“I like to get the most out of hair,” says Tony Rizzo, the Italian-born, London-based hairstylist who founded the Alternative Hair Show. Rizzo began doing hair at the age of 13 because he enjoyed the ambience of hair salons. “I knew this was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I found that I was quite good at it.”

In 1983 Rizzo and his wife, Maggie, who own the Sanrizz salons in London, wanted to do something to memorialize their young son, who had died of leukemia. So they started the Alternative, a runway fashion show for hair, to raise money for England’s Leukaemia Research Fund. “I take the top hairstylists in the world, that I know have a reputation internationally,” says Rizzo. “I invite them–I ask them to be in a show [and get paid] nothing. Why? Because I think there’s a certain respect [for] who I am and [what] I’m doing.” Four years ago the event made its U.S. debut in Chicago–adding the Illinois-based Leukemia Research Foundation as a beneficiary–and the stateside show has been presented here ever since.

Most of the audience members at Sunday night’s sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre were hair professionals, in town for the Chicago Midwest Hair Show in Rosemont. The Alternative is entertainment they look forward to every year; some of them compare it to a rock concert. Tickets were $55-$85, and the people who paid to get in were dressed almost as edgily as the models onstage.

In one of the front rows sat former hairdresser Brandi Green. “None of the hair shows I’ve been to were like this,” she said. “Usually it’s people doing hair at booths and demonstrating products. This is like a Broadway show, with the glamour and the skits. This is more about creation.”

The Wella Corporation, Modern Salon magazine, and the professional organization Cosmetologists Chicago sponsored this year’s event. (Included on the bill was dancing, singing, and rapping by the Happiness Club, an organization of children who write and perform their own material, which addresses social injustices.) Salon teams from all over–the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Italy, and Spain–had spent an entire year preparing. “You have to understand hair shows are not put on overnight,” says Rizzo. “The concept of what you get to see at a show like this: you’ll get to see daywear, you’ll see evening, you’ll see avant-garde….The combination of hair and fashion is paramount.”

George Accattato, part owner of the Art + Science salons in Evanston and Chicago, was a first-time participant this year. “I have a good friend who has a five-year-old son with leukemia. He was diagnosed two weeks before his second birthday, and he just turned five two weeks ago.”

Per event rules, there is no product affiliation at this show; no one is working for a product manufacturer. Every salon pays an entrance fee, and for the money each gets five minutes onstage. Entrants must provide their own wardrobes and makeup artists. “A maximum of seven models may be used,” said Accattato. Other than that, “you can do whatever you want.”

As the lights went down, red “stars” twinkled at the back of the stage, and the party-music sound track (techno, R & B, acid jazz) exploded with a jolt. For the next two hours the house was entertained by the work of artists like Nicholas French, whose collection was called “Back to the Future.” French’s first model appeared onstage with hair formed into an umbrella shape and an outfit that looked like a pincushion; next to her appeared a primitive-looking male model with three-foot-long golden needles affixed to his hair. French molded another model’s hair into cantaloupe-sized buns ending in tassels.

More wild styles made their way onstage. Blunt-cut orange hair by Irvine and Louise Rusk resembled flames; black-sequined chaps and toy guns completed the look. Vivienne Mackinder’s models, dressed in wedding gowns, wore three different hairstyles: a powdered wig, a do resembling a bird’s nest with long feathers, and a style that adds height and new curves to the French twist.

Most of the evening’s hairstyles were for women, but the team from Art + Science broke away with its collection, “The Men’s Room,” featuring cuts for men that experimented with color streaks and tints. “It’s alternative street, but still commercial,” said Accattato. The models’ clothes contributed to a mischievous feel: one wore a fur vest and carried a bottle of whiskey in his pants. They pantomimed peeing and scratched their butts. In a twist, the last model showcased, apparently the group’s leader, was a woman, sporting a tuxedo with no shirt.

For “Metamorphosis,” Israeli stylist Shai Greenberg dressed his models in two-sided outfits: in back, a gray schoolgirl uniform was attached to a mask with glowing eyes and straight black hair. When the music suddenly changed, the models turned to reveal sassy dresses in bright green, orange, and purple. Their hair was cut in varying lengths and colored to match the dresses.

If you’re wondering whether you can expect to see these wild hairdos in your neighborhood, Rizzo says yes, sort of. Everything, he says, eventually trickles down. Like the Armani suit copied in cheaper material and sold in a neighborhood shop, so will these hairstyles be tailored to fit the needs of the average salon client.

For organizations conducting leukemia research, the evening made money. For the participants, it represented a culmination of creativity and camaraderie. And for the hairdressing audience, the show was a unique opportunity. “This is great, because usually when you do someone’s hair they leave and go wherever–you never see the finished product,” said Brandi Green. “But here, you see your work, the makeup, the clothes. The complete package.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Al Yeager.