Nearly everyone in the world will be familiar with the afro and its iconic status in popular culture and the Black is Beautiful movement.
Fewer, however, may be familiar with the stylist credited with helping serve the hairstyle up for global admiration when he coiffed South African singer, actress and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba with the ‘do in 1960.
His name was Camello Casimir, though those who knew him called him Frenchie.
The stylist’s journey took him from Haiti to Harlem, from doing sisters’ hair in his hometown of Gonaives to doing Cicely Tyson’s for the big stage. His setup was at Casdulan, which opened in the summer of 1952 on 125th Street, and quickly became the center of Black hairstyling in Harlem.
“That was the beauty salon in Harlem,” Audrey Smaltz, former model, fashion show commentator for the Ebony Fashion Fair and dear friend to Frenchie, told WWD. The pair met at Harlem’s Ophelia DeVore School of Charm when Smaltz was a teenage student and Frenchie was teaching young women how to style their hair. “Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, all the famous ladies and gentlemen came to Casdulan to various hairstylists, not just to Frenchie. And guess what? There were no bodyguards in those days so you got to know everybody — Lucille Armstrong, as in Louis Armstrong’s wife, Catherine Basie as in [jazz musician] Count Basie’s wife.”
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With both his vision and panache, Frenchie stacked his list of A-list clients.
“He did Cicely Tyson, he did Diahann Johnson, better known as Diahann Carroll. Oh yeah, we all went to Frenchie, in fact, when Diahann was [performing] at…The Empire Room… Frenchie would go and do her hair just before she would perform every night.”
He had a roster of Black model clients, too, including Naomi Sims and Helen Williams. But while the A-list life was a boon, Frenchie knew where his real base was.
“It’s nice to work on celebrities. They give you a name,” Frenchie told Routes magazine in a 1980 article. “The real money…comes from the working woman.”
Smaltz was one of those working women who went to the stylist weekly, as well as for moments beyond the quotidian.
“I was on the cover of Jet magazine [in 1962, with a flipped-out, fashion-forward style], and of course he did my hair. The photographer came right to Frenchie’s apartment [at 200 W 90th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway, as Smaltz recalls] and photographed it,” she said. “Whatever was going on, Frenchie did my hair — I’ve had some crazy hairstyles honey.”
In his heyday, the stylist was empowering the natural beauty of Black hair. Today, he’d easily be an icon for the afrofuturist movement.
He was a fan, of course, of the afro, but also of braids in all shapes and sizes, both for their protective nature and their nod to traditional African styles he consistently upheld as beautiful. He could also do a silk press better than most and style wedding-worthy updos.
“I got married in 1969 and Frenchie, of course, did my hair for the wedding. But then he brought curls, beautiful curls…and he put these curls attached to my head and he said, ‘Audrey don’t you take those curls off when you go to bed with your husband tonight, when you lay down honey you gon’ have all that hair,” Smaltz recalled. “Can you imagine? He was already thinking about how I should look in the bed with my husband. I mean this is who he was, he was hysterical.”
Trips to Paris and places like the salon Carita would serve as inspiration for his latest creations — as well as for his own personal style.
“In addition to having all of his clothes made in Paris, he also went to a salon there called Carita and they would let him come into their salon, he would tell them he was a hairdresser in Harlem in New York and he wanted to see what they were doing and how they were doing it,” Smaltz said. “[And] Frenchie used to have his suits made to order from a designer, his name was Christiani.…Frenchie had all of his suits made and then he would sometimes go to Louis Vuitton and buy scarves and he would have a vest made or he would buy a purse and take the leather from the purse and a shoemaker would make Louis Vuitton shoes for him, and we’d say ‘where’d you get those Louis Vuitton shoes?’ Frenchie had them made to order…Frenchie was something.”
Fashion shows debuting clothes by local designers, coifs by Frenchie and narration by Smaltz were also a common pastime.
“One time — I’ll never forget this — Frenchie wanted to have a fashion show on 125th Street…We did a fashion show, he built a stage on the street where the buses are running, where the cars are running…I was the commentator and the models would walk across, go up the steps, and model. That was one of a kind,” Smaltz said. “The fact that it was on 125th street, we had so many people watching that show. People would just come to a complete stop and say ‘What’s going on here? Frenchie always came up with a new way to do something.”
Though the stylist died in 1986 at age 69, having done hair in his Harlem home even after he shuttered Casdulan, his legacy lives on for those who knew him, and those who didn’t may still be influenced by his hairstyles — whether they’re aware or not.
“Frenchie was clever, unique,” Smaltz said. “He was one of a kind.”
Research credit, Tonya Blazio Licorish, Fairchild Archive Content Developer