Recession, hair trends cut deep at black women's salons

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By Elizabeth Wellington
Sunday, December 5, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - You would certainly expect black and white women to shop at the same stores, luxuriate in the same spas, even frequent the same makeup counters. And more than five decades after Rosa Parks held on to her bus seat, they do.

But there was one beauty barrier that was never breached: hair salons.

All things being equal, women's hair was not.

Because no one, according to the conventional wisdom, could style a black woman's hair except another African American, salons were the only institutions more segregated than church on Sunday mornings. It's a well-known scene: Black women gather at their beauty parlors for everything from straightening to socializing.

But this last bastion of separation may be going the way of the hot comb. Pushed by a recession-driven shakeout and shifting trends in hair care, the walls are starting to come down.

Walk into Saks Fifth Avenue's salon in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. - historically home to a mostly white, upper-class clientele - and you will see black and white clients getting their hair done by white and black stylists.

There's also an increasing number of black stylists at typically white Center City Philadelphia salons, including Bubbles and Adolf Biecker. And black-owned beauty salons are hiring a more diverse group of stylists.

Of the six stylists at the year-old Ends Hair Design and Day Spa in Northern Liberties, Pa., there are three African Americans, one Asian, one white stylist and one Latina.

Brandy Davila, who is an African American and an owner of the multicultural Salon Tenshi in North Philadelphia, opens her doors to all clients and stylists.

"And I'm finding it's a learning experience for everyone," Davila said. "White clients get to see what goes on with African American hair, and my black clients see that white people's hair isn't as easy to deal with as we think."

This new take on diversity is no small thing. Black women have gone to self-segregated salons not just to get their hair coiffed, but to feel positive - and safe - during their experience. (There's a reason that the latest YouTube sensation of a brown Sesame Street puppet singing "I Love My Hair" has legions of black women talking.)

An economic push

The change to colorblind beauty havens hasn't been a planned one. Salons have been forced to adapt after the sputtering economy closed hundreds of African American salons nationwide and stylists and business owners had to find jobs in mainstream salons.


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