. And they said, “Why don’t you just do hair?” And I said, “I would never do that. It sounds horrible.” I remember in Iowa, you know, the girls who flunked out of high school always did hair. They went to beauty school. But they said, “Just go look at the school, it’s Horst and it’s really different.” So one day a friend of mine said, “Just walk in there and see what you think.” So I did and I thought, “Well, this is completely different than anything I’d ever seen in my life.”
First of all, it was a beautiful old building. The interior was amazing. We were surrounded by Horst’s photography and creative-looking people. He would work in his own private area upstairs. And it was his home. It was always filled with interesting objects from around the world—random pieces of furniture and statues and things. It was very eclectic and maybe a pinch hippie. Hair wasn’t like that back then. There were little beauty salons on the corner. Pink poodle wallpaper on the wall. They all smelled like perms and they were awful. I wouldn’t spend five minutes in them.
In 1978 Horst founded Aveda, his all-natural product line formulated from plants.
Horst: I was making products when I opened my first salon. They were chemical based. It was the worst product I could have made. PVC. Polyvinyl chloride—liquid plastic. That was hairspray. That’s why most of my old friends aren’t here: lung cancer or bladder cancer. You get bladder cancer from hair color. Or you get lymphoma. Jacqueline Kennedy died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In 1977, Jon English was working in a salon on Bond Street in London, preparing to sell his house and move his wife and children to Australia.
Jon English (worked for Horst 1978–1988, now owner of Jon English Salons): I saw some work of Horst’s in a magazine. He shot this picture of this girl and it was really ethereal. She looked like Joan of Arc. It was really spiritual looking, not sexual. A different kind of beauty. So I wrote to him about it. And he asked me what I was doing. And I said we were selling my home and business and going to Australia. He said, “You don’t want to go over to Australia, it’s too friggin’ far.” He said, “I’ve got this idea that I’m doing called Aveda, and why don’t you come over and work here?”
Horst: I was going every year to India. I would go for about a month. I had to find the replacement for me. I wanted somebody international. I knew I wanted to give my salons to somebody else. The school, actually, too. I was repackaging my products, doing color shampoos. I knew the game. I had to hit the road.
English: He knew that I could teach. I had a technique called methodics. I combined [the Spanish hairstylist] Luis Llongueras’s technique with Sassoon’s. It was a very fast format. He could see that this is something we could teach. And it could work with the product. And it was interesting and new technically. And Aveda was interesting and new aesthetically.
Before that shampoos were just pink and lime green. And suddenly we’re making brown shampoo—and people are going, “Nobody is going to put brown shampoo in their hair.” It’s like putting mud in our hair. And it was like that. We were like burning incense in classrooms and people thought we were hippies. At beauty shows everyone was more into the glam and Saturday Night Fever. And we were doing beautiful slide shows with special effects and really great light shows. Real mind-body kind of stuff.
Wagner: I graduated and Horst offered me my first job, which was in the mansion. He was doing $100 haircuts at the time, this was 1978, and he was booked solid. Franklin and LaSalle wasn’t a great part of town at the time, and there was a turnaround drive at the mansion and my first job was valet-parking cars. I did that really, really well. I paid attention. That was my foot in the door. I remembered the clients. I treated them like they were getting a $100 haircut. Horst noticed. So he had me come inside, and I got the opportunity to shampoo and sweep hair for him. And I did that really well, and then he asked me to be his personal assistant, which meant that I got to shampoo his clients and blow-dry his clients and got to train with him at night. That was incredible because I got to spend every haircut with the master and watch not only how he cut hair, but how he communicated to a $100 client. He understood what their desires were. He helped them find their beauty. Some were very classic, some were more progressive. But they all felt like they got a $100 haircut.
Kemp: I hated school, because it wasn’t my kind of school. It wasn’t my kind of thing. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t wait to walk out that door. Well, Jon English was working with Horst at the time, and he and Jon asked me if I would work for them. And I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do. Because my intention, naively, was that, well, I’m just going to get this part-time hair job and this is really going to feed me so I can just do art. It seemed complementary, but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. Then I decided I would. And it really became my life. My full-time job. And you had to be dedicated to work for them.
In 1978, David Wagner went to Europe to study from the masters—Sassoon, Llongueras—while Horst and English began crisscrossing the country promoting the new Aveda line.
English: Without a shadow of a doubt, Horst was the first person to start the movement to naturals. We were doing it because it was lifestyle. We were all vegetarians and it was part of how we thought and it was kind of hippie-like. I think for the first [trade] show we ever did we bought a second-hand booth. Me and Horst were carrying the booth through the airport, because we couldn’t afford to ship. And we went to our first show in Kalispell, Montana. A distributor there wanted to see us and plugged us into the show. We couldn’t have gotten more rural, really. I remember Horst telling everybody there they were constipated because they ate too much meat. I thought we were going to die there. I couldn’t believe he said that in Kalispell. Oh, shit! Big girls with cowboy hats on. It was bizarre.
Horst: Some of my philosophy turned people off. It didn’t attract everybody. I dove right into some of these things. Not quite Hare Krishna, but (laughs) . . . I was Hare Krishna dressed up in Versace! It was a good period of art. We photographed a lot. Jonny was doing hair shows with me. And we drew big audiences and we sold a lot of products at the hair shows. I remember there was another English kid, Cole. He had a hair salon in Atlanta. I think he changed his name pretty soon afterward. Just like I didn’t use my last name. I just used Horst. Nobody cared about Rechelbacher. My children don’t even know how to pronounce that.
Kemp: I worked in Deephaven, which I’d never been to in my life. I assisted Jon [English] one day a week. Or sometimes I would work with him at other salons traveling from salon to salon. I think he was trying to fill Horst’s shoes, which was difficult because Horst had just decided right at that point that he wasn’t going to cut anymore. Jon stepped in, and he had clients, and those clients were amazing and impossible. To this day, I have clients who used to go to Horst, and they talk about that like it was the glory days. “There’s no one like Horst.”
I don’t know, I was so new, I didn’t know how to read it. I could just see that the ladies wanted their guy. Horst left in the early ’80s as a $100 hairdresser, and Jon was $40, which was expensive at the time. I think a lot of them were happy [with Jon]. He was much younger. He had a lot of style. But Horst had the experience. He just had that way about sitting somebody down in the chair and even if they weren’t getting what they wanted they wouldn’t say anything. He was intimidating.
Wagner: Because of being exposed to Barcelona and Paris and London, I felt better about Minneapolis. I started working at the Highland salon, and the staff wasn’t very inspired at the time. So I brought in magazines that were really fast-forward. There’s one called Aesthetica, Tatler, British Vogue. And then bringing better music in. It was alternative at the time. Not too clubby, but more upbeat. Like Eurythmics, some Andreas Vollenweider. Synthesized music—cutting edge of new age. I started throwing these soirées, these sort of hair jams. We would just bring in models and do something new to teach each other. I wasn’t managing at the time, but I just wanted to inspire people there. And then the students wanted to work in Highland because we created this buzz, so Horst made me manager. I was 21.
English: The thing just blew up. Same principle as the music business—going on the road and doing shows. It’s the same game. You know what I mean? Exactly the same game. Performance, set-up, rehearsal. These things got bigger and bigger. So just like a band, you start selling things out of the back of a van; in the end you have staging set-ups and equipment and lighting and there would be sales tables as large as this room. In New York and Chicago we would build booths that cost $200,000. It just fell into place. It was spooky sometimes. To get the press we got at Aveda. It was a huge drive to build up the perception and to build up the potential of Aveda so he could sell it.
Wagner: I worked in the Highland store for two years. But when the VP of the company resigned to work for Pillsbury, Horst called all the mangers in and asked what he needed from a new vice president. I said if I was vice president I would do this and this and this. So he called me two weeks later and said, “Okay, you’re vice president.” I was 23. I remember when I was 17 and decided to be a hairdresser, I told my father that that’s what I was going to do. He said, “No you’re not, they don’t make any money.” In Hastings, Minnesota, in 1977 that was probably true. That was his understanding of the beauty world. But by 1983, I was making more money than I ever dreamed of. I had a penthouse downtown. I had a boat on the St. Croix. I was going to Paris for a month a year. I was living really, really big. My dad is a pipe fitter by trade, and when my younger brother was graduating from high school, my dad said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m going to be a pipe fitter.” And he said, “Why don’t you be a hairdresser?” Things had changed on the farm.
Kemp: I suppose Horst got very busy with his products. The salons were already rolling. The people who had been there for a while were booked, very busy. I felt as though when David came it became very corporate. It got much more structure, and it probably needed to.
Wagner: So I ran all of the salons from 1983 until 1986. Then I opened my own salon on Hennepin called Salon Salon. And while I was doing that I was traveling a lot, doing hair shows with Aveda and with Horst. Because I was an independent salon owner I had credibility that Horst salons didn’t have. He heard that I was looking to open another salon so he said, “Why don’t we merge?” So in 1989 we merged Salon Salon with Horst. And in 1991 I bought him out of the salon company. In 1997, Horst sold Aveda to Estée Lauder for $300 million.
Horst: I gave the salons pretty much to David. He got a good deal. He didn’t pay anything down. He just paid from the money he was making. He got a good gift. Jon opened his own.
Kemp: I want to make sure this sounds positive when I say it, but I don’t think of David Wagner as a super-creative person. I think that he recognizes creativity, and I think that he helps nurture that along. I think he is a great businessperson. So I became the creative director [at Juut] and I think he really leaned on me to make that happen. And he gave me all the freedom in the world. Now if I would’ve been doing that for Horst, just Horst, I probably wouldn’t have had a lot of freedom. But David let me do what I wanted to do; he rarely said no.
Wagner: People have asked me a lot over the years why I got along with [Horst] so well. I’m German as well. I’m a perfectionist. And I always spoke the truth. Even when I was wrong. He respected me because he’s an entrepreneur and I’m an entrepreneur. [I was] such an Aveda advocate and I could teach other salons how to be successful. I went from three people to 30 people at Salon Salon and that’s why he invited me back three years later. He afforded me opportunities and attention that were unique.
English: It got to a point where I had to make an appointment to meet with [Horst]. And then he said he didn’t want me doing shows so much. He wanted me to be at the office handling more administrative stuff that he didn’t want to do. It started to get sort of like Copeland and Sting. And now Aerosmith is at it, you know. After all these years. It’s so sad. It did get a bit like that. And then I opened the salons, ’cause he wanted me to do these things, but he thought I was making too much money and was just in it for myself. Just because I became marketable.
We used to have fun with him. [Affects Horst’s Austrian accent] “You know, Jonny. Ask John to do it.” “Which John?” There was Jon Oulman. John Olson, his administrator, and Jon “Anglaise” or “English.” And then I changed it to Jon English for real. He gave me my name.
I don’t think people here were conscious of what was happening with Aveda and the contribution Aveda made to our industry and to Minneapolis. We gave the beauty people what Prince did for music and entertainment. Aveda did that for lifestyle. It was a lifestyle.