PORTLAND – Allan Labos arrived in the United States in the 1970s with $50 in his pocket and marching orders to open schools and salons in San Francisco and Los Angeles for Vidal Sassoon.
Labos, 57, now presides over his own growing salon enterprise: Akari. In the coming months, Akari will enter the next chapter of the expansion that has characterized the Old Port business since Labos took it over in 1987.
late fall or early winter, Akari will have increased its retail space and its wellness offerings, like personal training, cooking classes and the services of a nutritionist.
The business will utilize more of the space in the Middle Street building it occupies, growing from roughly 17,000 square feet to about 22,000 square feet.
Akari seems to be faring well despite the recession. Labos declined to disclose Akari’s gross annual revenues, but said the business had double-digit growth in each of the past three years.
About 200 clients come through Akari each day, according to Labos. They may browse the clothes and professional products in the retail shop, enjoy a glass of wine and a snack in the light-filled cafe area or have a massage in a quiet room decorated in soothing hues. Some might do all those things — and more.
That’s part of the strategy represented by the Akari trinity of wellness, beauty and style.
Labos explains that the three are interconnected — the wellness is the necessary foundation before the other two can be pursued. So, a client has to feel well — a process that could be aided through Akari services like life coaching or yoga — before turning her attention to aspects of beauty and style, which could take the form of a new hairstyle and an outfit from the boutique.
“My dream is when a customer arrives, they say, ‘Just take care of me,’” Labos said.
Consumers are increasingly demanding this type of one-stop facility, said Hannelore Leavy, founder and chairwoman of the advisory board for the Day Spa Association. Leavy said the recession took a heavy toll on day spas — with some estimates claiming that up to one-third have failed nationally — and those that remain have to work hard to provide value to customers who have become very conscientious about spending their disposable income.
“Spas are looking to other venues to attract and retain customers, such as the wellness offerings, where they’re not going to make very much money,” she said. “But it is something that attracts and keeps the customer.”
Lila Hunt is an Akari client who has remained loyal, despite moving from Maine to Boston five years ago. She now makes appointments there when she is visiting her mother in Camden or her father in Cape Elizabeth.
“I don’t really trust anybody else with my hair or eyebrows,” said Hunt, who is 23 and recently graduated from Suffolk University.
Akari got into the fast-growing medical spa services area several years ago. Medical spas — those that offer treatments like Botox, laser hair removal and intense pulsed light treatments for facials — are the fastest growing type of spa, according to the International Spa Association.
STARTING WITH SASSOON
Serendipity led Labos to his trade. Born in Gibraltar, Labos went to London to study mechanical engineering — a subject he did not like — and befriended hairdressers in his building. He ended up dropping out of school and starting an apprenticeship with Vidal Sassoon, unsure exactly where that road would take him.
Eventually it took him to New York, where he met his ex-wife. She introduced Labos to Maine. In 1987, they bought the 800-square-foot Akari salon on Fore Street.
Labos went from charging $150 — the New York price — for a haircut to $18, the going rate then in Portland.
Over time, Akari expanded in the Fore Street space and added day spa services, such as facials, massages, manicures and makeup consultations.
“Everybody said you can’t do it up here,” Labos recalled. But Labos saw that people were moving into Greater Portland from other areas and missed the services they were accustomed to.
One recognition of Akari’s accomplishments came this summer, when the business won second place in the national “Salons of the Year” contest run by the influential trade publication Salon Today.
The business moved to Middle Street in 2007. Savi Realty — a name formed by combining the names of Labos’ daughters, Saffron and Violet — bought the property for $2.5 million that year, according to city property records.
STAFF ALSO WILL EXPAND
Akari now occupies parts of 193 and 195 Middle St., a property that looks like two separate buildings that are actually adjoined.
After expansion, the retail area will triple in size and fill the ground level of 195 Middle St., the space formerly occupied by the Old Port Pharmacy and the clothing boutique Chantal. The second and third levels, which stretch across both street addresses, will continue to be used for the hair and nail areas and the spa, respectively.
Labos expects that the change will require increasing the size of his staff, which currently stands at 50 employees, by about 10 percent.
It’s a point of pride for Labos that each of the positions at Akari is home-grown.
One such example is Genevieve Drzewianowski, the training director for hair. Four years ago, she was a recent graduate of the Maine College of Art who didn’t own a blow drier. Drzewianowski, who studied metals and jewelry, was applying for a front desk job.
Labos encouraged her to get into hair because she was an artist. She started as an assistant — doing chores like cleaning toilets, shampooing clients and making coffee — and learned her new trade at the salon after hours.
“I never expected I would be doing this,” she said. “Once I started, it made sense.”
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: