It’s a Saturday morning, and Go Natural Salon and Boutique in Lyndon is buzzing. African American women – with hair that’s long, medium, short, curly, wavy, braided, locked, straight, textured or temporarily covered in a hat – mill about the retail side of the space, opening bottles and jars labeled “Test Me,” smelling their contents and rubbing their fingers together to feel the various creams and gels.
On the salon side, women and men – with hair equally varied – fill stylists’ chairs as the stylists’ fingers twist or loosen curly heads.
This flurry of activity could represent any Saturday at any space related to black hair, but this scene is unique for two reasons: 1) it’s happening on Small Business Saturday, a day set aside over the Thanksgiving holiday to support local businesses, and 2) it’s happening in Louisville.
Camille Rorer and Johnetta Roberts teamed up with their husbands and opened Go Natural as a retail space in 2011. Since reconfiguring the space in 2012 to satisfy customer demand for a salon on site, they’ve become one of a few known businesses in the country doing double duty as a salon and retail space for natural hair.
When it comes to natural hair (hair that’s maintained without the use of chemical texturizers or straighteners, also known as relaxers or perms) Louisville isn’t known as a trendsetter. Rorer pitched the concept of a natural hair product boutique to her friends, in part, because no such store existed in Louisville when she was transitioning from relaxed to natural hair in 2005. She had seen stores that carry products specifically for natural hair in other cities, but mainly depended on the Internet for product. And that had its limitations: she couldn’t see, smell or feel the products, shipping cost extra and she had to depend on customer reviews to help guide her purchases.
Much has changed in the past few years. In addition to Go Natural, there are three other salons in Louisville that primarily serve natural hair clients: Natural Alternatives, and Harmonious Roots, both in the Highlands, and Mahogany Hair Salon in Mellwood Art Center.
Jimmy Cadet opened Natural Alternatives in 2011. Cadet is originally from Jacksonville, Fla., where, he says, “natural hair is a staple.” His own “locs” (a colloquial term for locks or dreadlocks) inspired him to create a space exclusively for natural hair. Mahogany Hair Salon had already opened, and Cadet wasn’t sure if Louisville had room for two natural salons. “Just from eye check, I didn’t think it was that big of a movement,” he says.
But he also noticed women had formed natural hair groups and organized meetings to try out products and group style their hair. He thought, ‘That’s what the salon is supposed to do.’ Natural Alternatives has since co-hosted several such natural hair meetups with those same groups.
Other salon owners have adapted their traditional salons to meet the growing demand. LaTonia Payne, master stylist at Transformation Studio in Hurstbourne, estimates that 45 percent of her clientele wear their hair natural. She had no clients who wanted natural hair when she obtained her cosmetology license in 1999, but has seen an uptick in requests since around 2009, timing she credits in part to the economy. “Now that the economy has tanked, people have to learn to be natural,” she says. “Continuous maintenance of a relaxer is more expensive.”
As Payne explains, an average wash and style for black women at Louisville salons ranges between $45 and $65. Chemical services tack on another $10 to $25, and women with short hair may have to straighten it every two to four weeks. Natural products that clients use at home tend to cost more, but salon visits tend to be less frequent.
Budgets aren’t the only reason women transition to natural hair. Natural Alternative’s Cadet has seen a range of rationale: for health reasons (the chemicals in relaxers are caustic, can burn the scalp and have been linked to fibroids and cancer in recent studies); to be part of a trend; because they like the style; or to reclaim their cultural identity. “They feel like who they are has been stripped from them,” says Cadet. “It’s an Afrocentric thing.”
Payne “went natural” in 2010 because she didn’t have a stylist for herself and because she prefers natural hair’s versatility. “I can change from straight to curly, wavy or weave on a daily basis,” she said. Payne would have made the change years earlier, but says natural hair wasn’t in style when she was younger.
Haley Rhine’s daughter had a similar problem, and it drove Rhine to go natural – again. Rhine, who asked that her pen name be used for this story, is a natural hair enthusiast who blogs about styles, how-tos, products and the local natural hair community at www.derbycitynaturals.com. She had worn her hair without chemicals, straightening it with a blow dryer and flat iron, when she lived in California, but between limited product availability and Kentucky humidity, straight hair without a relaxer became too challenging when she relocated here in 2002. When her daughter entered middle school in 2008, she wanted the relaxed hair all her friends had. “I told her no,” says Rhine. “She said, ‘You say perms are so awful, but you have one.’ I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll go natural again.’”
As Rhine recalls, the natural hair movement had more followers in 2008, but it was mostly braids or locs, rarely loose natural hair. Many people wanted to wear styles that showed their natural curl pattern but didn’t know how. She started Derby City Naturals in 2010 to provide a community and resource to educate people on how to go natural with their hair, and to provide tips about products, especially those that could be sourced in Louisville.
Derby City Naturals now has 4,000 followers. The blog has received national attention, and manufacturers regularly send Rhine products for review. Last year, Rhine helped organize National Natural Hair Meetup Day, an annual event that encourages women with natural hair to gather in their local communities as they connect online with other participants across the country. More than 50 Kentuckiana women who attended the event were featured on Essence.com, the website of a major magazine for black women.
“I think we’ve developed a very good natural hair community. I’m proud of that. Other bigger cities don’t have what we have here. It’s not unusual now to be in any part of town and see someone with locs or loose natural hair. It’s normal,” says Rhine.
Although Go Natural’s Roberts says natural hair among black women is a growing trend, she sometimes still finds herself the only woman in the room wearing twists and still hears disapproving comments. Roberts admits she had many misconceptions before cutting off her chemically processed hair. Having worn relaxers since around age 5, she assumed she wouldn’t like her hair’s natural texture or that she would look unprofessional. She and business partner Rorer have also met many women who fear their spouse or significant other won’t like their unprocessed hair. Others feel ugly and decide to return to chemical straighteners. These are among the reasons empowerment and teaching have been a part of Go Natural’s mission since it opened.
Roberts says going natural “ranks very high behind getting married and having kids as one of the coolest things I’ve done. Sometimes it’s like a social experiment, getting people used to knowing we can look a lot of different ways and still look beautiful.” She’s also certain her newborn daughter will grow up with a different hair experience.
Roberts and Rorer both say they have more confidence. “You kind of feel like you’ve become your more authentic self,” says Rorer, who had worn relaxers from age 7 through her 20s.
Some women adopt a lifestyle change after going natural, by eating organic food, shunning mineral oil or developing a physical fitness routine. None of the women interviewed for the story have a fierce commitment to food or products that are 100 percent pure, but Rorer and Roberts say they pay more attention to ingredients.
Rhine sees the movement as a return to being natural. “I grew up with natural remedies, like using aloe vera on everything. A lot of us have gotten away from that,” she says. “The beauty movement has been, ‘Go to a salon to help you look like something you’re not.’ Now it’s, ‘I want a salon to help me bring out the beauty that’s within me.’”
But it’s apparent the natural hair movement in Louisville still has room to grow. Rhine says she wants to see hair schools stop focusing on chemical treatments and teach the basics, and Cadet has observed that Louisville women prefer more conservative styles, so it can be difficult to push stylists to be creative trendsetters.
“It’s an intriguing thing. You watch the growth. You’re really watching people go through something,” says Cadet. “It’s interesting to see what people will do, where they’re willing to take the limits.”
Mariam Williams is a writer living in Louisville. Contact her by visiting her blog, RedboneAfropuff.com.