When Amazon claimed to be offering professional black hair services, ‘in store experience like no other’, no shopping bags necessary, digital try-on mirrors, wireless charging points, AR technology and of course, beautiful hair.
I was sold and had high expectations. It’s Amazon after all, gamechargers for the online Afro hair care shopping experience, having provided innovation and accessibility to a wide offering of products for the first time on the click of a button. Amazon’s arrival ended the days of my mum and I having to commute to the closest city to home, to get a new Afro pick, or ORS Shine Spray.
Amazon Hair Salon opening? I’m curious. The opening came with some controversy due to the potential impact this futuristic and artificial intelligence-fueled bricks-and-mortar experience could have on the hairdressing industry as a whole.
When Amazon first launched, it primarily focused on the sales of books, which along the years meant that bookstores suffered with sales immensely, as the speed and accessibility for any book including e-books made Amazon a more viable option. A lot of salon owners perhaps fear that it could do the same to the hair industry, meaning fewer jobs and access for small businesses.
However, user-friendly technology, like click & buy, with no queues, and advanced augmented-reality is becoming the future, and I for one would like to try it. Perhaps because I’m a Black woman with Afro hair and don’t have loyalty to the hair in-salon experience in the UK. Also finding salons that specifically cater to the needs of my curls and coils has always been a laborious task, which meant, out of necessity, I learned how to be my own hairdresser. The closest to ‘professional’ hair experiences; I go to my ‘local aunty’ who does braids in her kitchen, in between cooking dinner for her family and scolding her kids. Somehow, the more chaotic the experience, the better that hair, so I never complained.
However, alarm bells rang as I checked out their online menu. Despite the promising textured hair box-out, with a list of services including, what they called “natural style” for a fixed price of £35, smoothing treatment at £80 and “braids” also at a fixed price of £35, which felt immediately misleading as there’s no such thing as a braids ‘one size fits all’. Depending on your hair and style of braids it can take hours for this kind of service .
It was clear to me that this part of the menu was designed by someone who had little knowledge of ‘textured hair’.
I called to ask about the smoothing treatment. The friendly receptionist invites me for a patch test followed by an hour and half long appointment which she assures me will be sufficient for the 15min treatment and a blow dry. So far so good. Until I flag that I have Afro hair…
At this point, it’s apparent to me that they have no one that specialises in Afro hair as they suddenly aren’t able to offer answers to any of the questions that followed. I am passed to the head stylist, and instead of a treatment I am recommended a range of products to buy. This leaves me feeling discouraged to come in for an IRL appointment. I persist and am offered a consultation (not the appointment) for a month’s time, even though I know my caucasian haired colleagues are offered an appointment within 4 days.
The salon menu offers four services for textured hair, but I’m told on that phone call by both the receptionist and stylist that these services are apparently ‘unsuitable’ for Afro hair.
I also ask for specifics on the “braids” service as offered on the menu (what style – cornrows, box braids, locs – what length, does it include extensions, just natural hair?). Neither of them could give me an answer.
Eventually we agreed on a patch test appointment for a couple of days later which would only take a few minutes. I head over after work to the salon located in the heart of Liverpool Street. It looks modern and luxe from the outside with the ground floor designed as a futuristic open plan showroom. Upon arrival, I stand at the till area and meet the stylist. I’m nervous, as Afro hair can be delicate and fragile, so anyone manipulating it must be very confident in what they’re doing.
She feels my hair, but seems apprehensive, and eventually admits that they don’t really offer any suitable treatments for textured hair and warned me that the smoothing treatment would do nothing to my Afro, other than add shine. When asked for an alternative, she can offer me a relaxer.
I am perplexed as to why a corporation as big as Amazon isn’t able to offer either a keratin treatment (for stretching and straightening the hair), a smoothing treatment (for shine and aiding growth) or a texture release treatment (to smooth the texture of Afro hair non permanently) which many smaller businesses across London offer for Afro hair.
After an exchange of over 20 emails, five phone calls, two patch tests to be able to lock in a date for an appointment. Plus the lack of answers to straight forward questions from any of the salon staff such as: “What treatments do you offer to Afro hair”, “what do you include in braids” and “how long will xyz treatment take”, the experience has been an abject disappointment. But I am determined to make something work, as I too deserve somewhere to get my hair done.
In 2021 it’s devastating to see that hair salons still don’t take the time and care to make sure they’re inclusive and for all women, from all demographics to let us feel welcomed and catered for. My excitement and expectation of what a mainstream hair appointment experience should be, is crushed by a familiar sense of neglect in a beauty industry that I treasure dearly. This is why I welcome a new version of the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for hairdressing, published and approved by the government, which has been updated to include Afro and textured hair. Meaning all new hairdressers will learn to work with Black hair as part of their training.
Eventually I managed to get that appointment, by which time they had hired a stylist that caters for Afro hair and I’m pleased to say he is all hands on deck, speaking confidently on what treatments he can offer, and telling me exactly what I need and making me laugh every two minutes. He’s the full package.
Upon reflection I understand why this stylist wanted to do a consultation before the treatment. We sat together for around 15 minutes talking about my hair, and what we could do with it to make it grow thicker, stronger and still maintain those natural coils that represent my heritage so well.
We collectively decided that we should go for the texture release. A non-permanent treatment that gently smooths my curls for better management and leaves my hair looking and feeling like a million bucks! It takes around four hours in total for the treatment, cut and blow dry but boy is it worth it. Leaving the salon I feel amazing, and it reminds me why women love getting their hair done so much. I’m hoping fellow Black women will be able to experience this without having to go through loops and hoops that I endured.
And that’s not all. They’ve since changed the menu, but to my mind it still lacks clarity. The offering has grown, including weave installments (although they don’t specify if it includes hair), silk presses and the smoothing treatments. The fixed price of braids has gone up to £50 (oops!) and although it now says cornrows & braids, it’s strange that the price doesn’t specify the length and the style.
For Black women, hair is important, and somehow we are disproportionately scrutinised for it and discriminated against, in comparison to our non Black counterparts. Experiences like this are a reflection of how society still rates Black women – i.e. we are still being left behind. Women are still missing out on jobs because of their hairstyle of choice, Black pupils are still being sent home for sporting their hair in its natural state and athletes like Olympic swimmers are still unable to compete in their sports due to unfair uniform restrictions.
If having Amazon adapt their salon menu, hire more Black people and train their team on all hair types is going to make a small dent of change in our beauty world, then I’d say we’re one baby step closer for all our curls to matter.
Change is much needed and long overdue: I’m sincerely hoping that after a rocky start, Amazon hair salon Spitalfields will be part of that change.