In recent years, young Black British women have moved away from traditional hair salons as their go-to place for hairdressing services.
Some have opted for at-home DIY wash days, heavily influenced and encouraged by the resurgence of the natural hair movement. Others have chosen Instagram hair stylists. This aptly-coined group of mainly self-taught stylists, has three main advantages: they are up to date with trends, easy to book, and can be cheaper than some of the swisher salons about town.
"The foundation of the relationships I have with my clients is the trust they give me with their natural hair and their stories too"
"The foundation of the relationships I have with my clients is the trust they give me with their natural hair and their stories too."
Princess, natural hair care expert and founder of SoPressed London, is one such Instagram stylist. She took the traditional hairdressing route — attending college to gain NVQs in hairdressing, then shadowing in salons, gaining experience and learning from head stylists — before starting out on her own in 2019.
While a lot of Princess' clients find her on Instagram and other social media, it isn't social media recognition or visibility that keep them returning. "I let my clients know that our collaborative partnership is needed in order for all parties to be happy," she tells me, "The foundation of the relationships I have with my clients is the trust they give me with their natural hair and their stories too." By 'stories' she means the knowledge (and the weight) of the stories that our hair tells — braids vs wigs vs natural hair styles, etc.
But some Instagram stylists come with their problems. Unlike Princess, many stylists using social media are self taught. As Black hair styling and cutting wasn't a part of the hairdressing curriculum in the UK until 2021, the industry standard for Black hair is often set by these self taught stylists. That includes things like monthly booking slots, and extensive terms and conditions including deposits and late fees. It also means you can risk being let down by them.
In October, this is what happened to me right before a holiday. In a blind panic I turned to the omniscient TikTok. There, like many Black Londoners, I stumbled upon the hashtag #PeckhamAunties. This was interesting: your average 'Peckham Auntie' is someone from the older generation, who you wouldn't necessarily associate with snappy videos with hip backing tracks. I began sifting through the many stylists, including Emilola Yemisi and Ebony Beauty Place. After a few Whatsapps I was booked in with Peckham's Omena Unique for the following day.
Due to gentrification changing the nightlife scene, I'm rarely in Peckham anymore. However, it was somewhat comforting to see, how in the daytime, very little had changed about Peckham since the last time I was there.
Stepping into Omena, I was instantly reminded of my childhood. This was exactly the kind of salon is where I'd sit, for what felt like the whole day while aunties chatted, buses zoomed past, Afrobeats blared, and talks of politics and husbands lulled in the background, as I played on my Nintendo DS.
They did an amazing job on my hair, and saved my holiday. They were brilliant, they were lifesavers.
"Unsolicited advice about dating and life is directed at you instead of over your head, so you can even join in"
Both blame the cost of living crisis for the decrease in frequency of customers — and actually thanked the Instagram stylists for helping their businesses. Auntie Omena, who has been braiding hair since 2012, explains how by introducing customers to the idea of booking an appointment, instead of just turning up to the salon, she can now predict her income: "Before, I'd stand outside for four to five hours before getting one client, now people book which is easier," she tells me, "TikTok and Instagram have changed that. The money is easier because I know each day how much I will make, which is very important in this cost of living crisis".
Auntie Omena no longer has to hawk as a way of getting clients, and even though the salon is open Monday to Saturday, she only comes in when she has a booking.
This is a mutually beneficial change. Traditionally a trip to the salon was a whole day event. You'd be dropped off by your mum, as part of your getting ready for school routine, then she’d head off to do her shopping.
As an adult you don't have the time to waste a day waiting to get your hair done, so appointment times take the guesswork out of your weekend plans. Plus now, unsolicited advice (but shared with love) about dating and life is directed at you instead of over your head, so you can even join in.
"Instagram hairdressers turn them down. Then they find me on TikTok and book me."
Both aunties have actually had many clients (like me) who have found them and become regulars after having bad experiences from Instagram stylists: "Instagram is expensive, I know how many clients I've got that book on Instagram and the hairdresser turned them down. Then they find me on TikTok and book me," says Auntie Christine. She explains that even though, because of the cost of living crisis, both her and Auntie Omena have had to raise their prices, they're still cheaper, faster — and their clients are happier than with many Instagram stylists.
So, price is sorted, efficiency as well. But what about styles? As they are the same generation as their clients, Instagram stylists have the benefit of being on the ball with new styles, from the move away from box braids to knotless, then lemonade or fulani braids, then from faux locs to butterfly locs.
As a hairstylist being up to date with trending styles is key.
“I learnt how to do hair because I didn't know anyone in this country that could do my daughter's hair," Auntie Omena tells me. "Now she is grown up and doing hair like me, she tells me what styles are trendy then I practise on her. I've never had a client unhappy. Passion is important. Hair is my passion."
Auntie Christine agrees: "When I moved to this country, I didn't know anyone, but I knew hair was my passion so that is how I met my community. That is how I met Omena and all the women here. If I see a new style I'm not confident in yet, I'd prefer to give the client to my friend that I know can do it instead of keeping the money for myself and making my client unhappy.
"We work together, we are a community."
Princess echoes this sentiment: "My mission as a hairstylist is to have integrity and honesty with my clients about their hair journey and hair goals".
I guess stylists Auntie Omena, Auntie Christine and Princess are the new, improved face of Instagram stylists.