These girls are a cut above

• A family affair: Pia Passinisi and daughters Lucia, Vanessa and Rosaria who all learned the trade at her salon. Photo by Steve Grant.

PIA PASSINISI has seen a lot of change since opening her first hairdressing salon in Fremantle 50 years ago.

The rollers and perms have mostly made way for the blow-wave, the old fashion magazines don’t really cut it against the bonanza of information on the internet and she’s been and done franchising.

But through it all, Ms Passinisi says one thing has remained constant and kept her chairs busy as the port city’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed: “The passion for hair and people; we loved what we were doing.”

As a testament to that creed, she’s still got clients whose hair she was “tizzying” during her apprenticeship at the long-gone Marina Salon.

Perms and hair-ups

“Mostly then there was a lot of perms and hair-ups, and we’d style-up customers once a week.

“Those styles have not changed much for these people and they are still coming in.”

Ms Passini and her family emigrated from their home near Naples, Italy to Fremantle early in 1963, and before the year was out she had scored an apprenticeship with Marina.

“I didn’t speak any English, so I would just say ‘yeah, yeah’,” Ms Passini says, laughing at the memory.

She says it was an Aussie girl in the salon, rather than her former countryfolk, who helped her out by explaining what was being requested.

That and a lot of reading and she reckons within three years she was speaking the local lingo as fluently as she does today.

“As soon as I finished my apprenticeship in 1968 I opened a salon with a friend in the markets – but it was not a market back then.

“That was Nerina Cammarata, and then we moved from there to Wray Avenue, then from there to 53 High Street. Then we were in Johnson Court.”

As their clientele grew, so did the brood.

Ms Cammarata’s sister Nella joined the salon, then they all married and started having children; it was a shrewd recruitment technique, as between them they had seven daughters who all earned their stripes as apprentices in the salon.

By her side

The Cammaratas and their kids eventually decided to strike out on their own in Sydney, but Ms Passini’s daughters Lucia, Vanessa and Rosaria still work by her side.

She says in the early days they were kept busy by a procession of marriages.

“We used to start at 7am; I was pretty much a workaholic.”

After 10 years, another opportunity beckoned; they were approached by Albert Di Lallo, who was trailblazing the franchise movement in Western Australia and wanted them to join him in Salon Express.

“He was an amazing man; a great mentor for everyone,” Ms Passinisi says.

“He decided there was a lot of people who wanted a fast haircut, no appointment – in and out quick.

“It felt like a downgrade, and it took us two years to decide, but finally we did.”

Ms Passinisi said it transformed the salon, with a new wave of customers.

“It was such a joy to have people from all walks of life; people could walk in who didn’t have a lot of money, but come out and say ‘look at my hair, I look fantastic’.

“I find that really rewarding.”

But following Mr Di Lallo’s death she grew unhappy with the direction of the franchise and earlier this year opted out, renovating the salon and opening it as The Hair and Barber Room.

Blokey barber

It’s at 128 High Street – the shop that 50 years ago was Marina Salon.

Adding the blokey “barber” to the name is somewhat of an acknowledgement of the difficult trading conditions in Fremantle at the moment, as they need to bring in male customers as well.

But Ms Passinisi is hopeful the Kings Square development just across the road will help usher in a new era for the port city and bring back the boom.

by STEVE GRANT

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