It took a tragedy for two sisters to dream up and follow through on their biggest venture ever.
Amber Harrington Carraway, 35, first met her husband, Dennis Carraway, during an Augusta State University study abroad trip to Europe in May 2004. Amber and Dennis — who stood at a towering 6 feet 4 inches tall — were drawn to each other. She wondered how they had never met until that trip, as she was a graduate of Lakeside High School in 2000, and he graduated from Evans High School in 2001.
That trip would become a defining moment for their relationship, cut short too soon.
After dating for a couple of years, he asked Amber to marry him in May 2006. They married in November 2008.
Dennis was an eighth-grade history teacher at Columbia Middle School, where he also was the head football coach. His stature made him seem intimidating, but Amber and her younger sister, Brittany Harrington (a master hairstylist and owner of Studio 285), describe him as one of the sweetest guys they’d ever known — Amber said he was “just a mush of feelings.”
“He was bigger than life,” Brittany, 32, said. “And his students called him ‘Care Bear.’ He looked scary, but he was really sweet. It sounds so cliché when people say, ‘Oh, he was the best person ever,’ but he really was. He had a specific relationship with every one of his students.”
Amber’s relationship with Dennis — as with her sister — could be described as a ying and a yang. Brittany grew to be very close to Dennis, who wanted to be called her “brother” rather than “brother-in-law.” After a full day of work and coaching at school, Dennis often showed up at Studio 285 to take out the trash. While he was there one day, she found out just what he felt about the words “brother-in-law.”
“He was so sensitive; one time he came in, and one of my clients was like, ‘Is that your boyfriend,’ and I was like, no!” Brittany said. “It was too hard to explain, like we called each other brother and sister, but I wasn’t gonna sit there and go, ‘That’s my brother,’ so that they thought that my mom birthed him. I just said, ‘That’s my brother-in-law,’ and he heard me as he was walking out, he was taking out the trash. And he came back in and he goes, ‘Britt, come here!’ And he calls me outside onto the sidewalk, and when I turn and look up at him, he’s crying! And I was like, what is wrong with you? And he goes ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you call me your brother-in-law again. I’m your brother.’ I was like, ‘No, I was just trying to explain like you didn’t come out of my mom.’ And he was like ‘I am your brother!’”
Dennis and his wife were opposites in many ways — and it worked well for them.
“He was the type of person that if he saw you, he was gonna speak to you,” Amber said. “Going to Walmart was a three-hour venture because he had to stop and talk to every single person that he saw, and I’m just trying to get some groceries and get out of there. I don’t know of anyone who ever hated him, or had a problem with him at any point. He was effortlessly kind, whereas I always feel like I have to work every day like, ‘(sigh) — that person’s so irritating’ or trying to always do the right thing. Like I have to try at it, where he effortlessly always did the right thing; he was so sweet to so many people and so many kids.”
Amber and Dennis had dreams of growing old together. He was furthering his schooling and had been planning to go for a Ph.D. in education, hoping to one day become a principal. Meanwhile, Amber had been helping Brittany with Studio 285, handling the business side of things for the salon Brittany had started in 2009. But the plan was for Amber to stay at home or scale back working once Dennis had reached his career goals.
That plan would never happen.
One night, on April 2, 2014, Amber came home pretty late. Dennis had cooked her dinner, and it was waiting for her in the microwave.
“He had cleaned the whole house; he was really excited about that, and he showed me,” Amber said. “And then he sat down (to watch TV), because he loved history, and he loved World War I, World War II — and he was watching a World War II documentary. And I did not want to watch that. I said ‘It’s 11:44, you’ve got to be up at 5 a.m., we’ve got to go to bed.’ And he said ‘OK, I’ll be in there in just a second.’ And I said, ‘OK.’”
Amber woke up around 4 a.m. and noticed that Dennis had never come to bed. When she went out to the living room, he was still lying on the couch. The words she spoke to him before going to bed was the last conversation they’d ever have.
“So, he was a big guy. And he’d had stress,” Amber said. “He had been to the doctor the week before, had blood work done, and everything checked out. But that night, in his sleep, he’d had what is called an aortic rupture, or an aortic aneurism. He apparently had a bulge on his aorta, which is the part of the heart where it pumps the fresh blood up.
“And just that night, for whatever reason, it busted, and I’ve been told by several doctors, if you’re on an operating table and it busts, you’ve got about five seconds to live,” Amber said. “And so it’s immediate, it’s fatal.”
The whole family was devastated by the 31-year-old’s death. Amber said the biggest thing Dennis wanted to be in life was a father. That never happened — but he did have about 800 kids show up to his funeral.
“He never got to be (a father),” Amber said, “but when I saw all those kids whose lives he’d touched, I was like, ‘He was a father to so many kids.’”
One of the reasons Dennis made such an impact on kids at his school was because he had been a part of a divorced-parents family and could relate to a lot of kids going through a tough time. Every once in a while, one of Dennis’ former students will come up to Amber, almost star-struck, because they recognize her as THE Mrs. Carraway.
“Apparently, he would tell stories about me in the classroom like that I had devil horns and a tail, so he made me into this character for his students, and then he had pictures of me on his desk and so forth, so I think my image is burned in their mind,” Amber said. “But yeah, he made me into quite the character, every single year that he taught.”
Growing a business
In the years preceding Dennis’ death, Brittany had been growing more and more successful in her hair business. She started in the business when she was barely a teenager — at 14, she started working as a personal assistant to a stylist and three years later became her apprentice. After graduating from the Georgia Institute of Cosmetology, Brittany opened her first salon. After about three years, she knew she was ready to grow, and that’s when Studio 285 came about. (She named it that because she didn’t want the word “salon” in her business name, and 285 comes from her birth date — February 1985.) Studio 285 was in its first location for three years.
After outgrowing that location, Studio 285 moved and was in its second location almost seven years.
During that time, Amber had quit her job as a nurse manager for Augusta Urology — where she had worked for eight years — and came in to help Brittany with the business side of things.
“She’s the artsy one,” Amber said, “and I’m the paper and business one. So when I came in, in 2012, it was not a ‘low-end’ operation, but it was a very simple operation. She had three people working with her, and I came in and I revamped everything from hiring to firing to a computer system to a credit card system.”
Brittany is a rising star in the world of hair. Throughout time, her client list has grown to include reality TV stars. One of her proudest moments in her career was working with celebrity hairstylist Susan Lipson.
“So I just happened to be watching TV one day, and it was on E News or something, and this woman Susan Lipson came up, who is a celebrity hairstylist, and she was talking about extensions,” Brittany said. “And at the time, I was really getting into doing extensions a lot. That’s what I’m known for is extensions.”
Brittany found Lipson on Facebook and discovered she does a class every year called On Set Hair Productions out in Los Angeles.
“I applied to her class; I didn’t get called for like six months,” Brittany said. “And then like in April, someone called me from her office and said that I could come to the class. And it was really expensive, so I scrounged up every drop I had and paid for it, and I was gonna be out there for 12 days, so because I was paying for it all and scrambling up all this money, I was calling the school one day to like make my last payment on it before I flew out there. And when I called, Susan Lipson had forwarded the calls to her cellphone. So when she picked up the phone and said who she was, I was starstruck on the phone. And I told her who I was and where I was and when I was coming. And she said, ‘Where did you say you were?’ And I said, ‘I’m in Augusta,’ and she said, ‘I’m in Atlanta. How far is that from you?’ And I totally played it off like, ‘Oh, only like an hour.’ And she said, ‘I’m doing a movie up here, why don’t you come up here and help me?’ And she was like, ‘It’ll give you a head start on the class.’ So I literally dropped everything I was doing — I had a full book — and I drove up there as fast as I could. I acted like it took an hour; it really took me two, and then I was like lost when I got up there, and I ride right up into this movie set.”
So after she got there, Brittany helped Lipson do hair on the Lifetime movie “Ring of Fire,” starring Jewel. After that, she went to Lipson’s class in L.A., where Lipson ended up offering Brittany a job three times on the spot.
“She sat me down and was like, ‘I’ll do anything to have you out here; you can come live with me, I’ll get your feet off the ground, this is where you need to be,’ and I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go back, I’ve got to run my business.’ So that’s when we really got hungry and started growing.”
Her client list grew to include reality stars from a show she and Amber loved, back when they say they had the time to be reality TV show junkies. The show was called “Big Rich Atlanta.” It turned out, one of Brittany’s clients was the sister-in-law to the sisters on the show. (Amber and Brittany were especially drawn to the show because it was about two sisters about their age who were trying to build a jewelry company.)
Brittany’s name has grown in the industry because the stars’ fans ask them who does their extensions when they see their photos on Instagram.
Brittany figured Studio 285 would stay in the second location forever — but life had different plans for their future.
After the death of Dennis, Amber took a six-month break, spending some of those weeks by herself in Europe. During the trip, she visited places she and her husband had been together, and also some places Dennis had been without her. Amber was blown away by the architecture she saw there.
“While in Europe, I found my new self, and wanted to bring parts of what I experienced back home with me,” Amber said. “One of the things that fascinated me was the infrastructure of London, and it made me crazy thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this in Augusta?’ When I returned to work, I had new inspiration, and together, Brittany and I came up with the idea of Carraway Crossing, which would be an all-inclusive shopping experience.”
Out of Dennis’ death came this new dream that the sisters built from the ground up all on their own, and it’s all dedicated to him. Outside is a magnolia tree, chosen for the property because “Steel Magnolias” was his favorite movie.
Studio 285 is now in a 4,100-square-foot location on Trade Center Drive, off Evans to Locks Road in Evans. It opened up in July, about three years after Amber first had the vision. The outside of the building — which totals 7,200 square feet and houses other businesses — is based on what Amber saw in the Hampton Hill neighborhood in London.
“It’s all white townhomes, beautiful — that’s what this is made to be like,” Brittany said. “And then the inside of the salon is meant to be like Rush in Piccadilly Circus in London. That’s why it’s quirky and weird and eccentric. But that’s also what I am.”
Brittany’s vision for the inside of her salon is based on what she’s seen in Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York. But her personality also comes into play.
“I like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. I want every room to have its own feel,” Brittany said. There’s a UFO-themed wall, plants above the shampoo bowls that are inspired by Rainforest Cafe, and the sisters’ favorite locations are represented throughout the salon.
“Everyone knows that my favorite place in the world is Jamaica, so in my private room, I have the western end of Jamaica, and then down the middle is the islands of the Bahamas, and then we have Cuba towards the front (my boyfriend is Cuban).”
The floor even represents the ocean — the design was based on a picture of ocean on Google earth.
Dennis may be gone from this Earth, but he’ll always be a part of the sisters’ hearts. Even their new logo is a tribute to him.
“The ‘D’ is for Dennis in ‘Studio,’ and it has an arrow pointing up to heaven,” Amber said. “So on everything we have now, the ‘D’ points to him.”
The new Studio 285 is at 2549 Trade Center Drive in Evans, in Carraway Crossing. Visit studio285inc.com or call 706-945-0175. The sisters also have opened up 285 Too in Atlanta as a destination for their Augusta hairstylists to work and train in Atlanta. It’s at 3210 Roswell Road, Atlanta, 30305.