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Did Natural Hair Kill the Black Hair Salon?

painful_perms4blacks“Nobody walks around with nappy hair no more,” a Black sales clerk informs comedian Chris Rock as he attempts to peddle bundles of kinky hair harvested in Detroit and Cleveland. The scene from Rock’s 2009 Good Hair documentary laughably exemplifies the oppressive notions surrounding black hair.

For most of recent history, “good hair” implied straight, silky hair that flowed like Beyonce’s mane in the wind (machine). Textured hair, on the other hand, earned the label “kinky,” which by definition means filled with kinks — flaws or imperfections — as in kinks in a plan.

That was then.

Sure, these notions may never completely die in a society that deifies European beauty ideals, but if Rock were to peddle textured hair in Crenshaw today, he might get a different response.

“Right now the coily textured, tightly coiled hair, which everybody would call 4a, b and c, is the most popular texture because the natural hair movement is in full swing,” says celebrity stylist and natural hair guru Diane Da Costa. Da Costa, who runs the SimpleeBeautiful salon in White Plains, New York, wrote the book on natural hair. Literally. She co-authored the Milady Standard Natural Hair Care and Braiding textbook, one of the preeminent references on natural hair for cosmetology schools,  as well as Textured Tresses: The Ultimate Guide to Maintaining and Styling Natural Hair  (Simon & Schuster).

“Highly textured hair is ‘it’ right now. It’s the hair to have,” she enthused.

Da Costa honed her skills in the leading natural salons in New York City during the ’80s, just as a newly minted Black professional class began to gravitate toward cultural styles.

“Blacks were coming into positions where they had already climbed the ladder and they could truly identify with themselves,” she reflects.

Back then, natural styles were conservative. “Nothing like we are now,” she reflects. “It was either a short, cropped cut or braids.”

The movement was local, largely confined to New York, D.C., and Atlanta — and Brooklyn was, without a doubt, the natural hair mecca.

Over the years, veteran stylists like Da Costa have watched the movement reach its zenith, a moment that coincided with the rise in social media and millennials coming of age.

Unlike the ’60s, this time around, freeing the hair to do as it pleases has less to do with political liberation, and more to do with health, autonomy and personal growth. For millennial women who share hair stories and advice on the Internet, going natural feels like joining a coveted sorority for which the only pledge process is a big chop.

“To see all of this happening, I’m like finally. It’s actually here,” says Da Costa. But oddly enough, the moment she helped create feels like the best of times, and the worst.

As more and more women cut out their perms, they are also cutting ties with their stylists, forgoing cultural legacy to play kitchen beautician. The Black hair salon, long revered as an institution, a safe space for women of color, and the last bastion of the Black beauty industry largely controlled by African-Americans, is rapidly losing its relevance.

“I opened my salon, Dyaspora, in 1996 and I was one of the top natural hair salons in the country. I made so much money because everybody was getting their hair done,” Da Costa recalls. But back in 1996, about a decade shy of the social media revolution that would turn the Black hair care industry on its head, no one in her position could have predicted the future.

“My sales are nowhere near what they should be based on who I am and the expertise I have,” she laments.

There are several cultural forces conspiring to dismantle traditional beauty salons. The greatest might be the Internet, where megasites like “CurlyNikki” and popular YouTube hair gurus help Black women unravel the mysteries of their own hair.

Cosmetic companies, eager to capitalize on the movement, are saturating the market with lotions and potions that promise to define curls and defy frizz. The inundation of products fuels a culture of experimentation and self-professed “product junkies.”

There’s the matter of convenience — daylong visits are anathema to women belonging to the so-called “ADD generation”.

And then, there is a more covert force at play. “The bottom line is they want to save money,” says Da Costa.
The women at the forefront of the movement, millennials, graduated into a recession. Those low starting wages and unemployment spells are likely to compromise their earnings for a lifetime. For this reason, a new crop of salons, operating on a low-price, high-volume business model, present the greatest threat to Black salons.

These are the Dominican salons found throughout African-American neighborhoods that offer wash, set and blow-out services for as little as $25, and the weave bars that install hair extensions at bargain prices.

But Da Costa worries that these attempts to save money in the short term, will cost clients far more in the long term.
“When you do low-price point, the products are inferior. You’re going to get what you pay for and over time, your hair is going to get damaged.”

Da Costa has seen clients forced to transition into natural after years of damage from low-price salons. “Their hair is damaged or their scalp is burnt or their hair is falling out.”

Like all industries in flux, Black hair salons are ripe for disruption.

Entrepreneur Folake Oguntabi recently made headlines for establishing a blow-out bar for natural hair in Manhattan.  SimpleeBeautiful, Da Costa’s salon in White Plains, New York, has a curly texture bar where she also offers blow out services from $45.

Standing appointments and expensive chemical services are becoming increasingly obsolete, but savvy stylists are still finding ways to entice a new generation of clients, often with services that aren’t so easy to D-I-Y, like precision cuts, hair color, weaves and treatments that make at-home care easier.

The future remains dark for stylists with an eye toward the past, those who refuse to acquire the skills required for textured hair. But those willing to embrace the movement are finding tremendous opportunity, whether it’s establishing natural hair care salon in underserved markets, or developing their own product lines.

“When I first started in the business, there were two natural hair companies not African-American owned,” says Da Costa. “Now we have hundreds of companies making natural hair products, doing well.”

The big winners, of course, are Black women. For the first time, cosmetic companies and even cosmetology schools are investing extensively in multicultural hair training and research. In some states, like New York, natural hair stylists require a special license, and 70 percent of all salons have some person specializing in curly textured hair, even if it’s not Black hair, per se.

The Black beauty tradition is changing, but with that change comes the power and wherewithal for women of color to do with their hair as they please.

What people are saying

20 thoughts on “Did Natural Hair Kill the Black Hair Salon?

  1. Donna Boyd says:

    Millienals didn't start the natural hair movement & they are not the only ones sharing hair advice on the Internet. Black women of all ages was either cutting out the relaxer and/or had already been natural, they just may have pressed their hair all before Chris Rock's movie Good Hair came out (nonmillienal Black women have hair videos posted way before 2009).

  2. Carrie Clark says:

    Great response! 9/28/98 is my natural anniversary.

  3. Donna Boyd says:

    Carrie Clark Congratulations. When i was in college (88-93), in 92 had cut my hair into what they now call a TWA, but back then we called it what the guys called it, a fade. There were many of us doing it then & before that time (natural unpressed/pressed hair). I knew of females who had unpressed hair that went down to their behind. We were all about Black consciousness; being holistic; empowerment for Blacks; veganism/vegetarianism, conern for the environment, animals, etc., but when i graduated, I went into the Army, i chickened out, & went back to a relaxer. But now, it's been a three year natural journey for me. So I congratulate you for starting when you did & sticking with it.

  4. Neta Cobb says:

    White folks don't care about our hair texture on a everyday basis, it's "us" with the bias and labeling as in this article which refers to those of us with "tight curly hair" as having "kinky hair" thusly something that is negative.

  5. Hairstylists will have to get on board with the natural movement and showcase styles that a lot of us naturalistas don't have time or the ability to create. Look at actress Teyonnah Paris, the majority of her sensational hairstyles have been created by professionals. Naturalistas will embrace hair stylists that don't comb the living daylights out of our hair and show an apprecation and knowledge of our natural texture rather than suggesting relaxers or hair 'management' solutions.

  6. Didn't know the Black salon was dead. They are still as crowded as ever when I pass by… Either way, I cut my hair 5 years ago and haven't looked back. I had a perm for over 30 years and there is no way I will ever spend 3 hours in a beauty salon getting my hair done ever again…

  7. A lot of women have hair tutorials on youtube. We end up doing our hair ourselves.

  8. Tonya Martin says:

    Here is my two cents….my Aunt didn't complain when black women wanted to get perms back in the 60s and 70s when she was pressing hair in the kitchen! She went to school and learned how to do perms…it's called CONTINUING EDUCATION!!! Don't be skerred to learn something new (yet it's not really new) Here is my prediction for what it's worth…with so many black women going natural, you have salons SAYING they can do natural hair and all they are doing is flat ironing and causing heat damage, which nobody wants to admit to. So they have to start over by doing a big chop or let it grow out and have to deal with the 2 different textures. Then you have salons that may truly be natural charging prices like $75 to do a rod set or $95 to do a twisted updo and lets not forget these braiding spots that charge $175 for kinky twists and they aren't even washing nor conditioning your hair, nor supplying it!!! But to make it worse, there are groups and pages on social media giving out wrong information and you have someone in CA telling someone in AL what he/she should be charging. Really?? People in AL don't live like people in CA so a lot of so-called Professionals need to take BUSINESS 101! THIS is what will make black women go back to the "creamy crack". Professionals are taking advantage of this "fad" they call it and ruining it for people. This is the reason why black women are in their bathrooms doing their own hair, because they don't want to be overcharged and misinformed by "Professionals". And before anyone chimes in, yes I do have a cosmetology license and I've been natural for almost 7 years. Back when I transitioned, there were no manuals, books or products and very few people on YouTube. I had to research what little information was out there and fortunately for me, I received great information from Tanya, the creator of Uncle Funky's Daughter. We as women, and as black people need to stop this public bashing of one another and work together. This whole article made my stomach turn….smh

  9. Tim LeBlanc says:

    IS NATURAL DREALOCKS NO COMB NO SCIZZOR NO RAZOR JUST WASH AND KEEP CLEAN .. A GOOD THING/

  10. Amen…That's all im saying…they say they can work with natural hair and all there doing is damaging it!

  11. You have a lot to learn. Yes it's a great thing when women learn to love anything about themselves without artifice.

  12. Starz Ship says:

    It's cheaper. personnally I can't afford to go the salon and even if i did, there s no way in hell imma pay $50 for a twist-out

  13. I second the amen. I've been natural for over ten years and when I do go to salons, they want to either blow dry the hell out of my hair and then torture it with a flaming hot flat iron, OR charge me $75 for a two strand twist that I can do at home with a better quality product. I would love to go to a salon more and support black owned stylist but I want services catered to me as a natural and I want the stylist to be MORE informed than I am about natural hair. If you ask them to do a rollerset they balk, and if you ask for a deep conditioner they charge you extra and are stingy with products. I'm not just talking about black stylist either. I've tried them all from dominican to mexican to white and noone wants to come out of their comfort zone. What they don't understand is that natural girls LOVE to spend money on services and products that we think are good for our hair! Sell it to me! Get a hair steamer and throw some oils and conditioner together and call it a weekly revitalizing treatment and I'm there every friday..lol What we don't want is, you pushing harsh flat ironing, hot blowdryers, rough combing and pulling of our hair and selling of inferior products. Salons need to revamp and cater to the natural just like the relaxed. You ever been to a deva salon? They wash your hair on a cushioned lounge type chair and are so gentle you want to go to sleep. They whisper how healthy your hair is, and how beautiful your curls are, and you believe every world of it. When the asian (yep asian!) women cuts your curls and then charges you $125, you believe that she is qualified and that your money was well spent BECAUSE she made you feel special and provided knowledge about your natural hair that you hadn't heard before. I went to Decosta website to view her services and what stood out to me were her "smoothing treatments".ie texturizers/relaxers…come on people!

  14. Tonya Martin says:

    Shannon Hester-Jenkins My cosmetology school is incorporating natural hair training now because I'm natural and I told them, they are missing out because just as we are learning to do their hair, they need to learn how to do ours!!

  15. Sarah Allen says:

    7/1997 My big chop date. Don't remember the exact date, just remembered graduating highschool and turning 18. Ok mom, I can do what i want to my hair.

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