In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
In the world of high-fashion hairstyling, it's fairly common to have a mononym — Guido, Luigi, Odile. Plenty of the top artists are known primarily by their first names alone. So, too, is a slightly more recent addition to this cohort: Jawara.
Having broken out on his own in 2013 (after years of assisting the biggest-name stylists), Jawara (Wauchope, if you must know) has built a prolific and impressive career in a relatively short period of time. The Jamaican-American hairstylist's work spans red carpet, editorial, campaign and backstage; it's been featured in British, Italian and American editions of Vogue, Dazed, i-D and T Magazine, among others; and his brand clientele includes Area, Off-White, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Chanel and Dyson. He's styled the hair of numerous celebrities, including fellow mononym Solange, FKA Twigs, Megan Thee Stallion, Alicia Keys and Bella Hadid. He's also staged several exhibitions celebrating Jamaican and Black culture through hair, received the British Fashion Council New Wave Creative Award and earned rankings on Business of Fashion 500 and Dazed 100. Plus, he was named Senior Beauty Editor-at-Large of i-D earlier this month.
Even if all of those accomplishments and accolades weren't a part of Jawara's career path, he'd be plenty impressive. His work — which often draws from his own childhood spent growing up in a dancehall-obsessed Kingston, Jamaica in the '80s and '90s — stands all on its own.
Through his intricate braids, sculptural styles and masterful use of accessories, Jawara both shines a light on the artistry inherent to hairstyling in Black culture and melds it with outside influences, like classic films and the streets of New York City. It all started back when he was just six years old, assisting his aunt at a salon in Kingston where she worked. Ahead, Jawara discusses how he channeled his childhood in salons into a celebrated career in hair, why he believes it's so important to credit your sources of inspiration and what he still hopes to accomplish professionally.
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Did you always have an interest in hair?
Yeah, I had an interest in hair at a young age. I was born in New York, but I was raised in Kingston, Jamaica. And the late '80s, early '90s were the height of the dancehall culture in Jamaica, so I was surrounded by a lot of music and a lot of people. A big part of the culture was hair and getting dressed to go to these dancehalls. My aunt worked in a salon in Kingston, and sometimes I would go to work with her. She eventually owned a salon and I was in [there] with her all the time. I just fell in love with hair there.
I would say I started touching and working on hair when I was six. It started off just me helping her and I caught on really quickly. I loved seeing the ways people expressed themselves in that culture through hair, elaborate hairstyles and elaborate hair colors. That's where it all started for me.
So were clients just like, 'Okay let's have this six-year-old touch my hair!'?
No, they thought it was a bit funny. Some clients thought I was crazy. But I think that there was a sense of community in the salon; people came to talk about their lives and whatever they were going through. Some would come in two or three times a week to change their hairstyles. I think they started seeing, 'Oh, okay, he kind of knows what he's doing.'
I think my first hairstyle I started doing was like a roller set and I kind of got the hang of it when I was seven, eight. But it wasn't like I had my own clients — it was just that if someone was comfortable enough with me and came there all the time, I would do it for my aunt, just to practice, in a sense.
At what point did you realize that this wasn't just going to be a childhood thing and a hobby, but what you wanted to pursue as a career?
I came back to New York around the age of nine or 10. I would continue to do my sisters', my cousins' and friends' hair, just playing around with it. When I was a teenager, I began to gain real skills with hair extensions and stuff like that. I realized that it was a possible career path for me more seriously when I was 17. I had a cousin that owned a chain of salons in Florida and my mom sent me to stay with them one summer. I ended up working in the salon as an apprentice. I honed my skills there and started having my own clients. It was the first time I was really getting paid for it.
It sounds like a certain appreciation and the art of hair was something that was almost in your blood, something your whole family did.
Yeah, for sure. I also came from a family of reggae entertainers, so I watched them get their hair and their clothes and adorn themselves in jewelry for their performances. So I've always been attracted to beauty and fashion. But for me, I know it was always a very intimate thing to be able to make someone feel better about themselves or about life in that moment, no matter what they're going through. I thought that was like a magic thing. I felt like there was some kind of power in doing hair because you can make someone feel different about themselves.
You've already touched on how being in Jamaica at a young age influenced your approach to hair, but do you think that spending time in New York and getting a worldly perspective, and a more global experience at a young age, gave you even more to draw from when you're approaching hair?
New York was a melting pot of fashion and style, and so growing up there as well, I had all types of friends from all types of backgrounds. When you're in New York City so much, there are so many types of people that live there. It kind of felt like I was getting a world experience. I ended up going to FIT to study fashion merchandising, and it was a multicultural school as well. But I also learned to watch a lot of old movies and pull from references. I think for me it kind of informed the way I see my career now — I pull [inspiration] from everything.
When you went to FIT, did you take a break from hair? Did you think maybe you were going to pursue a career outside of hair?
When I was 18 I had this whole idea — I don't know why, I said, 'I'm going to step away from hair and pursue international fashion merchandising.' But while I was at FIT, I was working at a salon again, to pay for school. So it was like, no matter how far I tried to move away from it, I still ended up doing hair to get where I wanted to go. I went to school for fashion merchandising and I hated it. But then I went into hair full-time and started working at the salon and starting assisting, and that's kind of how I transitioned into what I’m doing now.
You've assisted basically all of the top hairstylists — the biggest names there are. How did you get your foot in the door with assisting?
I'm the type of person that when I love something, I get obsessive about it. I'd always look at fashion magazines and wonder, 'Who did the hair and makeup for this?' I started by studying the people who were big at the time, like Sam McKnight, Guido Palau and Luigi Murenu, who were all doing a lot of fashion magazine editorials and campaigns. I tried to find their agencies online and would email them just continuously. I wouldn't get any answers back. Sometimes I'd email for months and months at a time — I think I emailed maybe about a year and a half before I actually got a real answer back. That's when I started working on shows backstage, and that opened up my mind to 'session work' as they call it.
Do you remember your first backstage experience and who you were assisting and what that was like?
My first backstage experience was for a Marc Jacobs fall show — I'm trying to remember the year...I want to say 2007 or 2008, but I'm not sure. I got an email like, 'Are you available to assist Guido for this Marc Jacobs backstage show next week?' And I was like, 'Absolutely! Please let me know what I need.' They were like, 'Bring your full kit.' At the time I didn't know what 'full kit' meant, so I thought, 'Should I bring the whole salon with me?' So I basically did. And at that show, I just fell in love with fashion work. And that's where I've been ever since.
Once you got that first gig, did it snowball from there?
Yeah, it kind of came quickly and spiraled in the sense that I had skills that [in a backstage setting] seemed rare, coming from the background of the type of hairstyling that I did. Once I worked that one show, one person would say my name to someone else, and it kind of started spiraling out of control. I realized that the kind of skills I learned as a child were so intricate and so insanely sophisticated. When I started working in the fashion world, I realized how much of a value that was to mix those two worlds together. I started going to Europe, I had a stint for a while assisting Sam McKnight. Everything that was in front of me, I took to really fast and I just grew and grew.
At what point did you start working with some celebrity clients? Were you doing campaigns, were you doing editorial? How did all those different aspects come together?
I stepped out on my own [after assisting McKnight] around 2013, and I'd just work with young, unknown photographers while I was simultaneously working in the salon. Around 2015, I decided to move to London. I started working with two people that were on the same career path as me, unknown photographers that were young as well. Once we started doing that, we started getting noticed here and in my hometown in New York.
The first celebrity that I worked with on my own was probably FKA Twigs. At the time, she wasn't where she is now. London was really informal in the sense that you could meet someone in a bar and then you're shooting together two days later. Shortly after that, I was requested by Solange, who really, really inspired me. And after that, it kind of spiraled from there. There are a lot of spirals in my career.
How would you describe your hairstyling philosophy or your approach to your work?
I think in hair styling in the fashion world, I have a unique perspective because of everything I learned in Jamaica and in New York. I tried to mash the worlds together in a sense. When I approach a project, I always try to see how I can elevate it by adding a little bit of how I see the world in it. Mixing two worlds together, I always feel like I get a better result, in the sense of doing something that's just nontraditional. I would say I'm a hybrid stylist. That's my approach.
Is there anything that you hope to communicate through your body of work?
Appreciation for different cultures and appreciation for different lifestyles. There's a lot of people who are doing work and they don't really cite where it's from or what inspired them. I tend to cite a lot. I like to always tell people where I got the ideas from, what movie I watched. I feel like that will kind of eliminate a lot of this confusion of who this style came from.
I hope that my work can also make people feel like hairstyles that were looked down upon or ridiculed and deemed unconventional by whichever group — I like to highlight that and show that that's art, too. So that's the message: just appreciating different cultures and appreciating different things. I feel like the world is better when we can all just come together and mix and match our cultures.
It sounds like for you it’s so important to be educated and skilled, not just in the work of hairstyling, but also informed on culture and have an understanding of history. Is that a piece of advice you'd give to young, aspiring stylists?
Yeah. Hairstyling is more than just hairstyling. I feel like it's about the soul in a sense. A lot of people really connect to their hair and you can learn a lot about a person from their hair. I'd tell young stylists to understand culture as a whole: Watch a lot of movies, watch a lot of film, educate yourself, go to museums. Understand yourself, understand your point of view. A lot of people assist other hair stylists and then end up doing the exact same work as the person that they were taught under, without putting their own stamp on it. So I'd encourage them to find their own voice, find what they believe is beautiful, find the signature for themselves.
Where do you find most of your inspiration? What or who inspires you most?
I find inspiration everywhere. But I'm a person that always likes to go back to where I’m from. I love to go to Jamaica and people-watch, love to people-watch in London and New York. I also love to immerse myself in art and movies and films and music. A lot of my inspiration comes from my family as well — the way they dressed, the way they looked when I was growing up.
Is there any professional accomplishment so far that stands out to you as something you're proudest of?
Last year, I did an exhibition in London on the hair culture in Jamaica. That for me was such a full-circle moment that made me extremely proud. It was called 'Tallawah' and I was so proud to have a way of appreciating Black women that I grew up with in Jamaica and their amazing and intricate hairstyling skills. That for me was really, really important.
From your exhibitions to your very sculptural work and your multi-media work with accessories and hair pieces, it seems like you view hairstyling as a real art form. Would you say that's accurate?
One hundred percent. I view it as an art, as a way to express yourself, and I also view it as one of the most important things about someone that people tend to overlook. Your hair says a lot about you. So for me, hair is life.
What professional goals do you still have for the future?
Just to expand myself and expand my brand and enlighten people on different ways of doing hair. I will say: Stay tuned, because I'm definitely figuring some things out.
This interview has been edited for clarity.