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

By Elizabeth Wellington
Sunday, December 5, 2010; A06

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.

"African American salons suffered a lot during the last couple of years due to the troubled economy," said Geri Duncan Jones, executive director of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, a Chicago-based national trade association that represents the ethnic beauty industry.

"There has also been decreased business due to drastic changes in hairstyle trends [as more black women opt for] virgin hair weaves, braids, natural hair and wigs."

These changes - forgoing chemical processes or wearing weaves and lace-front wigs - mean that black salons no longer corner the market in black hair care. In fact, anyone can get that straight, full-bodied look by going to multicultural salons.

Yet even with the decrease in needed maintenance, black women tend to be more regimented about their hair care: While the most particular white woman may visit her hairstylist every six weeks, most black women go every two weeks. Some have a weekly standing appointment.

It's no wonder that black hair-care products are expected to generate $154 million this year, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based research marketing firm.

Seline Braswell, a black stylist, catered mostly to black clientele for the 12 years she owned Vivid Hair Salon and Seline Hair Designs in Center City Philadelphia; in a good year, her gross sales were $500,000. Then in 2008, she noticed that her twice-a-month regulars were stretching out their appointments, coming only once a month. Some came only when they needed relaxers.

"The recession was very hard on us," Braswell said. "Not to mention people didn't want to pay for parking downtown."

So Braswell got a job at Saks Fifth Avenue - she wasn't the first black stylist at the salon, but there were none when she applied - and soon enough, her 500 regular clients followed, giving Saks a welcome boost in business. In addition, Braswell brought with her two stylists and two assistants. That meant an infusion of more than 1,000 new clients, most of them African American.

Sarah Baker, then-manager of Saks Salon, said it was going to recruit more black stylists.

'Erasing culture'

For black women who want their hair visit to be a quick one, this is good news. The all-day stay that's often mandatory in an African American salon is a luxury many black working women can no longer afford.

But some think that the barrier-breaking salons will not only remove money from the African American community, but also rob black women of a cultural experience.

It's the same argument often made about historically black colleges. Sure, students at a diverse school - or clients at a salon - may have expanded opportunities and more resources, but they are likely to miss out on experiences that are special to their culture. Certainly, they won't be in an environment that caters solely to their unique needs. Outside a black salon, women might miss getting the latest DVDs or fish dinners from vendors who stop by. And where else might they have a safe place to talk about issues that matter to them?

"You are erasing culture, you are erasing history and you are erasing a way African Americans have socialized with each other for decades," said Charles Gallagher, a white professor of sociology, criminal justice and social work at La Salle University.

"These J.C. Penneys and Saks are culturally spaceless. You don't learn about culture, gender or experience, and the lessons about the politics of the community, that's all gone."

White stylists and black clients might be a recent pairing, but for the past five years, black women have patronized Dominicans to have their hair blown straight or styled into a bouncy bob.

"Spanish people have traditionally done people with all textures of hair," said Jason Tavares, who for years was a stylist at the salon in the Bellevue in Philadelphia before it closed recently. Now Tavares travels between Miami and Philadelphia. On this day, he was painting highlights onto the hair of Jennie Dellinger, who is white.

"Because we have such mixed backgrounds," Tavares said, "we aren't afraid of the different textures of hair."

Salon Tenshi's clientele comprises blacks (half), Latinas (one-quarter) and whites. Owner Davila said she offers steam treatments for breakage and dryness and keratin treatments that straighten all hair types.

"What's really uniting people is the look," Davila said. "If you can look past the complexion of the client, for the most part, the technique is the same."

- Philadelphia Inquirer

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