Thandie and I often discuss a particular type of large hair and beauty supply store, usually Asian-run, that seem to be found on the perimeters of most city centres in many of the countries we visit. They’re the jam-packed, no-nonsense kind, with ranges of hair and beauty goods designed especially for ethnic communities who are presently not catered to within high street chemists/drugstores like Boots (in the UK) or Duane Reed and CVS (in the U.S). It’s not ‘experience’ shopping, it’s about necessities and getting what works. The only customer service needed is someone telling you which aisle has what you’re looking for and if it’s on the left or right.
Naturally, they are usually found within areas where there is a high ethnic population, in fact Thandie & I live a short drive away from one of our favourites in Harlesden called PAK.
The largest community of West Indian, Asian and African people in London, however is in Brixton, so along I went with my friend Nicola, to a shop she regularly goes to, called Catwalk on Atlantic Road.
There’s nothing fancy about these stores lined with never-ending, US-style aisles, but they serve an important purpose and are a thriving industry that take many people from the cradle, all the way through their hairdressing phases and ultimately to the effects of age on the hair and skin.
We all love Boots but the huge population of black and Asian women are not shopping there, and they are not supplying products for their needs, and whichever way around that dynamic is happening, the reality is that the market for beauty is still divided. It’s only a matter of time (I’m seeing baby marketing steps) that these women, along with the largest growing minority in the UK- the mixed race population- will soon find their conditioners, electrical tools, hairpieces and skincare and make-up all filtering happily into the high street. It’s simple, good old fashioned economics.
But these stores are a beauty Mecca for all women, and especially professionals-I mean where else can I stock up on individual eyelashes at 7pm at night on a Sunday when I have an actress’s premiere to do the next day, buy myself clip-in hairpieces (thank you Thandie for introducing me to a whole new world of fabulousness), buy handfuls of hair ties, a bucket-load of hairpins in ALL forms, pure Shea Butter, Iman Cosmetics or pro-hair brands like Phyto…the list is endless.
The Culture of Hair
Whilst we all ‘girl-cooed’ over our limitless hairstyle possibilities, Nicola took me down a veritable memory lane of beauty products from her childhood. I sensed that there was an almost emotional connection with many of these products, memories of her mother taking care of her via her hair…
The time and thought that black hair takes to prepare before the hairstyle has even begun- is a whole story that straight-haired, ‘wash ‘n go’ people are blissfully unaware of. This kind of hair means you’d best learn to be your very own pro-stylist. It’s no wonder Thandie got so good at doing her own during years on set, as so few hairdressers without ‘the black hair knowledge’ know how to prep, style or know the right products that condition and style it.
Ultimately, understanding your own hair means having the freedom to enjoy doing many things with it, from Afro to the straightest blonde, there is so much beautiful potential.
Hair is a ritual and a whole culture within the black community. For any of us with even a hint of Sub-Saharan African blood, ‘wash ‘n go’ is simply not an option.
‘What lovely hair you have’ people might kindly say to me when it’s been done enough for a hair-down moment. Little do they know how much trial, error and product ‘bespokery’ goes into my high maintenance hair. But to be fair, apart from my post blow-dry fear of rainfall and the diary-worthy time consumption that my tresses devour, it’s not been so hard. I say this because when I was a child I used to watch my Jamaican friends endure their weekly hot comb/Dax Pomade and cane row routine (in West London’s West Indian community it was called ‘cane’ nor ‘corn’ row) that only lasted the week and longer if it was rather painfully plaited. So I guess my (caucasion) mother cutting off my hair to Starsky (as in Hutch) -style curls made sense.
“Once your hair was washed, that’s when the trouble started”
said Nicola of her childhood hair routine. “My mother would always talk me through what she was doing, and when she was doing it. She said ‘this is what you need to know, when you start doing your hair’ and I still do exactly what she did at the stages that she did. Some cultures pass down recipes, the black community inherit the knowledge of how to take care of their hair, it’s part of growing up, I don’t know any black girls who were not taught how to take care of their hair.”
So thank heavens for the Paks, Catwalks, and all of the excellent places that Thandie mentions in her post here for supplying women of colour with the products and the tools to take care of their precious hair and skin.
All pictures above taken at Catwalk, Atlantic Road Brixton, London SW9 8LJ
Thank You Nicola St Louis!
And thanks to Jackie Dixon for the fabulous photography.