Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains in sunny Southern California is a little community called Topanga Canyon. The name was given to the area by the Tongva Native American tribe, and is said to mean “a place above.” Once you come here, you can instantly see why: Quite simply, it’s heaven. Ancient oak trees line the mountainsides, and Topanga Creek—yes, there actually is a natural waterway in the Los Angeles metro area—meanders happily toward the Pacific Ocean. The enclave is home to numerous artists, musicians and other bohemian types. So it’s only natural that Michael O’Rourke would choose this arcadia to build his homage to hairstylists: The Institute of Courage.
O’Rourke himself has a slightly bohemian air about him; after all, he is an artist through and through. And one could easily misinterpret his broad, impish grin and effusive manner as belonging to someone who’s carefree—but his eyes tell a different tale. They are piercing, alive with the intelligence and understanding that comes with years of struggle, triumph and self-exploration.
Success may not have come easily to O’Rourke, but come it did. He established the Carlton Hair International chain of salons, and in 1992 founded Ecoly International, now known as Sexy Hair Concepts. He developed his signature cutting system—Structure in Motion—and Tribes of Style, a program based on his South African roots that helps to build community among hairdressers.
The Institute of Courage takes the Tribes of Style idea to the next level. Designed to foster growth professionally, the Institute is also intended to grow students’ creative and spiritual sides. “I don’t think people realize that hairdressers live on the brink of not believing in themselves,” says O’Rourke. “The Institute is a sanctuary. Yes, this is a place where you can learn how to cut and color, but more than that, we want you to talk about yourself and your life.”
Formerly a Spanish-style potter’s studio, the Institute has been transformed into a cutting-edge learning facility while losing none of its artistic charm. The Entry Room is warm and welcoming and features a loggia—an open-air room off to the side—that allows guests to sit and enjoy the sounds of the creek and wildlife. Hair color services are offered in the Water Garden, which includes a color bar where one expert colorist can mix up to 60 hair color formulas a day.
The dining room, complete with a 17-foot-long walnut table that seats 24, is upstairs. “When you work together, you should eat together,” explains O’Rourke. This is one of the rooms used for education. The other is the Zen Garden Room, the think tank of the school. Slightly more casual, the room is designed to encourage conversation and creativity and actually overlooks a peaceful Zen garden, hence the name.
And then there’s the pièce de résistance: the Theatre Room. It looks more like a ballroom than an educational styling area. At first glance the stations lining the walls seem to consist of no more than plush chairs facing ornate mirrors, each topped with an Italian-looking fresco. But in reality all of the styling tools are ferreted away in cubbyholes within the mirrors—and the mirrors actually have cameras behind them to record the stylist’s moves, which are projected on a monitor to the side of each station. Each student leaves with a DVD of his or her work. At the front of the Theatre Room is a large screen so students can see O’Rourke’s techniques up close. The room can also be converted to host fashion shows and seminars. “It’s designed to be multipurpose,” explains O’Rourke. “Because today, if you’re one-dimensional, you’re in trouble.”
The Institute offers several different classes: SIMX (Structure in Motion Experience), which uses tai chi principles to encourage perspective and balance in all aspects of haircutting and life; 5CES, a course that will show students how to become editorial stylists; CCG (Cut, Color and Glamourize), a three-day course that teaches three-dimensional cutting and coloring; Salon Owner Luncheons throughout the year; and Salon-on-One Demos where individual salons can take part in a private haircut demo with O’Rourke.
O’Rourke believes that it takes true courage to change and grow, both professionally and personally. And O’Rourke has courage in spades. “This is crazy what I’ve done here!” he says. “It doesn’t make logical sense in anybody’s book. It’s in the middle of Topanga, not in an area where people walk by. I can’t sell anything and I have to actually have people come here from miles away. It’s a trip, and I say: Bring it on! I’m going to enjoy this!”
For more information on the Institute of Courage and the classes available, call 310.455.0285 or visit instituteofcourage.com.