Tracker Pixel for Entry

​Josef Olivieri: North Dakota’s Godfather of Hair

Culture | February 13th, 2023

By Sabrina Hornung

HPR chats with a local legend

The following interview was done in February of 2016, just a few months after Mr. Josef Olivieri's 90th birthday. We're sorry to hear of his passing at the age of 97 on December 22, 2022. As we remember the life and legacy of Mr. Josef, we send our condolences to his family and community.

On Saturday, February 18 at the Ramada in Fargo, a special tribute to Mr. Josef will be featured as part of the annual Josef’s Fashion Awards.

Josef Olivieri is the stuff that legends are made of. With his charm, impeccable style, crisp suits, and perfectly curled silver handlebar mustache. He is the man who started the legacy of Josef’s School of Hair Design and has been referred to as North Dakota’s godfather of hair. This past December marked the icon’s 90th birthday.

Olivieri got his start in Fargo working at the three top department store salons, Moody’s, Herbst, and DeLendrecie’s. He eventually went on to open a four-chair salon and built his empire during the post-war boom. He started his career as a hairdresser in 1947 and opened his first hair school in 1960.

The High Plains Reader had the exclusive opportunity to have a chat with Mr. Josef,

HPR: How did you come into the hair business?

Josef Olivieri: I guess it’s the same old story, everything happened by accident as far as I’m concerned. I got drafted when I was in high school so I went into the army and I was in the infantry.

When I got out of the infantry I came back to Dilworth -- you see, we were railroad people, we came from the old country. It was hard work, real hard work, and that’s all we knew because we were a really poor family.

My brother was a barber and he wanted me to be a barber. I came back from the service unharmed after serving in Italy. I met a few guys from New York who were in the beauty business and I thought hell, if I’m going to do hair-- I’m going to do do hair on something I like...women. I dared to do it and I did.

HPR: How many hairschools were part of the Josef’s “empire”? I know now there is one in Downtown, West Fargo, and Grand Forks. Were there more?

JO: Way back when we had five, one in Minot and Bismarck, two in Grand Forks, and one in Fargo. At one time I pretty near had the whole state! When Mario took over he wanted to cut back. I had 12 salons at one time and then I had a company with six salons. I couldn’t pay my help any more than I was paying them, so to keep them in the company I formed another corporation with three of my top hairdressers.

I did pretty good in my day. I was pretty well diversified, I was into a lot of other things too. I owned bars, real estate, I sold anything and everything, but my main love was hair.

HPR: After being in the business since 1947, are there certain styles or eras that you were most partial to?

JO: I loved the 50s and 60s. If you look back on the automobiles, they are classics. I got two classic automobiles that I wouldn’t trade for any brand new car in the world! Look at the 1959 or 1960 Caddy and bring me a brand new one, set them up side by side. Which would you choose?

HPR: It’s not even a question!

JO: Exactly! We put hair in motion. We were constructive. I don’t believe in cutting and chopping your hair off. Thank god for hair color -- it adds some pizzazz.

Aside from all that, what is hairstyling today? Nothing but a butchered-up mess as far as I’m concerned. Look at the Emmys and the other awards shows. Here come these women with $50-60,000 dresses and jewelry and their hair looks like crap -- it’s absolutely terrible. It doesn’t show any artistry. I can’t believe this era!

HPR: Are there any new trends that catch your eye?

JO: Honey, the pendulum can only swing so far and it has to swing back. We are going to see longer hair and we are going to see waves, and it’s going to be like if you see a beautiful car -- I always go back to cars -- if you see a car standing still it’s nothing, but if you put a car in motion, it’s beautiful. It’s like hair if you don’t put it in motion, it just doesn’t do anything. It just takes a little bit of time, effort, and a little bit of sense.

Mr. Josef walked me over to the shelf exhibiting trophies won in years past. Behind the trophies were photographs of his wife and daughter modeling for various competitions, one black and white photo of his wife was taken during a “Parade of States Competition” in Milwaukee sometime in the 1950s. Not only was she wearing a beautiful full-skirted dress and perfectly coiffed tresses, but Mr. Joseph had crafted a balsa wood oil well fascinator to accompany her outfit.

The other photograph was a photo of his wife, again taken in the 50s, but in full color, and with pink hair.

HPR: Can you tell us a little bit about this photo?

JO: You know how I got that color? (he leans in and whispers) Crepe paper! We didn’t have hair color like that in those days. We didn’t know what to do. You know I told you I was really crazy in those days? I was crazier than hell!

HPR: How did people react?

JO: She didn’t care, she was a daredevil -- she would do anything. One day I put three different colors in her hair. Back in those days that was unheard of!

HPR: How did you end up in the hair school business?

JO: I was out raising hell in the beauty business. I didn’t know my potential, and I didn’t know what I was doing, or what I was going to do. I had a lot of good people around me, encouraging me -- Joseph you have a lot of potential this and that. We never had any competitions in North Dakota, and I always wanted to go to Hollywood, so in 1946 before my G.I. Bill ran out, I went to Hollywood.

I wanted to take advantage of my schooling, so I took advanced hairstyling for three months and had a ball. I moved back to Fargo and started all over again. I was encouraged to enter competitions and was the first in North Dakota to win national-level competitions and traveled all over the place. I was winning awards like you wouldn’t believe. I eventually started traveling around the state teaching hairstylists for nothing. I wasn’t too business-minded at the time.

People have been really good to me. That’s what I love about this part of the country-- the people are just so great. You can’t find better people than in this part of the country, and I’ve been all over the world believe me.



Saturday, February 18, 7pm

Ramada 3333 13th Ave. S, Fargo

Recently in:

By Maddie This article discusses topics related to mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or visit …

Homesteading stories shared by late local historianBy Michael M. The 53rd Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention convenes July 17-20 at the Baymont Hotel in Mandan, North Dakota. For further…

With Javier Quiroz and Kohlrabi SoupJuly 10 at 7 p.m.The Aquarium226 N. Broadway, Fargo (above Dempsey’s)The Wall Street Journal had this to say about “Black Banjo,” Tray Wellington’s full-length debut: “This is a record…

The WFF Unified School District?By John Both the Fargo and West Fargo School Districts are strategizing their futures. This is necessary, because of immensely challenging financial and geopolitical changes facing…

By Ed Raymondfargogadfly@gmail.comShould ‘The Chosen One’ be Sentenced to Spend Months at each Level?It’s not unusual on this planet, we have had hundreds of men and a couple of women who have used religion to become…

By Rick Holiday wine shopping shouldn’t have to be complicated. But unfortunately it can cause unneeded anxiety due to an overabundance of choices. Don’t fret my friends, we once again have you covered…

By Rick In this land of hotdish and ham, the knoephla soup of German-Russian heritage seems to reign supreme. In my opinion though, the French have the superior soup. With a cheesy top layer, toasted baguette…

HPR chats with Bob Carpenter of the Nitty Gritty Dirt BandBy Sabrina When asked if it was fair to consider the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as “the godfathers of contemporary Americana” during our interview,…

Now playing at the Fargo Theatre.By Greg Carlson gregcarlson1@gmail.comPalme d’Or recipient “Anatomy of a Fall” is now enjoying an award-season victory tour, recently picking up Golden Globe wins for both screenplay and…

New Minnesota sculptures include artist’s largest trollBy Sabrina According to Danish artist and environmental activist Thomas Dambo, “All trash is treasure.” So far, he and his team have built 138…

By John Showalterjohn.d.showalter@gmail.comHigh Plains Reader had the opportunity to interview two mysterious new game show hosts named Milt and Bradley Barker about an upcoming event they will be putting on at Brewhalla. What…

By Annie AUSTIN, Texas – As a Chinese-American, connecting to my culture through food is essential, and no dish brings me back to my mother’s kitchen quite like hotdish. Yes, you heard me right –…

By Sabrina Hornungsabrina@hpr1.comNew Jamestown Brewery Serves up Local FlavorThere’s something delicious brewing out here on the prairie and it just so happens to be the newest brewery west of the Red River and east of the…

By John Showalter  john.d.showalter@gmail.comThey sell fentanyl test strips and kits to harm-reduction organizations and…

JANUARY 19, 1967– MARCH 8, 2023 Brittney Leigh Goodman, 56, of Fargo, N.D., passed away unexpectedly at her home on March 8, 2023. Brittney was born January 19, 1967, to Ruth Wilson Pollock and Donald Ray Goodman, in Hardinsburg,…

By Jim Fugliejimfuglie920@gmail.comMy articles here are about politics. I’m writing this before the North Dakota primary election. You are reading it after the primary. Advantage: readers. So I won’t speculate much on that…