Roots and revenue: the popularity of natural hairstyles is lucrative for local salons

Straightening kinky hair without using chemicals has been a staple at Natural Motion Salon since it opened in 1967. But back then, most women who ventured into the Petworth beauty parlor opted for permanent processing, or perms, to subdue spirited locks.

That has changed.

Co-owner Whitney Nolan estimates 85 percent of the 200 clients who visit the salon each week come for natural hairstyles. And not just a blow-out, but also the two-strand twists, braiding and dreadlock styles the salon has added to its repertoire over the years.

“Five years ago, everyone was into perms, but there’s definitely been a shift towards natural hair,” said Nolan, whose mother, Liz, started the salon. “We still do relaxers, but not as often as before.”

A growing number of salons in the Washington area, like Natural Motion, are reporting higher revenue from styling black hair that is not chemically altered. The popularity of natural hairstyles has spawned a crop of specialty beauty parlors throughout the region, and shifted the economic balance of the $185 million black hair-care market.

Sales of chemical straighteners, for instance, tumbled 12.4 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to market research firm Mintel. The number of black women who say they no longer relax their hair climbed to 36 percent last year, a 10 percent hike from 2010.

There are new products that minimize breakage as hair transitions from chemically straightened back to kinky, said Geri Duncan Jones, executive director of American Health & Beauty Aids Institute, a trade association.

“Savvy African-American product manufacturers have added natural hair care products to their offering to meet the great demand of this trend, which will be in existence for many years to come,” he said. “Natural hair care products are the fastest growing category in ethnic hair care.”

A return to roots

African-American women embraced natural hair en masse during the Black Pride Movement of the 1970s, when wearing Afros or cornrows had great political significance. Times changed, and many women returned to having their hair permed.

“Over the years, we have been doing such aggressive hairstyling in our community that a lot of our women are losing their hair. It’s a combination of the chemicals, the product, the heat,” said Stephanie Johnson, owner of the Hair Care Co. in Camp Springs. “A lot of women are thinking, ‘Maybe if I leave the chemicals alone, maybe my hair will get thicker.’”

Relaxers, comprised of sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide or lye, can damage hair follicles over time. Inhaling the concoction, as Johnson pointed out, can also be toxic for the stylist applying it to a client’s roots.

Hairdressers withstand the fumes for the payday that comes with the service, which in this area can run anywhere from $70 to $150 per head.

By comparison, “thermal texturizing”— fancy talk for the blow-drying and flat-ironing involved in a press and curl— typically starts at $60.

“There is definitely more money to be made with relaxed hair, but a smart stylist and educated consumer with natural hair won’t shy away from being a regular customer either,” said Bill Lawrence, owner of a namesake salon in Adams Morgan.

Stylists often recommend clients with blown-out hair return every two weeks to maintain the bouncy ’do, which ups the earning potential.

In Johnson’s case, sales from natural hair services are on par with revenue from relaxers because of the maintenance involved in thermal texturizing. In addition to the base service, she charges $20 for periodic deep conditioning to retain moisture. Natural hair services account for 40 percent of her business. And business has been good. Total sales at the Hair Care Co. grew 23 percent to $160,000 in 2011.

The six stylists at Jaha’s Studio in Silver Spring will smooth out kinky crowns, but owner Susan Peterkin-Bishop said there’s good money in twisting, braiding and locking curly tresses. Locks — the preferred term among enthusiasts who stress there is nothing “dreadful” about dreadlocks — can cost $60 to $100 to start, and $45 to $70 to maintain.

Business at Jaha’s suffered in the past year as cash-strapped clients cut back on services, bringing sales down from an estimated $600,000 in 2010 to $400,000 in 2011. Not the revenue Peterkin-Bishop was banking on, but a decent payoff nonetheless.

Professional training

When she opened her shop in 1996, Peterkin-Bishop said there were barely a handful of area salons that only styled natural hair. That gave Jaha’s a steady flow of 250 customers a week, if not more. Now,“you have a lot more salons popping up and people doing natural hair in their homes,” she said.

Peterkin-Bishop welcomes the competition, but would like to see a regionwide adoption of licensing regulations.

Neither Maryland nor the District requires hairdressers to go through training or testing to style natural hair in a salon, as is the law in 12 states, including Virginia. Opponents of regulation argue it will stifle entrepreneurs operating out of their homes.

“Yes, someone doing hair on the side may be naturally talented at styling, but the question is: Are they knowledgeable about the care of the hair and scalp?” said Peterkin-Bishop, who is licensed in New York to work with natural hair.

“The safety of the clients who patronize the business” is paramount and “regulation lends legitimacy” to the niche practice, she said. Stylists at Jaha’s must complete three to six months of in-house training.

There are a number of classes on working with natural hair texture offered by community colleges and hair-care companies. Bo Bogard, a D.C. stylist at Salon Lynne in Logan Circle, is an educator for hair care manufacturer Mizani, which offers workshops on using its products on natural hair. Much of the work, he said, is helping hairdressers understand the nature of black hair.

“When stylists understand the hair type, we can teach the client what their hair is in need of and can do,” he said. “A lot of salons are revamping their business to meet the demand — stylists that weren’t doing natural hair are learning or salons are hiring people with the speciality.”

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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