Yusef, Nai’vasha, and Marcia Lee in conversation with Zadrian Smith.

It is often the case that Black hairstylists are primarily hired to work with Black talent and models, as a lot of their white counterparts are not trained to work with Black hair. Their presence on sets for major photo shoots and luxury advertising campaigns is a necessity, nevertheless a limiting one, as it usually disregards the fact that they are fully trained to style all types of hair.

Well-known Black hairstylists Yusef, Nai’vasha and Marcia Lee have all trained extensively, apprenticing with white industry professionals including Guido Palau, Odile Gilbert and Sam McKnight and studying at the prestigious hair academies L’Oréal, Paul Mitchell, Toni & Guy and Vidal Sassoon. They understood early on that the opportunities for Black hairstylists are scarce and if they had any chance of forging a career at the luxury level, it would be necessary for them to obtain the knowledge and expertise to style every texture of hair.

At the start of his career in the Nineties, Yusef found himself working in Paris as part of Gilbert’s team. Backstage at shows for Chanel and Dior, he felt “the only reason I was there was because I could braid or do Black hair. It blew my mind that a lot of the white kids couldn’t braid and didn’t know how to do extensions,” Yusef said. He later realized that was “because in renowned beauty schools we’re not taught to do Black hair.”

These hair academies play a pivotal role in educating many of the hairstylists who now work at the top of the fashion and entertainment industries. Nai’vasha and Lee, who studied at Paul Mitchell and Toni & Guy, respectively, were both surprised when their extensive training courses’ curriculum only spent one or two days focusing on Black hair. The lack of education at this level perpetuates a system that does not value Black hair or the creatives who know how to do it.

White hairstylists are primarily educated using textbooks and material that celebrates white standards of beauty. It’s then a personal decision to extend their education, by enrolling in institutions such as Dudley School of Beauty or taking a masterclass from a Black stylist, where learning how to do Black hair would be the focus. Not many make this decision. Unlike Black hairstylists, there’s no incentive for white hairstylists to perfect their craft and obtain this multidimensional education because the industry has not made the knowledge of Black hair compulsory to secure a job.

After years of working professionally with all types of hair, Yusef, Nai’vasha and Lee continue to be hired to work specifically with Black hair. Each hairstylist shared similar experiences where they’ve been brought on board for editorial shoots and advertising campaigns and, unbeknownst to them, discovered on the day that they had been delegated to only work with Black talent and that a white hairstylist had been hired to only work with white talent.

With portfolios that present a diverse array of work across all hair types, why not hire a Black hairstylist to style the entire job? Why are they being pigeonholed to only work with Black hair?

Nai’vasha, whose work with textured hair has earned her the title “Curl Queen,” nonetheless rejects the notion that this accolade has pigeonholed her career. “It’s powerful. I don’t need straight or white hair to define me as an artist. I know who I am. I know my texture and I always have,” she said. But when you work in industries where a Marilyn Monroe bob or Farrah Fawcett blowout are the “epitome” of beauty, it’s difficult to shift the narrative to one that values and respects anything that does not mirror the standards of white beauty.

This is part of the reason why Black women, especially in Hollywood, have struggled for many years to embrace their natural hair. It wasn’t until very recently that natural hair in Hollywood really became accepted. This came as a result of the luxury sector of the fashion industry adjusting its lens after continued pressure from advocates of diversity and inclusion.

Activist and model Bethann Hardison and supermodel Naomi Campbell are names who’ve long been advocating, urging brands to include more Black models in their brand narratives.

Subsequently, more natural hairstyles appeared on major runways at Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Prada, directly influencing the standards of beauty on red carpets. Only after being presented through the lens of white luxury is natural Black hair starting to become more socially acceptable and mainstream. It’s because celebrities such as Solange, Skai Jackson, Yara Shahidi and Tracee Ellis Ross have fully embraced every aspect of their Blackness, including those natural curls, that beauty brands have had to shift the idea of Black hair falling into the category of “other” that must be tamed.

“Our look is good enough to be celebrated when it’s in fashion and it’s cool for you, but we are still not appreciated enough to carry out those very looks, which are ours to begin with,” Lee said.

Kim Kardashian West, who is no stranger to being accused of appropriating Black culture, came under great scrutiny when she wore African Fulani braids, but instead referenced them as “Bo Derek” braids, completely eradicating their origins. Kardashian West has also come under fire in the past for hiring a Black hairstylist to style beautiful and intricate braids rooted in African culture and then crediting the work to a white hairstylist, “who is typically among the figures society or the press wants to see or celebrate as artists,” Nai’vasha said.

We need to find a way to recalibrate the power and validation of the white lens and gaze and for it to not be white at all and become an accurate reflection of the world in which we live. Diversity must happen at the top and trickle down to the bottom, and until it does, Black creatives must say no to accepting anything that does not match what their white counterparts are being offered. Yusef was brave enough to decline an offer from a major hair company that offered him a $20,000 contract to only be the ambassador for their ethnic products, whilst a white hairstylist was offered $500,000 to be the global brand ambassador.

Partnerships at this level are normally brokered by power agents, who have been long trusted to connect creatives with luxury brands and companies for lucrative projects. Four of the top agencies globally that represent the industries’ elite are The Wall Group, The Only Agency, Art Partner and Art + Commerce. A recent review of their roster shows that The Wall Group looks after about 355 artists and 28 are Black; The Only Agency represents 121 artists and 26 are Black; Art Partner handles 43 artists and four are Black, while Art + Commerce represents 72 artists, of which only two are Black. Herein lies the problem as to why Black creatives continue to not be associated with luxury: The agents, the gatekeepers, are not representing enough Black talent in order to bridge the massive gap.

Nai’vasha, who is represented by The Wall Group, said: “Agencies are elitist and Black people are globally perceived as not being elite, as not luxury, as not the epitome of economic gain.”

At the beginning of his career, when Yusef was looking for an agent, the experience was the “biggest nightmare” of his professional life. “Nobody wants to build a Black hairstylist. It’s a bigger fight. It’s a bigger mission as an agent. Nobody’s looking at you as an artist to push and turn into a star. Nobody gives you that opportunity or chance,” he said. Lee agrees, saying she’s had the same experience in London. “It’s 10 times harder for Black artists because you need the numbers and we have to give you the Earth,” she said.

It’s clear that we depend to a great extent on our white counterparts to incite change, but it is not enough. In order for Black creatives to excel, we have to leverage our power by speaking in unison. Nai’vasha asserts: “We have to stop being afraid of losing opportunities and being validated by a community of people and a community of artists who don’t accept us anyway. They accept our work, but they don’t accept us as a human. They don’t accept us as creatives. They don’t accept us as artists. We’ve got to stop being afraid of their ‘No.’ And start creating our own ‘Yeses.’”