There are few things in life that are certain. One of those things is how a day at the hair or nail salon can make a woman feel, especially if she’s black.
Nowhere is the business of hair as lucrative as in the black community.
Let me run some stats by you.
Mintel Group Ltd., a market research company based in London but with offices all over the world, including New York, released its annual “Black Consumers and Haircare – US – 2015” report last month. In it, the company notes that the current market value of black haircare products is $2.7 billion. Not included in Mintel’s market valuation are wigs, hairpieces, hair extensions, weaves and hair styling appliances, so you can image how the market value would balloon with the addition of those items in the study.
Mintel also reports that despite an economic recession in the United States, between 2009 and 2014, market value for black haircare increased 12 per cent, and they project that sales could grow to $4 billion by 2020.
That speaks volumes about how black women care about their hair – an issue, in fact, that comedian Chris Rock addressed in his 2009 movie “Good Hair.”
I realized the impact that not having access to hair products – or makeup, for that matter – for women of color had on my life when I moved to Austria six years ago. I was devastated when I was unable to find perms, gels and good old grease, and stylists who could do black hair.
So, I did the only thing I could think of: I called the Embassy of the Dominican Republic.
Over the past two decades, Dominican women in the United States have made a name for themselves for their roller set and blowout (blowdry) abilities and, of course, their amazingly low prices. The rumor that follows them is that they also “help your hair to grow.”
Because of all of this, the man at the embassy in Vienna wasn’t so shocked when I asked in perfect American English, “Um, I am calling with a very strange request. I am wondering if there is a woman in your office who can provide me with the name of a Dominican hairdresser here in Vienna.” No problem, the man on the other end of the line responded.
After six years, Haideli and I became good friends, even though I barely spoke any Spanish or German and she spoke no English. She did not work in a salon, so she came to me, equipment in tow.
Nearly every Saturday she would trek to my apartment in the 6th district for a wash, set and blowout and she became a part of my small family of friends in Austria. I was there to cheer her on when her young son and daughter arrived from the Dominican Republic to take up residence. I greeted her at the door with a bottle of wine and a card filled with Euros when it was her birthday. She cheered me on when I took Spanish classes. She became a part of my life, and our common language each week was music.
In my world, all of my hairdressers are Dominican. There are five of them and they keep me sane and fashionable.
As an expat, whenever I traveled to the U.S., planning ahead, my assistant would schedule an appointment with my Dominican hairdressers in New York; Washington, D.C.; Miami; or The Bahamas.
In New York, Nelly, owner of Annabelle Hair Salon, embraced me from the start. She would begin with a hug, a kiss and an insult. “You have been walking around New York with that gray? Sit down, girl.” I tried things with her that I had not with any of my other stylists. Maybe it was the allure and sense of freedom that New York gives its visitors. Whatever the reason, I always left in a rush and feeling fabulous.
In Washington, D.C., Gisela, who had done my hair at Giovani Hair Salon since my college days at Howard University on through my time as Washington Bureau Chief for The Detroit News, would pick up right where we left off. As before, I was always the first or second appointment. Today when we are together we play catch-up: How her daughter has married and she has become a grandmother, how business has tapered off slightly because of the “Happy to Be Nappy Movement,” the increase in the salon’s prices, and how I manage to get my hair done in Austria.
Elena, owner of Whispers Hair Salon in Nassau, The Bahamas, is so popular as one of the few Dominican stylists in The Bahamas that in short order she was able to leave a well-known hair salon and spa to open her own business with her sister. Today she is thriving and just as determined to please her customers as she was that day six years ago when she did my hair for my wedding.
Rafaella, at New Trends Salon & Spa in Pembroke Pines, has known my family for more than a decade. She did my sister’s hair for her wedding and recently took me to new heights with a bold haircut and inspirational words about embracing my own style. Yet, she is perplexed by the rush to natural hair without research and a plan to keep it “tame,” she shrugs her shoulders and says through a smooth Spanish accent, “I no understand.”
But I do understand the natural hair craze. Many of my sister-friends have embraced the natural look with afros, twists, braids, loose curls, dreadlocks and old-fashioned press and curls. I understand their desire to be free from the pressure of straightening and, for some, the idea that you are only beautiful if you have so-called “good hair.”
The natural hair movement, in fact, is a significant reason for the growth in black haircare products in recent years.
As for me, nothing feels as good as a good hair-do, and, in my case, hair obsession has come with an added benefit: Five wonderful, diverse and loving women that I have come to adore from Europe to the Caribbean to the United States.
Alison Bethel McKenzie email@example.com is a veteran newspaper editor and former executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, Austria.