On a recent Wednesday after school, 13-year old Lukas Winters sat in a hairstylist’s chair with half-inch diameter plastic rods placed strategically across his head, a bag clipped over the top.
The eighth-grader at J.R. Gerritts Middle School in Kimberly, Wis., was getting a perm—his second since the beginning of the school year.
“I want it more lifted,” he explained while patiently waiting 20 minutes for the Quantum Extra Body solution to sink in.
That ‘80s hair fad some people hoped to never see again is making a comeback, thanks to teen boys angling for a tousled, just-out-of-bed look that looks perfectly imperfect all day.
“His hair is now more expensive than mine,” says Lukas’s mother Wendy Winters, a Home Depot store manager who normally pays $45 for her own haircuts at Hair by Ali VanDriel in Menasha. She paid for Lukas’s first perm in August, but told her son to dig into his allowance money to help cover the $115 this time around. He posted a video of the result on his social-media account.
Confounded hairstylists are trying to better understand hair trends including “broccoli” and “bird’s nest hair” that they aim to emulate in their own chairs. Franz Burge’t, owner of 20th Salon and Barber in San Francisco, knows the drill by now when young men come to see him requesting a perm.
In Menasha, where VanDriel operates a part-time salon from her basement, she’s become a “perming machine” since this year’s back-to-school season. Before that, perm clients were infrequent and tended to be short-haired women in their 70s (or older). VanDriel’s two sons, ages 12 and 14, frequently complain that the rest of the house smells of perming solution. (Both of them now have perms, too).
“It starts with one kid going back to school with a perm and everyone telling him, ‘Gosh that looks so great,’” says VanDriel. “Then my cellphone lights up with messages like, ‘You’re the perm lady, right?’”
A perm, short for permanent wave, is a process that involves a hairstylist applying a chemical to the hair—such as ammonium thioglycolate—to break down its structure, opening the hair shaft to a curlier texture. Perms helped create the big, voluminous hair trend of the 1980s and ‘90s, ushered in by Dolly Parton, Dynasty and rock bands such as Twisted Sister and Guns N’ Roses.
“Everyone has a perm story, and it’s usually a bad story,” says Janine Jarman, founder of Curl Cult, a perm solution sold to salons that promises a gentler look with ingredients such as pea protein and amino acids. Launched two years ago in 300 salons, her product line is now sold in more than 2,000 salons across the country. About a third of customers who get the $150 to $300 perms are male.
“The boys are that tipping point for texture in hair to become more mainstream,” she says. “A lot of it is imitating the soccer players, the football hair.”
At Salon on 30th in San Diego, Bettina Frost says “it’s the K-Pop thing for the boys,” referring to styles such as the “undercut,” “wolfcut” and “mullet” popularized by South Korean boy bands such as BTS and Exo. The styles are all variations on a theme where the top is long and wavy while the sides are cut short. Frost does two to three perms a month now, compared with one a month a year ago.
Known as the Decade of Decadence, the 1980s continues to inspire teens and adults alike with the return of Reeboks, scrunched up socks and neon clothing. Big hair may be the final frontier, aided by attention-getting rows of colored hair rollers atop teen heads.
“Everyone gets a kick out of it when they have the rods in their hair. They pick up their phones and do selfies.” Burge’t says.
In 2020, then-15-year-old Dillon Latham asked his TikTok followers if he should get a perm. “I said, ‘If this gets 500,000 likes I’ll get a perm.’ It got two million ‘likes.” He subsequently posted another video of his hair in rollers, soaked with perm solution, a couple of weeks later.
He has since founded a new TikTok account (@dillon.latham) focused on personal care advice for young men, with 1.3 million followers and launched a hair line called Clean Cut Cosmetics.
“The perm is the full reason the business even became a thing,” says the 18-year old in Mechanicsville, Va., who employs 12 people who help bottle and pack $24.99 sea-salt hair spray from his father’s garage. Monthly sales have surpassed $100,000, according to his dad, Alan Latham, a commercial-refrigeration technician who quit his job to help with the business.
“We’ve shipped to Dubai,” Alan says. “I just don’t understand it.”
Kaloian Vanchev, 17, totally gets it. The senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., is one of Dillon’s TikTok followers who was inspired to get a perm, too. Previously, he would spend 10 to 20 minutes each morning in the bathroom fiddling with a blow dryer, pomade, circular brush and curling iron “to get the hair to flip up and around,” he says, and it still didn’t look like Dillon’s. “It was annoying.”
A few months ago, he used $120 saved up from a summer job working at Bobapop Tea Bar for a perm. “It looked good,” says Vanchev, who then posted his own TikTok video. “Once I got mine, it seemed like a couple other kids got perms.”
Mattea Arndt, a seventh-grade language arts teacher, says the boys consider perms a status symbol. “They’re not embarrassed about it,” she says. “It’s ‘Miss Arndt, you’re not going to believe this! Guess what, I’m getting a perm tonight,’” she says. Her students have influenced how she styles her hair, too: She now air-dries it to encourage natural curls, rather than blow-drying it straight.
“You hope as a teacher you have an influence on your students but they are equally having that influence on me,” she says.
A few weeks ago, Arndt was able to return the favor when a student complained that his perm wasn’t as curly as he wished it would be. She suggested he review a scene from “Legally Blonde,” when Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 comedy, explains the “cardinal rule of perm maintenance is that you’re forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours.”
“I said, ‘You need to go home and watch Legally Blonde,’” Arndt says.
Write to Anne Marie Chaker at Anne-Marie.Chaker@wsj.com