In 1978, when Nikki Mallon was 16 years old in Belfast, Ireland, she dropped out of high school and set her sights on hairdressing. It was the more interesting of the options available at the local colleges, she says. After a successful apprenticeship, she quickly climbed the ranks as a colorist, eventually moving to London for three years where she worked for Toni & Guy, a high-end hairdressing salon and academy.
That’s when she won a visa lottery, giving her just 90 days to decide where she would go. She immediately thought of her friend, now husband, Gary Feinberg in Miami. There was a Toni & Guy franchise in Key Biscayne too, so finding work wouldn’t be difficult. Three months later, she had moved in with Feinberg, planning to stay for two weeks.
She never moved out.
Mallon got her license at a small beauty school in South Beach and worked at Toni & Guy. Later, partnering with two other trained hairdressers, Mallon and Feinberg decided to open their own store. At the time, Lincoln Road was essentially uncharted territory, retail-wise; South Beach was a sleepy beach town, and there were just two other salons in the area.
“People thought I had lost my marbles when I told them where we were opening. They were like, 'What? No one is going to find you in there!'” says Mallon.
Over the next 30 years, Mallon’s shop evolved from a small salon called Some Like It Hot to a two-story marvel that featured a store, salon, and spa called Brownes Merchants & Trading. The store was a landmark of the area for decades until Mallon downsized to a side street on Jefferson Avenue where they saved on rent. Now, she says, the staggering rent and rise of e-commerce sites like Amazon and Sephora have forced her to close the shop's doors for good. On May 31, Brownes will finally say goodbye to South Beach.
The cost of doing business is now “too expensive for the business that we’re generating, and also on the street we’re on, we don’t get pedestrians,” says Mallon. “We’re a destination. Next door we have the garage, so there’s nothing beyond us. The store next to us is closed, and then it’s a Coldwell Banker, so people say, 'Eh, there’s nothing there.'”
Mallon’s salon was not always just a side-street shop. In the ’90s and early 2000s, Brownes was at the forefront of beauty commerce and hairdressing in South Florida. In 1994, Mallon received a surprise call from Vogue magazine. Sam McKnight, a renowned hairdresser, was doing a shoot in South Beach with supermodel Caroline Murphy and they needed a salon to help them get white makeup out of her hair.
“They ended up staying the whole day,” Mallon says.
A few days later, Some Like It Hot was featured in Vogue. After that, its success snowballed. Soon the salon expanded to include a Secret Garden Spa next door and began selling exclusive beauty merchandise, landing major brands like Aveda and Kiehl’s. The business was in its prime: Rent was still $400 a month for 500 square feet, and traffic on South Beach was starting to pick up with the opening of Pacific Time restaurant. A year later, in 1995, the business expanded to its best-known location at 841 Lincoln Rd., where an Urban Outfitters sits today. It was a bustling 3,500-square-foot space with a loft that was used as a salon. That's when the name was changed to Brownes.
“'Brownes' was my husband’s idea. He said, 'Let's get something apothecary-like, an old pharmacy name, something from London,'” Mallon says.
The name stuck. And clients like Donatella Versace and Jennifer Lopez were loyal costumers, popping in casually and dropping $2,000 in one night. Business was good, and their creative window displays and convenient location always drew people in. But their building, owned by a small family, sold to investors in New York with big plans for the area.
“They forced our hand. They told us, 'You’re going to have to leave or take the upstairs space,'” Mallon says. “We took out a ridiculous loan and built out the most beautiful spa. It was all upstairs. We had 11,000 square feet total.”
They put a staircase in the middle to connect the two floors, and the whole atmosphere changed. It went from buzzy to too busy, with a cacophony of hair dryers and shoppers canceling the sense of peace. And in 2008, the economy crashed. Weekly clients turned into monthly visitors; manicures and pedicures were a luxury many could no longer afford.
In 2009, in an attempt to drive more business to the salon, Mallon agreed to be featured on the Bravo TV show Tabatha’s Salon Takeover. The show featured salon owner and previous Shear Genius contestant Tabatha Coffey visiting struggling salons across the country and trying to help them get back on track. Mallon assumed it could only help her business. Instead, she says, she was presented unfairly. She ended up with years of hate mail and drowning sales numbers.
“That was one of the worst decisions I ever made,” Mallon says. “They told me they would make me look amazing and I fell for it. I was so stupid.”
After the first day, Mallon knew something was up. She could sense the hostility from the crew and felt like she was being dragged through the mud. The crew visited her home and staged scenes of her texting her employees back at the store. When the show aired, Mallon was the villain who rarely went into the store and only watched the security footage from her home. She says fans of the show took to the internet and began writing fake reviews deriding her business.
“I could never hire anybody again. It made Brownes look so bad,” says Mallon. “The people with me today have worked with me for years.”
There was nothing she could do, she says.
“They took my brand and smashed it to pieces overnight,” Mallon says.
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In the aftermath, Mallon moved the shop to its current home, a 2,200-square-foot shop around the corner on Jefferson Avenue, where their neighbors are either empty storefronts or are planning to leave. Mallon spent 18 months trying to sell the business but says the building owner would not approve the sale.
In a few weeks, Mallon will close up shop for good and focus on her catering business. Brownes will join the many casualties of Lincoln Road’s evolution into an outdoor mall.
“I’ll miss the fun and vibes of it all — the clients, the comings and goings. We go in the morning, put the music on. You never know what’s going to happen, who's going to walk in.”
Brownes Merchants & Trading.1688 Jefferson Ave., Miami Beach; 305-538-7544; facebook.com/BrownesBeauty.