Written By: MEGAN LOONEY
Photography By: NIKKI THORNTON
San Diego’s fashion lifeline runs directly through creative powerhouse Michael Lee McGriff. He is the founder and co-owner of A Style Concierge, a lively and highly-rated salon and boutique downtown on 5th street. If you want in on San Diego’s fashion scene, he’s the man to know. McGriff is an eccentric, stylish, tattooed, 43-year-old Robert Downey Jr. look-a-like. And yes ladies, he’s single. Donned in black Dickies, chucks, a striped tank, a fedora, jewelry galore and a prominent turquoise “Ohm” necklace, McGriff sat down with LOCALE at the Mexican joint, Funky Garcias, to talk life and fashion. The self-touted style setter exuded a friendly, self-assured sense of confidence, even when talking about being eight-years sober after “hitting rock bottom, ” and how his whole life has been a blind leap of faith.
Q: You wear many, many hats. Can you name a few?
Michael Lee McGriff: I am the co-owner and founder of A Style Concierge (ASC), a photographer, producer of fashion events, MC, stylist, business and marketing consultant, and much, much more.
Q: How’d you get into the hair business?
MLM: I was working for Cox for 20 years, and I took a hard look at my life. I decided to go out and create opportunities for myself. A lot of my friends already looked up to me for style. At first, I sucked at doing hair, but it didn’t stop my determination. I knew I’d do whatever it took to become the great hairstylist I wanted to become.
Q: How did ASC start up?
MLM: I graduated from California Hair Design Academy in 2007, came out of school and realized all these hairstylists are wannabe rock stars. The business model for the first building my salon was in came from a school project. It started with two chairs, it looked like shit, but I saw past all that. I gave up everything for the business. I learned a lot about myself. I was comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s how I define success.
Q: What is the hardest part about running your own business?
MLM: Personnel. It’s like adopting kids as teenagers. Leadership is the biggest challenge. You’re trying to carry on something that represents a history, it represents something bigger than any individual.
Q: How much time do you spend in the salon?
MLM: I enjoy it, being at the salon every day is cool for me. If I’m caught outside my salon, I guarantee there’s ten conversations that happen before I can get back to work, which I don’t mind, because I love people and I love interacting. I absolutely do not look for a vacation. The last time I went on a legitimate vacation, non-business related was in 2008. I went to Milan, Venice , Rome and Paris.
Q: You set up shop in a new building off 5th last year. After the building fell out of escrow, what motivated you to keep pursuing something that everyone thought was impossible?
MLM: I never lost hope. You can’t doubt me. I’ve done more in the last four and a half years with nothing than I ever did before, when I thought I had everything. I literally had nothing. I lost my house, but I was comfortable losing it. I was a squatter for two years. That’s a story of endurance, of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way.’ I kinda of feel like I birthed a kid with this salon. Giving up wasn’t an option.
Q: What do you love most about being a stylist?
MLM: When I wanted to become a hairstylist, I knew, I was confident that once someone came and sat in my chair that in an hour or two they were going to feel so much better about themselves because of what I’d created for them.
Q: Why do you think ASC has maintained a 5-star Yelp rating?
MLM: It started guerilla style where we were on the streets five or six nights a week just to push our brand. We created trends. We started doing hairstyling and makeup in nightclubs and hotels as entertainment. We were busy. Our brand is hair, fashion and lifestyle. We know San Diego’s lifestyle and we will introduce you to that, get you styled and immerse you. I make it a part of my business to get to know the community, and I support San Diego. I’ve been here all my life.
Q: What are some of the more memorable things you’ve done over the course of your fashion career?
MLM: No one would ever really care, but at 40 years old, I created the first 5-day swimwear fashion event. In 2010, I went for the world record for the bikini parade … we had 200 something girls walk 5th avenue in bikinis, from grandma’s to grandkids. In 2011, I created the world’s first fashion tour, at least to my knowledge. I’m confident that I can make shit happen, and I don’t beat myself up when it doesn’t work.
Q: What achievements are you most proud of from this year?
MLM: Just this year alone has been crazy, because I’ve met with new start-ups for shoe design, clothing design, boutique owners, photographers, models, talent management companies … I’ve gained some credibility and experience to support concepts. A lot of people have reached out to me. I think people see that I have this creative stuff that’s going on besides the business, and I run my mouth all the time. I can do interior design, too; I designed ASC’s space.
Q: Shortly after opening ASC in 2008, there was one month in which you quit your job at Cox, went blind in your left eye, filed for bankruptcy and almost lost your salon. How’d you make it through?
MLM: I never doubted my faith. I felt like I could do anything after being sober for a year. I had clarity because of my faith and sobriety.
Q: What led you to start venturing into the realm of photography?
MLM: I dropped a video camera in the pool at one of my events. This was like the third or fourth video camera I’ve had in the last three years … I’m bad with electronics. My business partner had an extra camera, so I tried to learn from other photographers. I just kept pressing the button. I think it’s the association with the hair, the makeup, the styling, and all those things that I’ve done over the past few years that allow me to really compose a photo in my own way, in a style that I like.
Q: How would you describe fashion?
MLM: For me? Eclectic and – what I think a lot of people are nowadays – thrift. Maybe a little bit more confident than your common person. I remember shopping at a thrift store and finding a Christian Dior suit, a $1600 suit. The guy that let that thing go was a size 56 waist. I fit in one leg, but I bought that $14.95 suit and spent $90 to get it tailored. It fit me perfectly. First time I wore it I got all kinds of compliments. But I’m not really a suit guy, I love chucks and Dickies. I like to mix and match. The thing that catches my eye is the way people combo things.
Q: Where’s your favorite place to shop in SD?
MLM: The swap meet. Make a day out of it. The most compliments on the fashion that I have, comes from people’s old stuff. My favorite shirt for men is a snap-button western.
Q: What’s the biggest fashion faux pas you see around town?
MLM: Tight dresses on the wrong bodies.
Q: With the holidays coming up, what’s the one piece of style advice you have for locals?
MLM: A really cool, eclectic, chic jacket.
Q: Favorite lesser known eatery in SD?
MLM: I like the Neighborhood for its uniqueness.
Q: I heard you are also affiliated with Blind Eye Productions?
MLM: The name “Blind Eye” came from my blind eye. It’s a random connection of three dudes that met at events that I was producing at Hotel Palomar. There’s a photographer, the other one’s a videographer and I was like, ‘we should do shit together.’ We started Modeling Monday’s this year … we offer ourselves as a full production company. I can do fashion production, they can do photo and video. We never set up a business model, so all of us still kinda’ work independently.
Q: What do you do for fun when you’re not at the salon?
MLM: I think we should all do things that are strictly for fun. For me, one is golf and another is playing poker. I suck at both.
Q: Does money make the world go round?
MLM: I don’t even think about money. And I think because I don’t think about money, I’ve been given the most unique opportunities to go do things that money can’t buy.
A Style Concierge (inside Dolcetti Boutique)
635 5th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101