"The general consumer thinks textured hair is included in the license that all stylists get, but it has not been historically," says Renee Gadar, Aveda's Global Artistic Director for Texture over Zoom. We had virtually convened to talk about textured hair education and why, in 2022, there's still such a dearth of knowledge about textured hair amongst the hairstylist and salon community in the United States.
Perhaps you've read it somewhere or seen it posted about on social media: a celebrity or model taking to Instagram or TikTok decrying the subpar service they received on a photo shoot because the stylists booked for the job were unable to deliver on making them look and feel their best. Or maybe you've experienced it yourself — showing up to a salon only to elicit looks of fear and panic from the stylist staff at first sight of your thick curls and coils. Or quite possibly, you never even got to experience the alarm because you were turned away over the phone before you even set foot in the establishment.
Gadar knows this scenario firsthand as a trained hair cutter and educator who has worked in various high-end salons. But the lack of styling education for natural and textured hair was, in fact, news to Neill Corporation President Edwin Neill. As his family's eponymous company acquired Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute, as well as founding Paris Parker Salons in Louisiana, he began to hear troubling accounts of clients with textured hair who weren't being tended to, and of students and stylists who didn't have the competency to properly care for their hair. So he used his connections with Aveda to figure out how to change things.
Neill turned to Global Brand President Barbara de Laere. "She really wanted to change the culture at Aveda and make it more inclusive," Neill tells Fashionista. "[Aveda hair-care] did that through product launches, and we're doing that with education through Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute. So we thought, where's the best place to start? And the obvious answer is in the schools."
Starting at the root (no pun intended) is not unlike what's taking place in society at large, as people in industries all over the world are figuring out how to combat bigotry and create more expansive and intentional inclusion practices. In many instances, that process is arduous and complex, completed only when a slew of stakeholders come to a unanimous decision about how to move spaces forward towards equity. In this case, Neill took a two-pronged approach, both working to expand textured hair education in Aveda Arts & Science Institute's 17 locations and leveraging his power on the State Board of Cosmetology for Louisiana to surface the issue and then gather other board members and cosmetology school heads to affect the state's cosmetology license standardized test.
"The practical exam in Louisiana and every other state focuses primarily on straight hair," explains Neill. "There are parts that teach you how to make straight hair curly, but there weren't any sections that detailed how to style naturally textured hair."
Read that again to let it truly sink in: The exam required to obtain a state-issued cosmetology license did not include natural or textured hair. In other words, those with natural or textured hair can't enter a salon and expect to encounter a stylist who knows what to do. And the powers that be have set up a system that not only allows this, it endorses and perpetuates it.
To get the exam changed, Neill leaned on his fellow board member and longtime stylist and educator of 38 years, Kevin Martin. "In re-looking at the exam, I saw how biased and unfair it was," Martin tells Fashionista. "It was so imbalanced, and it catered to one hair texture. Only recently is there the appearance of curly hair that's shaped in a beautiful silhouette, but even now, it isn't very prevalent. Very often, curly hair just hangs because stylists don't know how to work with it. The majority of salons aren't teaching curly hair cutting techniques, and the majority of stylists aren't well-versed in these techniques, either."
When Gadar was starting out with Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute, the school had only two-day textured hair education courses, and they were lectures. (Students didn't have mannequins with textured hair to allow the hands-on practice they'd get with other hair types.) She began to push back on this condensed experience, advocating for new procedures. Within a few months, Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute began supplying students with textured hair mannequins to learn on.
Gadar, along with other Black stylists, educators and hair experts, was also approached by Aveda to help to develop a robust, comprehensive education curriculum for their salon stylists. "It was really meaty and justified the need to incorporate texture throughout the entire curriculum, instead of just over two days," she says. The brand was focused on that education happening in the salons, while Gadar's aim was to have it show up in schools. "Focusing on the salons means getting people who are already licensed," she says. "But I thought it would be more fruitful to produce stylists who had this competency, because they'll eventually populate all of the salons."
Gadar then sat down with a fellow educator at Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute to outline all the requirements for each state. "She and I developed 13 modules for textured hair education that would be taught whether a license demanded 1000 hours or 1500 hours of education," she says. "We broke down that robust curriculum for salons into this, and now, everyone has to go through these modules, regardless of whether or not they have a Black teacher or if they're located in a predominantly Black community. It's a requirement now, and students have no choice but to learn about textured hair."
Changing the education portion reinforces the mandate of adding textured hair to the state exams because cosmetology schools ultimately want to ensure their students graduate and get their licenses. In Louisiana, implementing this change required a meeting of the minds; Neill has plans to recreate this as best he can in the 10 states where Aveda Arts & Sciences Institutes are located, then in every state. But future steps may not be quite as linear.
"We have to reach out to each state board with the request to change their test," says Neill. "Some states require the test to be set up in legislation, so those states will be harder." And Neill is already facing opposition as a few chain salons have formed a group aiming to make training hours shorter, to get students out of school and licensed more quickly.
"They want to put them in low-wage jobs at one of their locations, and those stylists ultimately don't end up staying long because they're not making a good wage," says Neill. "They burn through them, essentially, and it's bad for the recently graduated students and for our industry. We want to raise standards and make future stylists more educated and more competent when they graduate. We want to make sure the school curriculums have enough information to make every stylist competent to do everyone's hair."
Martin sees a future in which stylists who aren't continuously working on their education and prioritizing that above all else will not be able to survive in the hair industry. "Many people are just going to 'YouTube university' and thinking they can figure things out from there," he says. "And then they're practicing what they're seeing on their clients. I always tell my students, 'Your clients don't practice paying you, they're paying you to deliver a great service.' Education is the heartbeat of the hair industry. If you don't have a passion for it, your skills will diminish and you'll have to subsidize your income elsewhere."
Gadar already sees huge impacts happening now in the textured hair space — namely that though salons still turn people away, there's always a firestorm on social media shortly thereafter, and they can no longer get away with doing it quietly.
As Gadar puts it, in addition to being egalitarian, educating stylists about textured hair is just good business, especially in the long term. "Salons now understand they have a responsibility to the people who live and work around their salon," she says. "By 2045, white people will be the minority in the United States. So for stylists in 20 years, if you haven't gotten on board with this education, you wouldn't know how to work on the majority of the population and you'll be at a loss. In five years, I foresee textured hair being on every standardized test, and think people will start feeling more inclusion as this happens."
Louisiana's future has already been changed, but the exam has yet to be altered in other states where Aveda Arts & Sciences Institute has locations, including Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. Neill and Gadar haven't yet revealed where they'll go next — perhaps New York, as that's where Gadar lives and works — but at least the education will be there for the students, their future clients and whenever the state exams are ready.