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Why Beauty Salons Are So Foolish to Ignore Black Hair

A stylist at the ritzy New York salon Orlo is suing her former employers for allegedly berating her for bringing women of color into the salon. But doing just that is actually incredibly smart business.

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A model gets her hair done for a New York fashion show.
Joe Corrigan / Getty Images

A model gets her hair done for a New York fashion show.

Hairstylist Zandra Bennett recently filed a lawsuit against her employers at New York’s trendy Orlo salon for creating “a hostile and discriminatory work environment.” Bennett, who was fired in January of 2011, alleges she was chastised for bringing too many women of color into the salon, and that one of Orlo’s owners, George Casson, told her that “black hair doesn’t pay the bills in here.” Whether or not the allegations are true, the lawsuit serves as a reminder that the beauty industry continues to underestimate the buying power of women of color.

Chris Rock’s 2009 movie Good Hair began a mainstream dialogue about the importance of hair in the black community. One of the many notable points it emphasized was that black women spend a lot of money on hair. A LOT of money. Straightening treatments can hit the $1,000 mark. Weaves can fetch upwards of $2,000. Target Market News, a firm that tracks the spending habits of African-Americans, that we spent $11.5 billion on personal care products and services in 2009. Those figures aren't totally surprising since for many black women, a weekly Saturday hair appointment is as routine as heading to church on Sunday. Yet many of the top salons continue to ignore a market that can easily further pad their pockets.

When I first began making my freebie visits as a beauty editor to ritzy salons over a decade ago, I was shell-shocked. It was like being in a foreign land and not understanding a word of the language. I requested a wash-and-wrap, which was a standard request in a black salon, but not a single stylist in these salons knew what I was talking about. I looked for — and failed to find — the Motions conditioner, a can of Isoplus oil sheen, and all of the familiar products I was used to seeing at the black hair salons in Mount Vernon, just outside of New York City. Stylists couldn’t perform simple tasks like blow-drying my hair. The ignorance was mind-boggling. Needless to say, when I left, my hair was often a dull, dry, puffy mess. I began to ask myself, “Do white people not know how to do black hair??” The thought seemed silly, but after countless horrific trips to the salons we all read about in Harper’s Bazaar, Allure and Cosmopolitan, it seemed quite evident that the answer was no. They have no idea how and don’t care to find out.

So, if Casson actually thinks black hair doesn’t pay the bills, he should realize that black women would flock to “white” salons if the unspoken “white hair only” policy didn’t exist. I attempted to contact Orlo multiple times for comment, but of course everyone was unavailable and needless to say, messages have yet been returned.

Bennett also alleges that Casson said she “doesn’t know how to do white hair.”

It seems odd that a person who “doesn’t know how to do white hair” would land a job at a white salon like Orlo that can charge $800 for a haircut. While white stylists become quasi-celebrities without touching a black head of hair, in order to become a mainstream name in the beauty world, it’s imperative for black stylists to have multi-textural training. See Ted Gibson who has coiffed the locks of Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway and Zoe Saldana. Or Edris Nichols of Edris Salon who recently made Elle’s Top 100 Salons list. Anthony Dickey — whom the New York Times dubbed “a style svengali” back in 2001 — has styled everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Michelle Obama for the likes of Vogue, Essence, Vibe and Vanity Fair.

Today, products and styling for black women have improved across salons, and more high-end places have at least a token black stylist on staff. Yet for many, the focus is on white customers. Hair stylists can make it without us, but they too often fail to realize they can make so much more with us.

Model Joan Smalls prepping backstage at the Prabal Gurung fall 2012 fashion show at New York Fashion Week.
Rabbani and Solimene Photography / Getty Images

Model Joan Smalls prepping backstage at the Prabal Gurung fall 2012 fashion show at New York Fashion Week.

Aja Mangum is a beauty editor and writer living in New York.