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Bill Laehn, R.I.P. (01/08/2012)
By Frances Edstrom

Bill Laehn, R.I.P.

Winona loves its characters. We just lost a man who was not only a character of the first class, but a successful businessman in a profession traditionally dominated by women. Bill Laehn was owner of Laehn’s Hair Design, which for many years was in the Westgate Shopping Mall, where HyVee is today. Bill purchased the business from Danny O’Brian in 1967 and renamed it Laehn’s House of Beauty. More recently he operated Hair Design by Bill Laehn at Studio 157.

I first heard about Bill when I was a young bride — a bride young enough to have typically 1970s long, long hair that never saw the inside of a salon. But my mother-in-law — Bill called her Josephine the Queen — and her friends were of the generation that visited the salon weekly, for shampoo and style, and about once a month for a color, or perm and a cut. Those who weren’t real handy at recreating the teased bouffant styles of the day at night would sleep on satin pillow cases, or wrap their hair in toilet paper in an effort to help the hairdo last until their next appointment with Bill. Also, in case the “do” didn’t last, they had wigs they could wear to tide them over, and their wigs went to the hair dresser, too, to be styled and cleaned.

When I finally did have it with my waist-length hair (about the time I was pregnant with our third child), Bill was one of the hair dressers I visited. Once when I went to his salon, he was roller skating from client to client, like a carhop at the root beer stand. He often wore a beret, like a Parisian artist. I don’t even remember when he started to bald, because he always wore such good-looking toupees — he could do a Wall Street banker look, a curly college professor look. He did it all. If he didn’t have a wig for the occasion, he’d certainly have a hat. Going to a country western bar? He’d have the Stetson. Going to the Great River Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth? There’s Bill in a kilt with all the regalia, including the shoes, the socks, the Sporran, and the Balmoral hat. (Bill was a great Shakespeare fan and traveled widely to attend festivals.)

Bill was also a mentor to young cosmetology graduates. Many of the hair dressers working in Winona today began at Laehn’s and remained friends with Bill. Sue and Jan at Cambridge Hair Studio graduated from school in the same class and went to work for Bill on the same day in 1977. Sue remembers, “I was just a little farm girl from Arcadia, with an Arcadia Polish accent. Bill would tease me about it and I lost it quick! We were a great team, all of us, and we learned a lot from Bill.” Sue bought Cambridge from Bill’s ex-wife Carol’s sister, Kathy Kerns. Carol and Kathy had started 84 on the Plaza and worked together until Carol moved to Nevada.

Brandy, Christopher, and Jessica at Spalon 1161 all started out with Bill, too. Christopher remembers Bill as “Quirky, but the good quirky! He was funny, but a true talent. For years, the salon didn’t do pedicures, because he said his girls weren’t going to get on their knees for anyone!” (That is probably why those elevated chairs were invented for pedicures now!) He recalls Bill as a great mentor, even taking his stylists to New York hair shows to learn the newest techniques. They had a photo studio, too, where they did before and after photos of the clients. Bill liked to be the first to try new things, such as hair extensions and new colors. “Bill was a foodie,” recalls Christopher. “He was always taking cooking classes, and he loved to travel. I had only been there a week when Bill left on a five-week trip to see his friend Brett and his family in South Africa! He traveled to London several times, and all over Europe.” Christopher worked for Bill for 23 years, and says he was “truly a mentor, a good person, and encouraged his employees to further themselves, no matter where it took them.”

Bill was also one of the first to usher in the idea of the unisex salon. He started GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarters) with Roger Martinson next door to Laehn’s. He took out a liquor license and they put in a pool table to ease the men into the idea of having their hair “styled,” and not just “cut.” Pete Freese began working there in 1976 and in 1978 bought the business from Bill and Roger. The two businesses were next to each other for 25 years. Then when HyVee was built, both businesses had to relocate, and both moved to Winona Mall, next to each other again. Pete says he and Bill always remained friends, even though they were competitors.

Bill was always cognizant of his client’s sensitivities, too. I can remember days when a client was having her hair colored (back in the day when “only her hairdresser” knew), she could have the coloring done in a private room. The same for waxing those pesky facial hairs. And at first, men didn’t get to watch women getting colors, perms, waxing and such. Now, of course, with everyone over the age of ten coloring his and her hair, there’s no need for such privacy! Carolyn at Parlor and Den started her salon about the same time Bill started his, and says the two were “friendly competitors.” They always would hear funny stories about what Bill was wearing, or other nutty things he would do, but Carolyn says that they never heard derogatory stories. “Bill was a professional. He kept up on education, and we’d see him at hair shows. It’s rare to run into people you know today. He did important work, good work.”

Winona is full of hair dressers who have successful, long-term small businesses. They have their loyal clientele, both men and women. But perhaps there is no one who matches Bill Laehn for his sheer energy, friendliness, his “quirkiness,” his launching of so many successful businesses of his own as well as careers of others. Over the years I would see Bill on a regular basis around town — he seemed to be at every cultural event in Winona, as well as dining at many area restaurants. His death at age 65 is too soon, but what he accomplished in those years will be long remembered. 


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