Dyson Wants to Curl Your Hair

“This will break the internet,” said Jen Atkin, the founder of Ouai Haircare and stylist to several Kardashians. Her excitement was not for a celebrity makeover or magazine cover but for the latest product introduction from Dyson: the Airwrap, a tool that can curl or smooth or dry hair.

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Dyson Wants to Curl Your Hair
Marisa Meltzer
, New York Times

“This will break the internet,” said Jen Atkin, the founder of Ouai Haircare and stylist to several Kardashians. Her excitement was not for a celebrity makeover or magazine cover but for the latest product introduction from Dyson: the Airwrap, a tool that can curl or smooth or dry hair.

“My reaction was, like, this is so incredible,” she said.

Atkin is a brand ambassador whose job is to whip up interest in the new product and to educate interested parties on its use.

The Airwrap release follows the introduction in spring 2016 of the Supersonic, the doughnut-shaped hair dryer with a $399.99 price tag that was Dyson’s first foray into the beauty market. A Google search for Dyson Supersonic and “worth the hype” yields more than 9,000 results. So one may expect the Airwrap to be met with a similar blend of curiosity and excitement.

But unlike the Supersonic, whose features are familiar to anyone who has used a standard blow dryer, the Airwrap requires a certain measure of coaching.

On a recent morning in a SoHo hotel suite, representatives from Dyson joined Jon Reyman, a hairstylist and an owner of the Spoke & Weal salons, to demonstrate.

The product is shaped like a traditional curling iron but with a detachable head. There are 30- and 40-millimeter barrels for curling as well as a hair dryer attachment, a round brush and two kinds of smoothing brushes. They are sold in various combinations: Volume & Shape (for straighter and thinner hair with the dryer, soft brush, round brush and 30-millimeter barrel); Smooth & Control (for curlier and thicker hair, with the dryer, firm brush and both 30- and 40-millimeter barrels).

Each is $499.99, or there is a kit with all of the attachments for $549.99. All three come in a camel-color leather storage case that looks almost like something Hermès might produce.

Using the dryer attachment, Reyman worked on a model’s long blond hair until it was almost but not entirely dry. Then he removed the attachment and put on the 30-millimeter barrel. He held the hair about 4 inches from the end and turned on the device, showing off the Airwrap’s neat trick: The hair wrapped itself around the barrel. He pushed a button for cool air to set the curl and released it.

The result was a bouncier, more voluminous curl than one has come to expect from a standard curling wand — and lacked the singed smell often associated with irons.

“Curling irons damage your hair and compress the hair shaft,” Reyman said. “With this, you get the same pattern without the damage, but the result is also fuller.”

While the a large majority of curling irons or hot brushes sold on Amazon are under $50, Dyson promises benefits in exchange for the high cost. The Airwrap can be used on wet hair and, with heat at less than 300 degrees, is much less hot than the 360 to 450 degrees that other curling wands average, which is good for protecting hair from damage but also skin from injury. A 2001 study in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine found that over five years studied, there were an estimated 105,081 injuries related to hair-care products, of which thermal burns were the most common.

Dyson was previously best known for vacuum cleaners and hand dryers (and the rare product that didn’t catch on, like its discontinued washing machine). Last year, The New York Times reported that the company’s revenue was 2.5 billion pounds ($3.1 billion) and that the company’s founder, James Dyson, was worth about 5 billion pounds ($6.2 billion). Revenue in 2017, reported in February, was 3.5 billion pounds ($4.8 billion).

The Supersonic was touted as being lighter and faster at drying and less damaging than other models on the market. And, it had the cachet of being innovative and it looked different from anything that had come before. Even though the company, based in Malmesbury in Wiltshire, England, declined to share sales figures, it appears to have been a hit.

“It was kind of a historic launch,” said Priya Venkatesh, the senior vice president of merchandising for skin and hair at the Sephora beauty chain. “It was a case where it totally delivered and surpassed expectations. Dyson is priced higher in every category they enter, and I don’t recall there being a big protest on the price itself.”

In fact, she said, it was one of Sephora’s top-selling brands online and the first time a hair product hit the top five holiday sellers, which it did for the last two years. It also became a status symbol — Dyson recently released a version of the Supersonic plated in 23.75-karat gold that sells for $499.99 — and a cult object.

Helen Rosner, a food correspondent for The New Yorker, published a recipe for Roast Chicken à la Dyson: “Using a hand-held hair dryer on the Cool setting, blow air all over the chicken, making sure to dry any parts of the chicken that are still damp, particularly the underside of the bird and inside the cavity.”

“We never go into a category looking to do a single product,” said Tom Crawford, Dyson’s global research and development director for personal care. The development process of the Airwrap has taken about six years, 642 prototype iterations and $31.4 million in development costs.

“When we’re going to a new product, we start from scratch, and we try to understand the fundamentals first,” Crawford said. “Instead of having a funky idea and seeing if it works, we go back to basics and specify what we’re trying to achieve.” In this case the mission was to engineer a styling tool that eliminated the problem of high heat and damaged hair.

At the early stages Dyson had two teams working in parallel. One was a research team looking at technology, motors, air flow, acoustics, noise or the science of hair. Another team looked at the science of human interaction with the product.

As Crawford explained, “They’re saying: ‘Having to wrap your hair around a hot iron and rotate it is awkward. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to do that. Let’s try to get rid of that process.’ It’s scientific research working in tandem with blue-sky thinkers coming up with wild ideas. Then we force-fit these two approaches to one.”

Then there’s testing, in both the virtual and physical world: dropping it from overhead, knocking it on walls, smashing it on the ground. Engineers were encouraged to try it out and test prototypes to see if they broke. A fringe benefit, one imagines, is to let out a little steam.

Some of Dyson’s 12,000 employees tested it, as did about 20 hairstylists, like Reyman and Atkin, who said she was often observed by engineers recording her using it.

“I was this loudmouth hairstylist giving my frank critique to months and months of work,” she said with a laugh. Crawford emphasized the importance of feedback. “We learn the frustrations and problems that different people will be responding to,” he said. “In Japanese culture, people bathe and shower before bed. And in sunny states in the U.S., they’re concerned about UV damage to the hair.”

What about future personal care ventures, like a flat iron? “We’re always looking to solve problems,” Crawford said. “Are we developing things? Maybe.”

For the Airwrap introduction, expectations are high but managed. “In general, blow dyers are a bigger market,” Venkatesh of Sephora said. “The consumer will have a little more learning to do with this one, but it’s a very compelling proposition. I’m not yet expecting it to beat the Supersonic, but we’re willing to be surprised.”

Reyman doesn’t think it has a lot of competition. “Nothing on the market is exceptional,” he said.

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