The Hands Behind the Hair: SF Hair Stylist David Tolls Gets Real With His Career
David Tolls speaks unfiltered truths as he opens up about his journey as an artist and the hair-oism behind his success.
Upon arriving to meet David on a warmer than usual Tuesday evening, I see him smiling, leaning over and talking to his good friend, Jenni. “Hey, we’re over here!” he says as he throws his warm gestures my way, signaling to join the small congregation.
Before I could catch my breath, I was greeted with an arrangement of baby succulents and cascading air plants that flourished the entrance of the winsome boutique. I instantly felt an overwhelming veil of calmness and good vibes as I made my way towards the back. “What have you been up to, dude?!” David says as he showered me with a genuine hug. After knowing David for several years, I am always admired by his inclusive demeanor and golden soul that shadows his smile every time I see him.
After catching up and trying on some serious denim and white tee getups, David left with a killer Canadian tuxedo and I with a cool new gal pal.
The night was young as we continued to enjoy each other’s company and take a brisk walk to the neighborhood bistro across the street. It was then the clock turned fun when I was eager yet nervous to dive deep into the mind of my incredible friend, David Tolls.
“Testing, testing. One-two, one-two” was the cue that triggered a tumultuous story about a curious boy who found passion through discovery, experience, and life’s silver lining.
“This year all I’m doing is traveling. I want to be selfish!” David proclaims as he was beyond grateful for the travels that awaited him. With a calendar booked three weeks to a month in advance, he is taking a break and setting some time for perspective. From a close friend’s wedding in Minnesota to a month long excursion in Mexico City and Europe, David’s adventures will allow him to restart and focus on what he was born to do: hair.
But before he could fathom the idea of traveling, the Mill Valley native lived the life of an aspiring artist. “As a kid, all I wanted to do was draw. I hung out with graffiti artists and skateboarders [after school] and would just paint. From then on, I knew I wanted to make things aesthetically pleasing in any way, shape, or form.”
It wasn’t long until David gravitated towards the digital world and was accepted into the Academy of Art University for Graphic Design. He interned at Pixar as a Production Assistant for Finding Nemo where he soon discovered being in an office deprecated his view of the art world.
“I thought it was an artistic, ‘real job.’ It got really lonely and I knew that instant I didn’t want to work in a cubicle.”
It was then David turned to the beauty counter where he discovered himself through brushes and color. Interacting artistically with makeup allowed him to play a character that pushed boundaries and deviate from the limitations that hindered his ingenuity. “Makeup was fun for me. I was able to play this character who was fabulous and fancier than I was. I also came out at a young age and thought to myself ‘where do gay guys hang out?’ They hang out at makeup counters!’ I felt like it was a win-win situation all around.”
True to his instincts, he met his first boyfriend Michael, an accredited A-List artist who taught him the mastery of makeup. His job required frequent travels between L.A and San Francisco which became exhaustive on their relationship. “I was not going to be his SF fling. So, I made him my boyfriend for six years.”
The couple moved to Oakland where David enrolled in beauty school. He instinctively knew he could never be as good with makeup as he was when he worked with a pair of scissors. After receiving his license for hair at Laney College, the power duo continued to combine their prevalent talent and collaborated on beauty editorial stories in the city.
On a trip to Canada, Michael broke his back in a car accident. “He stopped working but tried to get his career back. He ended up being a mechanic and I ended up taking all the photos we did together, saying it was my work. Basically, I faked it.” David kickstarted his career as he took matters into his hands and put together a portfolio that exhibited the work he’s done over the course of their relationship.
Two magazine covers and six published editorial stories later, David returned to the states after finding opportunity overseas. “In Australia, they think you’re really cool if you have an American accent. I had no experience but seized any opportunity that was offered to me. I took what I learned back to San Francisco and landed a job at Ford Models.” After working in the artist division for two years, David left and was soon represented by Workgroup Agency as a hair stylist. “I have been with Heather Brown for six years and still counting!”
“Mic check. How am I doing so far, Amy?” David chuckles as he adjusts his seat and takes a break from memory lane. As we share a few laughs and decompress over some sips, David continues without hesitation as he opens up about his journey at Cowboys & Angels.
“At the time I was going to beauty school, I met the receptionist at Cowboys who was also a Laney student. He told me to come in and before I knew it, I was cleaning the toilets, sweeping the floors, and fetching all the lunches. I started as an apprentice and worked my way from the bottom up. I am still there. I still love it.” Little did he know, David was establishing himself as a household name and set a precedent for the culture and integrity of the salon.
Today, Cowboys and Angels is thriving with dedicated apprentices and passionate stylists. Through advanced training and a traditional three-year apprenticeship program, its fundamental approach to innovation and education has allowed its staff to develop the pertinent skills necessary for the industry. “Cory, our first assistant, has gone on the floor. I also worked with our other assistant, Malvina, who I chose for a shoot with Elle Magazine. We did ‘Silicon Valley Women in Tech.’ I couldn’t tell if she had a good time, bad time, or was traumatized. Later on, I realized that was just Malvina who has a really good poker face. She’s also going on the floor soon.”
As for David, he’s not trying to be everyone’s hair stylist. “I want to be the hairdresser to the clients and people I relate to. If they’re going to be a good fit for me, we are going to align aesthetically.” After sixteen years of mastering his craft, he’s formulated a series of “ninja questions” that help him conceptualize the style his clients want. “My interviews are more extensive than my haircuts. For me, finding what a person wants and where they’re going is most important. It’s like playing poker- you just have to read people’s body language and decipher what they’re going for.”
In parallel to his work at the salon, you’ll find David collaborating alongside his good friends of ten years. “I met Julia Galdo and Cody Cloud when I was at Ford Models. We started working together and testing shoots. My most favorite shoot I have ever done was with Nora Vai at Salvation Mountain for Paper Magazine. Shirley Kurata was the stylist and Julia shot it.” Their relationship blossomed into an ingenious partnership where their work has been published in several publications including Complex, WWD, Stylecaster, and Schön! Magazine.
“Styling for Lena Dunham was also a great experience. She was so lovely and just like herself on Girls.” Aside from his high profile list of clients [Lana Del Ray, Iggy Azalea, Courtney Love, Sophia Amoruso, and Daryl Hannah to name drop a few], David’s freelancing credentials are just as impressive. Going behind the style seat for hair prodigy Guido Palau, Marc Jacobs, and Ralph Lauren during New York Fashion Week were unequivocal moments that paved the way to his success.
If there’s one thing David’s grateful for, it’s the adventures that taught him to never give up. “ My fear really motivated me. If you want it bad enough, you will find it. If you’re willing to sacrifice pieces of yourself, work hard and put in the hours, you will get there.”
“Testing, testing. One, two, three. We’re over now.”
// Cowboys & Angels Salon, 207 Powell St #400, Union Square, cowboysandangelssf.com