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It was New York Fashion Week, and Brandee Brown was just beginning her runway career. (You may now know her as an NYC It Girl, and a former campaign model for DKNY.) She arrived at her call time for her second show of the season, and it was a typical scene. Two hairstylists immediately got to work on her. The style was "wet look," and the pros began deliberating.
"They started picking at my hair like little monkeys, lifting it up and examining it like it was out of this world," Brandee says with a laugh. It's worth noting that Brandee, who normally wears her hair curly, had just received a blowout for a runway appearance the previous day.
After some discussion, one of the stylists grabbed a spray bottle and pointed it at Brandee's head. "It’s going to curl up if you do that," she warned. But, he didn't listen, and began to drench her hair. "After that, I just zoned out."
"To show up as a hairstylist and not know how to work with Black hair—how is that professional?"
Almost 45 minutes later, Brandee looked up from her phone and glanced in the mirror, at the models sitting next to her, and then back at her reflection. "I turned to the side, and my hair was literally sticking straight out in the back of my head. It looked like I was in a wind tunnel," she says.
She walked toward the makeup department, visibly upset. "I didn’t want to complain, you know? But, I just hoped my facial expression might give people a hint." Lo and behold, someone noticed: The key makeup artist stopped mid-interview with a group of editors, grabbed her, and asked if she had had her hair done.
When she nodded yes, he rolled his eyes. "It looks like you stuck your finger in an electrical socket." He promptly marched her over to the lead hairstylist. What happened next was, unfortunately, another very typical backstage scene: "There were 20 hands on my head at once," she says. "They were pulling my head this way and that with flat irons and blowdryers…I didn't even know I had that much hair on my head. And, here we are, right before the show's about to start, and all the other girls are laughing and talking to each other and taking pictures."
Thankfully, Brandee says, she's a native New Yorker with a tough skin. "On shoots and at shows, people will make comments about my hair, and I'll just shrug it off," she says. "But, I'm beginning to realize that this isn't conducive to fixing the problem."
Fixing it means examining it on more than one level—including from the perspective of professionalism. "If you're hired for a job, you expect everyone to be on-point," Brandee says. "They show up, know what they're doing, and stay focused. That's why they're working; that's their specialty. So, to show up as a hairstylist and not know how to work with Black hair—how is that professional?"
"It's like, they don't even know the potential of this hair."
Session stylists, as they're called, rarely get to work with textured hair. Brandee points out that, in a season of 60 fashion shows, she's often the one head of naturally curly hair a stylist deals with, and that's about all the practice they get. I am friends with one such stylist, who receives phone calls asking if she "can do Black hair" prior to being confirmed for a job. Outside of session styling, in the salon world, there's also a lack of education. In fact, in the state of New York, this phenomenon has prompted a petition to start a separate license for styling and braiding natural hair.
All of this puts the burden on the model to do her own hair, while the other girls get professional 'dos. Brandee sometimes comes to jobs equipped with an arsenal of her own products. "I'll show up on set, and the stylist will get nervous and say, 'Perfect, your curls are great. Leave them.' Meanwhile, I had just taken my hat off and hadn't washed my hair in days. It's like, they don't even know the potential of this hair—of how it can look good and be styled."
Before shows, she's started booking appointments at her favorite salon so she doesn't have to deal with on-set awkwardness. Or, worse: looking subpar in the photos, and thus risking not being booked again. Once, she even showed up with her own hairstylist, just to prove what her hair could do. "I need to feel confidence and personality in order to get the photo."
There's a bigger issue here. Fashion rarely shows natural hair—even when the stylists wax poetic about "enhancing the girls' natural texture." Season after season, the look has been mid-length to long, with no volume at the crown and a slight bend. You’ve seen it at Alexander Wang, Isabel Marant, Balmain, Louis Vuitton, and others. It has been exhaustively called "cool-girl hair," and even "natural." Stylists say it was inspired by Kate Moss, or "the models, as they came in for the casting." This is what's chic, they (and, let's be honest, we) say, holding it up as the answer to overly styled, Pinterest-intricate manes and Kardashian-esque banana curls. Just two days ago, we were backstage at one of the most important shows of the season listening to a well-respected hairstylist talk about the "dream hair" of Daria Werbowy and Freja Beha Erichsen, proffering them as goddesses of mane attraction.
This begs the question: Whose dream are we talking about? And, are we aware that, as followers and arbiters of fashion, we dictate what's "stylish," and, thus, "aspirational?" Do we realize that as we conceptualize, style, or report on these looks, we're leaving countless women out of this "dream?"
"There's a pressure among Black models to be relaxed," Brandee says. The reason to show up with relaxed hair or a weave is partly practical: You can either have the same hair as everybody else...or you could be different. And, when the odds are pretty good that you'll be one of a handful of non-white girls backstage, it can make sense to minimize the attention you draw to yourself.
That's exactly what's so unfortunate about the situation. As long as the shows continue to dictate the trends, and we continue to hold up one beauty standard above all, we're only accelerating the vicious cycle. "It would just be cool to see an editorial in a major fashion magazine with kinky, curly hair," Brandee says. "If you're a jeweler, do you only work with one cut of diamond? Everything needs to be represented, not just a certain kind of Black beauty."