The hours-long struggles with one’s afro is a thing of the past, thanks to Black hair pioneers like Charlotte Mensah. Having run her own London-based business Hair Lounge for over 20 years, the British-Ghanaian entrepreneur is a renowned stylist with an acclaimed list of clients that includes Zadie Smith, Janelle Monaé, and Michaela Coel, among others. Being the first African woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Hall of Fame in 2017, her strong will, intentional planning, and determination mark her as one of our generation's defining hair styling leaders.
Although Mensah has done a lot to move the needle on Black hair education over the years, the struggle still remains for parts of the industry that have not been as quick to adapt to the changing tides. Fashion month in September 2022 revealed how bad this situation is behind the scenes. Highsnobiety reported that model Taylor Larzo had no choice but to shave her head due to the damage from excessive heat, and model Raven Schexnayder was subjected to baby powder poured over her head “because [the hairstylist] thought it was too oily and then fried it with a blow dryer.” With these stories and more coming to the fore, Mensah highlights the need for constant learning in these spaces. “I believe that education is key because once you’re confident about the hair that sits in your chair, you’ll be able to win that client and they’ll have a better experience.”
Charlotte Mensah poses for portraits featured in the Financial Times lifestyle magazine, How To Spend It. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
Fashion and Beauty need a new Face
Textured hair has remained a political and sensitive subject for some years, partly due to the lack of diversity in the industry itself. The tide started turning when the demands for black representation on magazine covers, campaign imagery, and catwalks grew louder. This was seemingly exacerbated by the #supportblackbusinesses movement seen on social media across the United States shortly after the pandemic began. For a while, it appeared as if things were getting better. In 2020, Valentino staged its haute couture show in which 43 out of the 65 models were Black, cast intentionally to highlight the need for diverse representation in high fashion.
But even with such a statement, accounts of the mistreatment of coily locks remain consistent. In suggesting solutions to this problem, Charlotte remarks, “we need to fill the gap by making sure that everyone who calls themselves a hairdresser can do Black hair… Wherever you’re from, if you want to work with textured hair, you need to learn what the hair needs, what tools it needs, and also offer it in your salons. Don’t just do it at the shows. Have something on your menus and windows that says ‘we do Afro hair’ so when the clients with textured hair walk past, they can see that the salon is offering these services.”
Education as a means to change
With a solid commitment to not only helping the Black diaspora maintain their manes or even bringing back to life damaged hair, she shares the knowledge she’s acquired over two decades with her book titled ‘Good Hair,’ which can be regarded as a holy hair grail for the African community. Having written it over 18 months, it includes hair tips and tricks, tutorials on different styles, and a concise history of Black hair you can revisit time and time again.
“I feel like the key to learning to really look after your hair and making it look the best it can possibly look, is to maintain it properly with the right tools, the right products, education, and acceptance. We need to accept that this is my God-given texture, and I love it, and I’m rocking it with 100 percent confidence,” says Mensah.
The shift from seeing one's curls as ‘difficult’ to seeing them as beautiful can be attributed to multiple factors. One is seeking more knowledge, and using the immense variety of products available in the market is another.
One of Charlotte's clients, founder of Pattern Beauty, Tracee Ellis Ross, with hair done by the hairstylist. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
Charlotte Mensah's book, Good Hair. Photo: via Sithasolwazi Kentane
A hairstylist at Hair Lounge busy with a client. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
Charlotte poses for portraits featured in the Financial Times lifestyle magazine, How To Spend It. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
A Seat at the Table
Over the last decade, many Black celebrity-owned and run beauty businesses have come to the forefront, solving numerous consumer issues around the availability of Black hair products. Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross, Flawless by Gabrielle Union, and TPH by Taraji P. Henson are just a few. After a development process that took six years, Mensah decided to have a go at creating her own hair-care range, with the hero product being the Manketti oil from the Mongongo tree nut, predominantly used in the Namibian Serengeti.
Intentionally creating a unisex brand, she envisioned her entire family using the products. “I wanted it to be aesthetically beautiful because I didn't think we had product for afro-textured hair that was premium. Everything looked quite corporate and was owned by Europeans. In America, you had a few, but it still wasn’t premium… It was just not cool,” she says, highlighting the gaps she saw before launching another business. This was a way for her to restore dignity to her community after years of racial prejudice.
Making space for the future
After a long history of misinformation and bias against Black hair in the fashion and beauty fields, Mensah’s work speaks to the celebration of Black societies, empowering them to take better care of themselves through fail-safe techniques and philosophies. In addition, she also highlights the importance of equalizing the playing field, which, much like other industries, has been dominated by white males.
What is most important to her is to keep a good sense of community and always to empower future generations, as change allows for more room at the table for groups that have been previously discriminated against. “I'm so happy to see natural hair being celebrated. I feel like there's so much more to come. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we’re getting there. I think the next generation is going to be so explosive because they’re speaking out, and they’re going for what they want, so we need to support and always stay connected.”
Afro picks, combs, brushes, and shampoo available for sale online. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
The best-selling Manektti Hair Oil. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
Hair care products from Charlotte's Manketti Oil range. Photo: via @charlottemensah.
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