November 1978, Madison Square Garden. With “Toys in the Attic” a few years behind them, Boston-born Aerosmith had begun its long descent into mediocrity that would eventually lead to a winking self-parody. But it was my first full-fledged rock concert, and despite the M-80s that some knuckleheads tossed from the mezzanine section, it was an exciting evening. (I like to think that the M-80 gang is still listening to Aerosmith today.)
I wish I could recall what lead singer Steven Tyler was wearing that evening; it might have been a purple leopard print lace-up, which according to a 2013 GQ retrospective on Tyler’s fashion choices (entitled “Style Terrorist”), was in concert-wear rotation during the drug-addled late 70s. There certainly were scarves aplenty draped over the microphone. Given the alleged flow of narcotics between Tyler and lead guitarist Joe Perry (the duo had been dubbed the “Toxic Twins” by some rock journalists at the time), it’s not unlikely that Tyler was not also draped over the microphone…though it was hard to tell from the nosebleed seats.
Just a month later I’d receive my first fly rod, a Fenwick fiberglass 8’ 7-weight. And by April, I’d begin haunting any of the stocked trout streams in suburban Connecticut that my mom was willing to drive me to. My path and Mr. Tyler’s seemed to have come to a decisive and irrevocable fork…though to this day I must grant him a begrudging respect that he was able to sell record executives at Geffen on a song concept as absurd as “Love in an Elevator,” and could sell it well enough to audiences to make it a chart topper. (I long to come upon a lost interview where he describes the song as “taking a sophisticated topic like love and putting it on an elevator.”)
But I digress.
It would be 33 years before my path and Steven Tyler’s crossed again—or when, you could say, we happened into the same elevator. A combination of band bickering (brought on by Perry and Tyler’s bouts with sobriety?) and an injury suffered after falling from the stage during a 2009 concert at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota (while performing, yes, “Love in an Elevator”) had led to Tyler taking hiatus from “the Smith” and landing a spot on American Idol, at the time America’s most popular primetime program. By most measures the gig, which lasted from 2010 to 2012, was a good one. He was rumored to take in $10 million a year for his efforts, with a seat next to fellow judge Jennifer Lopez a dubious fringe benefit. As the resident rock god on Idol, it was no time for Tyler to embrace corporate casual. His outfits embraced the shabby chic bizzarro couture that had defined his years fronting Aerosmith. On occasions, he looked as though he had not only slept in his clothes among the garbage bins behind the performance venue, but had in fact lifted said clothing from surrounding vagrants. At this time, he’s said to have commented, “You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap.”
It was on an episode in 2011—year 10 in A.I. time—that a stylist in Tyler’s inner circle decided that his long, highlighted locks would be that much more glamorous—or tribal, or exotic or rock ‘n roll or whatever—with a few strategically intertwined feathers.
And that’s where the great hackle shortage of 2011 began.
Steven Tyler was not the first human to explore the possibilities of feathers as head or hair ornamentation. The people of New Guinea have worn feathers and other bird parts in their hair—particularly from various species of bird of paradise—for tens of thousands of years. According to Bruce Beehler, author of “Birds of New, Guinea,” display of feathers (and other body parts) was “a way of displaying relationships—displaying kinship to the birds, relating one’s status in the community and making social statements through aesthetic displays.” Western anthropologists have studied the ways of New Guinea’s Tribes for over a hundred years, yet the so-called “civilized” world had successfully resisted the temptation to weave feathers into their hair, at least in any meaningful numbers. But neither those anthropologists nor the Huli people—one of the hundreds of Tribes that call New Guinea home—ever had television audiences approaching 30 million. And the Huli courtship traditions, while perhaps alien to western sensibilities, were not likely as exotic as Steven Tyler’s (see “Love in an Elevator”).
According to some early reportage on the phenomenon from our friends at Angling Trade, feather extensions were first commercialized in the Boulder, Colorado region, by an outfit called Zing Hair Salon. At the time, feathers (preferably grizzly hackle) were bonded to actual hair using carotene wax; one feather cost $5, five to seven feathers would run you $25. These days, some salons—like Urban Hair Flair in Portland, Oregon—affix feathers using “rubberized microbeads.” The feathers can be washed, dried and curled just like natural hair, and last one to two months. Costs have risen slightly since 2011; Urban Hair Flair will install a single feather for $12, three for $25 or five for $40. (Zing Hair Salon is no longer in business.)
What’s the appeal of hair feathers? I was able to consult a focus group of one, namely my daughter Cassidy, who was 11 in 2011. “I was in fifth grade at the time, a tween on the cusp of being a young adult,” she shared. “I think a lot of girls—and boys—at that age want to experiment with their appearance. A piercing was too permanent. A tattoo was out of the question. A feather extension was a statement, but temporary.”
Though I minored in economics and hold an MBA, my grasp of macroeconomic concepts is tenuous at best. But the law of supply and demand is fairly straightforward; if supply is great and demand is low, prices tend to decline. If supply is finite and demand is high, prices tend to rise. With thousands (if not millions) of Steven Tyler fans (and other fashionistas) flocking to hair salons to demand their fair share of the American hackle dream—and a very finite supply of the quality of grizzly hackle best suited for feather extensions—it stands to reason that the price a decent cape or neck could attract in the marketplace would rise.
As long as there was a supply.
“At first we didn’t quite know what was going on,” recalled Mike Mercer, a pioneering fly-tier and long-time (over 40 years) employee at The Fly Shop, in Redding, California. “We had local hairdressers coming in and asking if we had feathers. We’d point them upstairs to our tying materials area. They’d come down a few minutes later and leave, saying ‘Those feathers are really expensive.’ Then a week or two later, they’d come back and buy. It went from, ‘I guess I’ll buy them’ to competitive bidding. Some ladies would buy 10 capes at a time. As our inventory was running low, I started thinking that I had a lot of grizzly hackle at home, maybe I should sell them. I told a few feather-seeking customers that I’d sell them a cape or neck for $100; it had cost me $25.
“At the time, we had one of the biggest collections of feathers on the planet. But in six or eight months, we were almost sold out. We ended up selling all of the dyed grizzly that we had. But we decided to save the rest for our fly-tying clients.”
Non-fly anglers—and anglers (like me) who rely on their local fly shops or friends to supply their terminal gear—might ask, “Why not use some feathers from your neighbor’s hens (the ones that never shut up)? Aren’t all chicken feathers the same?” Seasoned fly-tyers reading this would probably like to cuff me, and I likely deserve it. But after spending an engrossing hour or so on the website of Delta, Colorado-based Whiting Farms—perhaps North America’s leading supplier of fly-tying feathers to fly shops and commercial tying operations—I understand what quality chicken hackle is all about.
The Whiting Farms website notes that “in the 1960s good quality feathers for tying dry flies were nearly impossible to come by, and tiers had to rely on rather poor quality capes imported from India or China—basically just pelted village chickens…In addition, the black and white barred pattern feathers called grizzly did not exist in these village chickens, thus major fly patterns which required grizzly hackle garnered a premium price. Therefore Henry (Hoffman, founder of the entity that would become Whiting Farms) set out in the mid-1960s to find some grizzly chickens to raise for his own tying needs and potentially to develop into a marketable genetic hackle line.”
Should you visit the Whiting Farms site, you can learn a good deal about chicken husbandry and what it takes to make a great grizzly hackle-producing bird. The short story is—most chickens do not make very good hackle, especially grizzly hackle. But some do. Breed those chickens together—and breed some that you think might produce long, luxuriant hackle—and you’ll have yourself some fine fly-tying feathers.
Though in 2011, it was pretty difficult to find them.
“On the street, I started hearing fly tyers saying, ‘I just sold a neck/saddle for $500 or $600 on eBay,” said Jake Chutz, National Sales Manager for Columbia, Montana-based Montana Fly Company. “There might be hundreds of feathers on a saddle.” At 5 dollars a feather at the beauty salon, you can do the math.
“When we buy a cape or saddle, we pluck and size the feathers for different size flies—size 10s, 12s, 16s, etc. We had occasions where we’d go through all our size-16 feathers, and failed to deliver those flies over the course of a year or two. A majority of our hackle comes from Whiting, but at times availability was tight and we had to augment our supply with feathers from other growers.”
“At the time, we were buying most of our hackles from three major suppliers,” recalled Chris Conaty, who’s been around the commercial fly-tying world for 20 years, and currently operates First Water Fly Goods, based in Portland, Oregon. “It didn’t take long for the hair stylists to find them. Capes that we’d buy for $20 were suddenly going for five or 10 times as much. I had some hard conversations with our suppliers. I appreciated that they wanted to take advantage of this spike in demand, but we’d been customers for 10 years, and we’d be there when the spike was gone. It wasn’t fair to treat long-term customers this way. We had a number of outstanding orders that we couldn’t get delivered.
“Some people made some pretty big money during this time—not 10K or 20K, but hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Conaty added. “A few tried to remain loyal to their fly-tying customers at first. But when one or two suppliers began selling to the stylists, the pivot happened fast. The thinking was that ‘we gotta make it while we can.’ A lot of people don’t realize that when the craze wound down in the U.S., it caught on around the world—Brazil, Europe, then Southeast Asia. The feather shortage lingered for a few years more.”
As anyone who’s tried to buy a refrigerator, an automobile or a fly reel in the last few months understands, supply chains do matter. While Steven Tyler may have been the wings of the butterfly that set in motion an international feather frenzy, he cannot be blamed for the shortage. That is the result of a dearth of certain chickens, not an abundance of poor fashion choices.
Style watchers have noted that Addison Rae, the third most popular Tik-Tok user at this writing (with 81.1 million followers), has begun sporting feathers. “There’s been a surge of interest in hackle again from the fashion world, Chutz added. “Hackle has been in relatively short supply. It takes years to grow chickens with the right genetics.”
Fly-tyers may have good reason to stock up on grizzly hackle now: Aerosmith will be conducting an extensive tour of Europe in the summer of 2022.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Some observers may trace the origin of the great hackle shortage to the not-heard-from-in-a-while pop star Ke$ha. They may or may not be correct; in this editor’s opinion, Steven Tyler makes a more interesting story.