In free session for professionals, local hair studio discusses breaking racial barriers in the industry

photo by: Lauren Fox

Isaiah Bell, right, addresses the audience of barbers and cosmetologists recently at “Breaking racial barriers in the hair industry.” Bell is one of the co-owners of Prestige Hair Studio.

Addressing a group of barbers and cosmetologists inside Prestige Hair Studio recently, Breanna Bell asked how many of them discussed or were taught about curly hair in their hair styling schools.

About 10 out of the 30 people raised their hands, but some of those raised hands seemed reluctant. One participant with a raised hand called out, “For maybe a few minutes.”

It was an experience — or lack thereof — that Bell, a Black woman and co-owner of Prestige Hair Studio, shared with the majority of the stylists who were present.

Bell said that when she was in hair school her classmates would ask her, “How come we haven’t touched on your hair type?”

Bell and her brother, Isaiah Bell, co-owners of Prestige Hair Studio, shared in a session on June 29 that only 19 states require formal training in natural hair styling. Kansas isn’t one of them, they said.

The Bells and Allison Gaspard, a stylist at the studio, discussed this lack of training and how that can affect the hair industry in a session titled “Breaking racial barriers in the hair industry.” Prestige Hair Studio, 3115 W. Sixth St., hosted three sessions total: one on June 28 and two on June 29. They were all free and limited to about 35 people to account for mass gathering limits during the coronavirus pandemic.

Erin Parret, who recently moved to Lenexa but still practices as a stylist in Salina, called the session “eye opening.”

“I had never really thought about how they hadn’t taught us about curly and textured hair,” she said.

Breanna began the session by discussing the importance of hair in ancient African cultures and how that identity was stripped away during slavery in America, when many slaves’ heads were shaved. She then noted that the Board of Barbering, Cosmetology, and Esthetics was established in 1937 during the period of segregation.

Isaiah said that what drove members of Prestige Hair Studio to create this session was the current racial tension in America.

A quote on the first slide of the studio’s presentation read, “Hair is a microcosm of different issues in America today.” It came from beauty entrepreneur Myka Harris in a HuffPost article from March.

Isaiah said the effects of slavery and segregation were still evident in the hair industry today by the lack of training on curly hair, and he asked the audience what they could do to promote unity in the industry.

Unity doesn’t just come from seeking out training and practice on curly hair, the Bells noted, but also in interactions with clients in the workplace.

In a skit portion of the presentation, Prestige Hair salon employees and client volunteers acted out real situations that had happened in their studio to display how a salon can be a place of unity as opposed to segregation.

In one, Isaiah asked a new white client how he would like his haircut, and the client said, “In the front, just don’t make me look Black.”

Isaiah responded to the comment by asking what the client meant by that, then told him that he doesn’t use terms related to race to describe hairstyles. He found out what style the client was looking for by using nonracial terms.

Lauryn Baker, a hair stylist who works in Leavenworth, said the session helped her learn how to handle interactions in the workplace.

“We tend to separate hair from race, so it’s good to come back to focusing on the hair,” she said.

Sarah Easum, who works at Mane Haus in Lawrence, had the same takeaway. She learned “to look at it as ‘everyone has hair.’ It’s not a race thing,” she said.

Breanna said stylists could be intimidated when working on hair types with which they have less experience, but that the solution was not to drive those clients away by saying one is booked or using another avoidance strategy.

Instead, she said stylists need to gain experience working on all types of hair and to take the knowledge they have and convert it to the best of their ability to the hair type on which they are working. If they don’t produce the perfect results for their client, Breanna suggested working with the client to discuss what could be improved the next time.

“Take this information to go transform your work, your salon,” Breanna said.


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