Sir James Dyson and his eponymous company, best known for its vacuums, have in recent years made waves in the beauty world with the futuristic-looking Dyson hair dryer. While both products are pricey, colorful, hyper-engineered, and interesting to look at, neither is inherently a glamorous item. This week, though, the company one-upped its own showmanship and announced that it will release a Dyson Supersonic hair dryer that’s literally gilded with 23.75-karat gold leaf, which will sell for $499.99.
While the news has not been reported widely yet, people have been receiving word from the company via their inboxes. And they have thoughts. Twitter user @FannyLawren wrote: “Who needs a gold hair dryer? No one. But the Celebrities and Crazy Rich Asians may want it. Good gimmick! @Dyson #MarketingStrategy #luxurylifestyle.” User @kylethepeck was a bit less diplomatic.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Dyson products, but nothing says “I’m a rich asshole who doesn’t know how to spend my money” like a real gold plated hair dryer. pic.twitter.com/SYkTUBqFtA— Kyle Peck (@kylethepeck) August 27, 2018
$500 seems an eye-popping sum for a hair tool until you understand that the regular, non-gilded Dyson dryer, which launched in the fall of 2016, costs $399.99. And there’s a version engineered for professional hairstylists that is $449.99.
So how did the market for a luxury-priced golden hair dryer come about? It has to do with savvy marketing, the power of celebrity, and a certain viral photo of a chicken.
The Dyson invaded a very insular market
Dyson, which is worth $5.3 billion, is well known in design circles and makes a splash any time it launches a new product because the company is great at dramatic rollouts. But the Dyson hair dryer made a huge impression because the hot hair tool space is a pretty insular market that doesn’t often see new brands (T3, Conair, GHD, Hot Tools, Chi, Babyliss, and a handful of others dominate) — and because it upended traditional hair dryer design in a way the stalwarts hadn’t.
Instead of the motor being encased on top right near the nozzle, which contributes to the top-heaviness of traditional dryers, Dyson put a small motor in the handle. The nozzle is doughnut-shaped, complete with a hole in the middle, and has a squat, sawed-off feel. This makes the Supersonic dryer lighter, quieter, and more ergonomic — plus it looks like something you’d find in a Star Trek movie.
While the design is new, tricking out the tool in a metallic finish is not. Since there’s very little that can be done to fundamentally change a blow dryer design-wise, companies have long driven sales by changing colors and finishes instead to match whatever is trending in fashion. Metallic finishes have been popular for a few years, especially rose gold — though Dyson might be the first to literally cover the thing in a precious metal.
According to a press release, accompanied by an admittedly fascinating video, Dyson enlisted the help of a traditional guilder, a craft that dates back 4,000 years, to hand-apply 23.75-karat gold leaf — a very specific karat weight chosen by James himself — onto the nozzle. A bright red primer is applied first and then the gold leaf brushed on top, so that when it wears down, the red shows through. The carrying case matches the red primer, and the rest of the dryer is non-gilded royal blue. The whole thing is emblematic of Dyson’s typical messaging: We are extra in everything we do.
The expensive hair dryer wars
Dyson is not the first company to offer ultra-expensive hair dryers, but it is the first that cracked the mainstream in a meaningful way, thanks to the brand’s impression of mystique and its skill in getting its products into the right hands. For several years, Babyliss has offered a hair dryer that boasts a Ferrari motor. In 2010, it cost $400 (versus the more typical $35 to $150 for a regular dryer); now it’s less than $200. But that has always been niche.
Dyson’s biggest pricey competitor since it’s launched has arguably been the Harry Josh dryer. Josh is a well-respected celebrity and fashion hairstylist who’s worked with Vogue and tons of celebrities, including Jennifer Garner and Gwyneth Paltrow. He released his signature mint green dryer in 2013 for $300. At the time, it was lighter and faster than anything on the market, and beloved by pros and beauty editors alike. The original now goes for $249. The brand released an even lighter version after the original Dyson launched, which costs $349.
The Harry Josh dryer is still in limited retail distribution, but the Dyson is available more broadly at Sephora, Ulta, Nordstrom, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond and has spread beyond a small, loyal audience.
Harnessing the power of celebrity and social media
Dyson understands the aspirational nature of the beauty industry and has been strategic about getting its tools into the right hands. Early on, it partnered with hairstylist Jen Atkin, who is the founder of the uber-popular Ouai line of hair care products.
Atkin has 2.5 million Instagram followers, a number she amassed partly because of her famous and social media-savvy clients like Chrissy Teigen and various Kardashian-Jenner and Hadid sisters. She shares pictures of both her clients and the hair dryer frequently. With all the sharing and regramming, as well as the Dyson’s inherent Instagram-friendliness, the dryer soon became well known.
Dyson also partnered with (read: paid) other hairstylists to use the tool on their A-list celebrity clients at high-wattage events like the Met Gala and the Golden Globes. This has been a common practice with makeup and hair care brands for years. The brands work with artists, then send the beauty press detailed breakdowns of red-carpet looks, complete with specific product information, which end up in stories like this one and, brands hope, will convince consumers to buy the lipstick that Janelle Monáe wore that one time.
It’s less common for tool companies to do this because while you can swipe a lipstick on yourself pretty easily to “get the look,” a red-carpet hairdo requires the expertise of a stylist; the tool isn’t the only consideration. But Dyson did it anyway.
For this year’s Met Gala in May, hairstylists used Dyson dryers on Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, Cardi B, Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Evan Rachel Wood, and Solange Knowles. At the Golden Globes in January, they were used on Emma Stone, Claire Foy, and Gal Gadot. Press releases were dutifully sent around after the events.
The dryer also made it into an Instagram Lady Gaga posted of herself before her performance at the 2017 Super Bowl, though that seems to have been an organic and inadvertent shoutout to the dryer. The brand doesn’t share its sales data, but this surely raised awareness.
That time the Dyson dryer went viral because of a chicken
The weirdest and most delightful part of the brand’s journey to stardom came in May. Helen Rosner, the New Yorker’s food correspondent, tweeted a picture of herself pointing her Dyson dryer at a raw chicken. The caption read, “Happy snow day, I am using an astonishingly expensive hair dryer to remove all moisture from a chicken to maximize skin crispiness when I roast it.”
The image went viral, prompting Rosner to write a full post on the practice to clarify that she was not, in fact, using the dryer to cook the chicken.
As The Verge meticulously documented, a full news cycle ensued. The popular press, food press, and beauty press all covered the story. And Dyson loved the attention:
Engineered to not overheat your hair... or your chicken— Dyson (@Dyson) March 21, 2018
So is the Dyson hair dryer worth it?
This is the question everyone asks. In my experience, it really is better, and more comfortable to hold, than every other hair dryer I’ve tried — and I’ve tried a lot, because for several years it was my job as a beauty editor to try them. (Disclosure: The brand sent me one for free when it launched two years ago.)
If mine broke, I would absolutely pay full price for another one, and, indeed, I’ve considered buying the white version because I like it better than the fuchsia one I have. But as with any purchase, worth and value are subjective, as Rosner notes.
“The Dyson does what I want it to do — it’s faster and quieter than any other dryer I’ve used, which is important to me, because I worry about hearing loss — and while it wasn’t exactly an impulse purchase, its price didn’t put me in a position of hardship. So for me, it was worth it,” she tells me via email. “But for someone who might have a different relationship with their bank account, it might not be. There are very few things in life that are worth going into debt for, and a hair dryer — even a great one — absolutely isn’t one of them.”
People inherently pass judgment on things used by a traditionally female cohort, especially when it’s perceived to be something for vanity. Lizzie Plaugic pointed this out in her Verge article, and Rosner expounds on it.
“I find it indescribably frustrating that it’s considered frivolous for a person to spend a few hundred dollars to have the best possible version of something that she uses every single day. How many people have a $500 handbag that they’ve only carried half a dozen times, or an $800 camera that only comes out once a year for vacations?” she says. “Even the Dyson vacuum itself is considered an aspirational product — something people covet! They get excited about it! And it’s even more expensive than the hair dryer! It’s an inconsistency that speaks to the fundamental way we discredit and devalue women’s aesthetic care.”
Dyson himself is absolutely unapologetic about the price point. He once told me in an interview, “I don’t design down to a price. I design what I think is a good product that will last. Of course, that’s not a very commercial attitude because it costs rather a lot to make.”
Covering the dryer in gold doesn’t affect how it works; it’s merely gilding the lily (or the hair tool, in this case). Still, for a product whose rise has relied so heavily on social media, that extra certainly can’t hurt.