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JOSEF OLIVIERI: NORTH DAKOTA’S GODFATHER OF HAIR

Culture | December 23rd, 2022

By Sabrina Hornung sabrina@hpr1.com

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.

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 a 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.

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!

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

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 -- Josef 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 travelled all over the place. I was winning awards like you wouldn’t believe. I eventually started travelling 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.

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