Restoring hair, self-esteem Summary: An Owings Mills company's hair-replacement technology lifts the spirits of cancer patients, burn and trauma victims and those with unexplained hair loss.

September 01, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

When her long, brown hair began falling out in clumps, Carolynne Dorsey wore baseball caps or hats to cover the bald patches. And she cried a lot.

"It was devastating," said Dorsey, a mother of three who was diagnosed with alopecia, an unexplained, often permanent total or partial loss of hair. "You can't even imagine what that does to your self-esteem. I'd see a picture of me with hair and burst out crying. I didn't want my husband to look at me. My son told me, 'Don't come to school unless you have something on your head.' "

Three summers later, having lost all her hair, the 48-year-old Cockeysville resident has become accustomed to the stares at the beach -- the one place she refuses to cover her head.

She's also regained a sense of wholeness, thanks to an Owings Mills company's newly developed hair-replacement technology for cancer patients, burn and trauma victims and people such as Dorsey with alopecia, a condition that affects an estimated 4 million people.

Versacchi Cosmetica Capillaire, the retail arm of manufacturer Versacchi USA, designs custom hair replace-ments or full wigs using a lightweight base and human, rather than synthetic, hair. The wigs are designed to fit more comfortably and look more natural than the old-fashioned mail-order variety that are about as fashionable as pillbox hats. Unlike the older style, hair can be parted to reveal a flesh-tone base resembling skin. It can be cared for like natural hair. And there's little danger of wigs flying off in the breeze.

Custom-made human hairpieces have long been available. But the Versacchi designs were among the first to offer a nonsurgical skin graft procedure that uses a transparent base material, said Sherri Miller, president of Versacchi Cosmetica. She began developing the technology about eight years ago after a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost her hair during chemotherapy. About the same time, Miller was asked to design a wig for an 8-year-old girl who kept losing patches of hair. She realized that people who suffered medical hair loss had few options.

Too often, said Miller, 34, "People look like they're wearing a wig. The healing process is enhanced by looking and feeling good. To put something on your head that doesn't look like you, that's the first sign that they are sick."

In 1992, Miller and her husband, Robert, started Versacchi USA, a hair-replacement manufacturer and wholesaler. Then last June, Sherri Miller launched Versacchi Cosmetica, catering mainly to clients with medical hair loss -- mostly women -- as well as men with male pattern baldness. She has designed partial pieces and full wigs -- which sell for from $695 to

$1,995 -- for about 200 clients. "They're looking to maintain a sense of normalcy -- even the thin hair they had before, so they can go someplace and people won't stare at them and feel sorry for them," Miller said. "We try to make them look like them."

Miller now hopes to spread the Versacchi name -- not to be confused with the fashion empire of slain designer Gianni Versace -- nationally and internationally. This month, the company expanded into Brazil, with Versacchi South America to be run with a Brazilian partner who had approached the Millers about selling their products. Miller hopes to expand into Asia and Europe. And she is laying groundwork for a national Versacchi salon franchise operation.

At Versacchi Cosmetica, in the company's suite of offices on Reisterstown Road, Miller has created a relaxed and private atmosphere.

Clients review hair samples in a consultation room with overstuffed couches and a skylight. Miller strives to match a client's original hair color, texture and thickness. Weeks later, when the handmade wig is ready, the client is brought to a small salon for a fitting and haircut by a stylist. Some clients return periodically to have the hair cleaned; others maintain it themselves.

Last week, Miller ushered a 35-year-old College of Notre Dame student into the salon. The woman, a regular client, settled into a chair as Miller examined her wig of dark brown hair. The woman, who asked not to be identified, swung her hair over her shoulders, shuddering at the thought of the stiff, oversize wigs -- she used to wear. She had gradually lost her hair to alopecia starting at age 17.

Last September, she bought a Versacchi wig. "I felt like I've come out of a fog, or just awakened," she said. "Life is livable."

When Debbie Gresser-Brown came to Versacchi for a consultation late last year, she brought Miller a recent picture of herself from her son's bar mitzvah. Gresser-Brown, then 38 and diagnosed with breast cancer, had started chemotherapy and lost most of her hair. Miller designed a wig in the shade of blond that Gresser-Brown's hair had once been.

"I thought, this is the one time I can have the color hair I had when I was younger," said Gresser-Brown. "One girlfriend I bumped into in the synagogue said, 'Debbie, you lightened your hair.' I got a lot of compliments."

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