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Bringing flair to natural hair

TOWERING TRESSES: Vernon Francois created actress Lupita Nyongo’s unforgettable hairdo for the 2016 Met Gala Ball

WHO KNEW you could blowdry afro hair without the pik comb attachment? Certainly not me.

My DIY hair routine sees me give my ‘fro a wash and condition, before giving it the obligatory blast from the blowdryer, with the trusty comb attached at the end to work it’s way through my tangled tresses.

It’s a pretty standard practice for many black women, whether we do our hair ourselves, or entrust our crowning glory to our local hairdresser.

Many of us are equally well-versed with some of the woes of black hair salon experiences: Turning up on time for your appointment to discover the hairdresser has two other clients ahead of you; having your stylist stop doing your hair to fit in another client who’s just walked in; or feeling the frustration when a simple wash and dry takes up your whole day. These are just a few of the dramas that have even been immortalised with the social media hashtag #blacksalonproblems.

Vernon François is changing the game. In between styling the likes of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and The Waking Dead actress Danai Gurira; working from his London-based salon; and dishing out a host of top tips and tutorials via social media, the British stylist has also found time to create his own brand of products, specifically designed for textured hair.

A man who is undoubtedly on a mission, François is keen to debunk myths about black hair – as I discovered when the celebrity stylist treated me to my very own makeover.

Using products from his new, self-titled Vernon François Collection, which includes a shampoo, conditioner, moisture spray and styling serum, the Huddersfield-born hairdresser washed, conditioned and blowdried my hair – without the pik comb attachment – and it was all done in under an hour.

Sitting in his Soho-based salon, I noted how quickly he worked. “I ain’t got time to waste,” François retorted, as he finished my sleek new look with his Dazz Ling Spritz shine spray.


SWITCHING IT UP: Life & Style editor Davina Hamilton with her pre-makeover afro

Recognising some of the frustrating practices many women have become accustomed to as part of the black salon experience, François thinks that many of us have been conditioned (pardon the pun) into thinking that a high-end salon experience isn’t for us.

“Your experience today proved that you can get an amazing look and it doesn’t have to take hours,” François says. “But there has often been a lack of opportunity for stylists like myself to prove that his type of service is available, so a lot of consumers don’t think it exists. Or, they think this type of service isn’t for them. It’s almost like cultural appropriation within ourselves, in that we’ve come to accept certain practices, and almost convinced ourselves that we don’t belong in certain spaces.

“That’s why I don’t work in certain areas in London and why I don’t use the pik for blowdrying, because they’re the standard practices that we’ve become accustomed to. But once you’re exposed to different things, you see how incredible these things can be.”

Born to a Jamaican mother and Grenadian father, François’ styling journey began in his childhood years, after he decided he could no longer put up with the tedious task of getting his hair plaited by his mother.

“I was around eight years old,” he recalls. “I remember mum would make Sunday dinner and the other part of the Sunday routine was me and my siblings getting our hair done. Each of us would have our turn to sit between mum’s legs and have her rake the comb through our hair to divide it into four sections and create four big doo-doo plaits, as we call them!
“We’d then have our Sunday dinner, while our hair dried, then after that, we’d get our hair plaited. I just remember my mum, my hair and the comb having a very heated conversation! And my eyes would be watering. So one day, I told my mum how unhappy I was about getting my hair done, and she said, ‘If you don’t like it, do it yourself!’ I was like, ‘Ok!’ So that’s how the journey started.”

The budding stylist soon began braiding anything he could get his hands on.

“The fringing on the carpet, the mop head – I would braid anything that had strings or tassels hanging from it. I really got immersed into that creative space where I would think, how can I manipulate the texture of this thing to create something great? That was like my Eureka moment and I think that having those moments as a child can really be the start of a journey that can lead you through life.

“From there, I started doing my own hair, I did my mum’s hair, I did the next door neighbour’s hair, I did doll’s hair – any hair I could get my hands on!”

Having embarked on his journey as a child, François is now passionate about educating and empowering youngsters about their hair.

Despite the growth of the natural hair movement, many children with afro hair still feel insecurities when comparing their image with that of their peers, who have silky straight tresses. In an attempt to encourage those with textured hair to embrace their “natural genetic gift,” Francois runs an academy to teach people – including children – how to care for their hair.

“I’m self-taught so I’m very hands-on with what I do. So when I have young girls coming to the academy, who have issues about their hair – perhaps because their hair doesn’t do the things that friends’ hair does – I try to find out why they feel the way they do. I’ll then ask, ‘Have you thought about this?’ and I do it in a tone of voice that makes the possibilities sound really exciting.

“These are the things that kids are really attracted to, rather than the negative notions attached with our hair experience, like, ‘keep still, stop flinching,’ while the comb is being dragged through your scalp. These are the habits that parents develop and they often don’t realise what a negative experience that can be for the child, and how it can affect the child emotionally.

“So I really try to talk to children and engage with them about how amazing their hair can be. And in turn, that’s helped a lot of parents realise how they can help their children by taking a more positive approach when it comes to doing their hair.”


TRANSFORMATION: Davina sporting her new look, courtesy of Francois

Splitting his time between London, New York and Los Angeles, François has racked up many column inches thanks to his work with his celebrity clients.

Among his many hair creations is the towering textured hair sculpture he created for Hollywood star Lupita Nyong’o, when she attended this year’s Met Gala ball in New York.

“The Met Gala one…that [style] created a lot of interesting conversations on social media,” Francois laughs.

“Lupita is 100 per cent involved in making sure that her hair texture is always at the forefront of whatever styles we do. And in our conversations, we constantly reference images from all around the world, especially from Africa.

“So that creation was just me saying, ‘Ok, this is the Met Gala, this is art, so let’s create a moment!’ I prepped and prepped the night before, then I turned up and told her ‘this is what we’re doing’ and she was like, ‘let’s do it!’”

With his focus now fixed on his new product range, what are François’ long term hopes for the collection?

“I’d like the brand to get to a place that no matter who you are or where you come from, you’ll be able to access the products and know that this brand is able to make you feel great about your texture. That’s what I’d love.”

For more information on the Vernon François Collection, visit www.vernonfrancois.com

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