This is Texture Talk, a weekly column that deep dives into the dynamic world of curly hair. This week, beauty director Natasha Bruno reveals the maddening lack of salon pros trained to work with textured hair and her hope that change is coming.
I can remember the horrible — and illuminating — experience so vividly. I was in my teens living in my hometown in central Alberta, and my mom had booked me into a local hair salon for a trim. Back then, I was addicted to chemical relaxers — something I continued to religiously apply to my fragile strands well into my 20s until I embraced my natural afro-textured hair — to help make my tight coils more manageable for me to style. Weekly poker-straight blowouts were my thing for years.
Having grown up in a mostly white community, I was accustomed to there not being a Black hair salon anywhere in sight, unless we travelled to a bigger city, and therefore having to basically take my entire hair regimen (yes, even my beloved relaxer) into my own hands — minus the cutting.
Upon entering the salon, I was greeted by a hairstylist who looked downright overwhelmed and like she had absolutely no idea what to do or where to even begin with my coily locks. (It had been a minute since my last relaxer application so I had quite a bit of new growth.) Her first tactic: coming in hard with thinning shears to remove some of my natural volume. I’ve since blocked out the “after” image, but I do recall feeling uncomfortable in my own skin while sitting in her chair and wondering why it was so hard for her — a trained hairdresser — to do something as routine as a trim. It wasn’t like I was asking for a completely new hairstyle.
This is just one of many instances throughout my hair journey and career in beauty that made me realize there’s a dramatic lack of knowledge surrounding curly hair within the industry at a fundamental level — an education gap that disproportionately impacts Black hair. And what’s worse are the negative repercussions that ensue: textured-hair clients dealing with the hassle of a botched cut or being rejected from many salons entirely due to inadequate training; the stereotype that Black hair is unmanageable; and, probably worst of all, the perception that natural Black hair isn’t even a part of true beauty.
My most recent memorable hair encounter was earlier this year. While covering backstage beauty during New York Fashion Week Fall 2020 pre-pandemic, I decided to go for a wash ’n’ go curly hairstyle at a swanky SoHo salon someone had put on my radar. One thing I always have to ask when trying out a new spot is if they have a hairstylist on deck who’s equipped to work with afro-textured hair. I was assured “yes” when booking, but during my one-on-one consultation with my designated stylist, I got an immediate gut feeling that he actually hadn’t been exposed to coily hair much at all. With that appointment being my only opportunity during the trip for a true NYC salon experience, I decided to bite my lip and let him proceed.
I sat down at the sink, and soon there were two sets of hands working on my mane; I realized that my stylist was being helped by one of his female colleagues — a Black hairstylist. Step by step, she was walking him through curly-hair basics: washing, conditioning, detangling and later finger-coiling for ample definition. The whole scenario validated another realization I’ve long held: that the salon industry mostly looks to their hairstylists of colour to service textured-hair clients and that they often have to work twice as hard at perfecting all hair types. There isn’t the same level of expectation for all professional hairdressers. I know that my experiences are far from uncommon, and, to be honest, to this day I’m always surprised when I meet a non-Black hairstylist who is thoroughly knowledgeable about afro hair — like Kevin Mancuso, global creative director at Nexxus.
I will never forget when I first met Mancuso a few years ago at Nexxus’s Tribeca salon during a work trip to New York. The excitement in the veteran hairstylist’s face and voice as he was about to get his hands on my hair was contagious. And as I sat in his chair watching him effortlessly style my coils, from washing to diffusing, I came to learn that Mancuso’s career path as a non-Black hairstylist was a road far less travelled.
The Brooklynite graduated from beauty school in the late ’70s and, unlike many of his fellow classmates who were gunning for über-high-end Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue salons post-graduation, landed in an establishment with a predominantly Black clientele. There he would meet his two longtime mentors, a Jamaican and an African-American stylist, who helped him master chemical relaxers and how to wash, treat, blow-dry and cut afro-textured hair as well as perfect the iconic Jheri curl — a wildly popular shag of chemically altered curls among the Black community during the ’80s. “It wasn’t until six years into my career that I decided I needed to learn geometric haircutting,” he shares. “That’s when I went to Sassoon Salon, which was my first time ever working in a predominantly white salon.”
As Mancuso’s reputation grew in an industry that lacked Black hair professionals as key players in the editorial world, he soon became known among hair brands as one of the few go-to hairstylists in New York who could service Black models and celebrities, gaining famous names like Naomi Campbell, Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan as clients in the process.
With hairstylists not required to have a basic level of Black hair knowledge, the resulting segregation of hair types in salons was unshakable, says Mancuso. “Back then, it was very, very separate,” he recalls. “You either did Black hair or you did straight hair. Most Caucasian stylists thought of Black hair as a completely foreign material; people were really afraid of it. As a Caucasian male in the business, I was an exception to the rule.” Sadly, that racial segregation is still all too common in salons around the world today.
Textured-hair expert and celebrity stylist Stacey Ciceron is passionate about addressing trained hairstylists’ trepidation surrounding coily hair — one of the biggest driving forces behind Black hair being abandoned by the mainstream. “There’s a lot of stigma around working with highly textured hair,” she says. “Stylists are afraid that they can’t get the result they’re looking for. They’re afraid that it may take too much time. They’re afraid they may just disappoint clients.”
It’s these issues that led Ciceron to carve out a unique space in the hair industry by developing online and in-person textured-hair courses for professional hairstylists — an initiative that has since earned the New York-based expert the title of brand ambassador and trainer for big-name hair-care brands such as Oribe.
Ciceron’s courses focus on building a strong basic-level foundation for working with curly hair: knowing the different hair types, detangling, wet styling, cutting. “My biggest goal is to do whatever it takes to build up stylists’ confidence so that they can start taking clients with highly textured hair,” she says. And amid the recent racial unrest, demand for her online classes among non-Black hairstylists has boomed. “It’s been overwhelming,” says Ciceron. “The Black Lives Matter movement has opened a lot of eyes.”
Montreal-based stylist and salon owner Nancy Falaise says it best: “Ignorance is racism.” The Canadian pro has also taken matters into her own hands surrounding the deep-rooted erasure of Black and textured hair in beauty education: She offers workshops for hairdressers based out of her eponymous salon, which specializes in curls.
Through her local workshops and teaching internationally, Falaise is on a mission to challenge and correct the infuriating issue of ill-trained hairdressers — so much so that she is petitioning to mandate curly-hair education in Quebec beauty schools. “I saw that there was a woman in Toronto who started a petition, and I was like, ‘This is a sign that I have to do the same thing for Quebec,’” she says.
With industry experts working hard to push the hairstyling industry forward while also demanding for a complete overhaul at the school level, it’s beginning to feel like the trickle effect is slowly but surely taking shape. Case in point: Vancouver-based beauty school Blanche Macdonald Centre recently expanded its hair curriculum by introducing a textured-hair module. “It’s mandatory,” says Crystal Morgan, a textured-hair and extensions and wigs instructor at the school. “We really go into depth: the proper ways to cut, the right products to recommend to clients, natural hairstyling. We even get into dreadlocks.”
Oh, how I await the day when I can finally stop asking salons if they’re skilled at managing my hair texture. Here’s hoping that day comes soon.