THE WIGMAKER
Raffaele Mollica, Pattern Drafting and Design, makes lifelike wigs—but only for people who really need them

Raffaele Mollica expends a lot of energy convincing people not to buy a wig from him. You’re a wealthy woman who wants to shake up your style? Sorry. A costume designer for a major TV show? No deal. A guy who’s self-conscious about balding? Bah! You look fine!
So who is granted an audience with this king of wiggery, who has augmented the locks of Carol Channing, Evelyn Lauder, Loretta Young, Louise Lasser, Helen Gurley Brown, and Tony Randall? This bigwig wigmaker who worked for Vidal Sassoon and Elizabeth Arden? It’s a short list: cancer patients, women with alopecia, and Orthodox Jews—women who, for medical or religious reasons, need to wear someone else’s hair. “I can only make one or two a week,” he says. “If they don’t need it, I don’t have time.”

Mollica in his small Upper East Side studio.

Mollica in his small Upper East Side studio. [Photo by Smiljana Peros]

If the $5,000 base price sounds like a lot, consider what goes into each wig. Using the design skills he learned at FIT, Mollica starts by taking scalp measurements and stitching together a netted foundation that fits without uncomfortable drawstrings or elastic. (He does use elastic for Orthodox women, because the wig has to fit over existing hair.)
Then a staff member—he employs five to ten part time—painstakingly threads hairs one by one into the netting. All the hair is sewn into place, and finally, the wig is styled and cut. The team adds highlights using aluminum foil and bleach, just like at the hair salon.
The raw material isn’t cheap, either. Caucasian hair, which Mollica uses almost exclusively, costs $4,000 a pound. A short-hair wig contains about 7 ounces of hair, and a long-hair wig has 12.
“European hair is the most valuable, because it has the most natural colors and textures,” he says. “Asian hair is all black and straight—it’s hard to embellish. The African strand is the most delicate.”

Mollica agreed to make the “Founding Fathers” wig for the September 21, 2015 Donald Trump cover of New York after the magazine’s interns told him they’d be fired if they couldn’t convince him. He started on a Friday and delivered it on Monday. The wig was photographed on a body double, and a digital artist photoshopped in The Donald’s face.

Mollica agreed to make the “Founding Fathers” wig for the September 21, 2015 Donald Trump cover of New York after the magazine’s interns told him they’d be fired if they couldn’t convince him. He started on a Friday and delivered it on Monday. The wig was photographed on a body double, and a digital artist photoshopped in The Donald’s face. [Photo-illustration by Bobby Doherty. Trump photo by Michele Asselin/Contour by Getty Images]

Hair can last practically forever—Google “mummy hair,” preferably not during lunch—but nature abhors a wig. With proper care and regular maintenance, a Raffaele Mollica creation can look good for five years or longer. Most do not. Sunshine oxidizes the hair. Washing a wig off the block (the head-shaped wooden form) or using a hair dryer can cause warping. Brushing it in long strokes pulls out hairs. And perspiration corrodes the netting over time. (When the wig is going to lie on bald scalp, he applies silicone to repel sweat.)

Mollica is a hair man, through and through—when the Hue team visited his studio, he ran his fingers through our hair to show the difference between natural growing hair and wigs—but he came to the business in a circuitous way. He emigrated from Sicily in 1956 at 10 years old; after high school he worked for a trims buyer who sent him to FIT for night classes. He was drafted into the military after a year; when he returned to New York in the late ’60s, he got a job at his uncle’s Madison Avenue hair salon. He was constantly criticizing the wigs for sale—thanks to Vidal Sassoon’s influence, New York women were opting for minimalist bobs, but wigs still emulated the teased and trussed-up tresses of the early ’60s. Finally Mollica made his own, with simple hairstyles that were parted naturally. When he showed them to Sassoon, the legendary hairdresser hired him on the spot as his in-house wigmaker.

“The hardest thing to do is the natural look,” Mollica says. “I want to make a woman look like we didn’t do anything for her.”

In 1975, he hung out his shingle. He originally made wigs for stage and film but grew frustrated with the inflated personalities in showbiz. “They’re basically the worst people on earth. They want everything for free.” After waiting five years to get paid for a wig for a Carol Channing show, he stopped entirely. In the ’80s, more and more women were coming to Mollica with no hair, as chemotherapy was becoming a mainstream cancer treatment. For him, helping these women was a moral imperative.

 A staff member carefully brushes a wig

A staff member carefully brushes a wig. [Photo by Smiljana Peros]

Recently, Mollica was diagnosed with cancer, and, like so many of his customers, lost his hair after chemotherapy. “I look in the mirror, and I don’t even recognize myself,” he says, touching his bare scalp. Then he smiles. “For 40 years, I gave people encouragement about losing their hair. So now I’m bald. It’s not so bad.”