Tuesday, January 24, 2017

No Holds Barred: Behind the look

by Blair Sabol; Photographs by Patrick Halbe

Fashion and trends never interested me, but cultural influences always caught my eye.  For instance — nowadays, pornography has had the biggest effect on the way some women (not men ... yet) look. Just look at the way 58-year-old Madonna appeared at the last Met Gala; baring her breasts and buttocks in a Givenchy leather outfit that resembled a drag queen dominatrix. What influence was she under? Porn? (Or Norma Desmond?)
Forget the giant boob jobs and fish lips — it’s now common to wear lace bra-lettes on the street and tight stretch jeans exposing your ass crack. Bravo Housewives in “band aid” tight mini dresses, stiletto “fuck me” pumps, and wide plunging necklines appear regularly on the fashion “elite.” Transparent fish -netted bodices are the norm. Are Burkas around the corner as a stylistic counter punch?  There are already Burka bathing suits (burkinis). I can’t wait!
Personally I am too old and tired to keep up with fashion’s Ferris wheel. But as I said, I love to observe what becomes the incentive behind the look.  For me, it has always been African-American.  Even nowadays, I think athleisure wear might have started with the black rappers wearing Nike jogging suits, sneakers, and gold rope necklaces. Or was it Castro in his Adidas jackets in 1970?
I remember meeting Miles Davis in 1971 on a fashion shoot for the “counter-culture” fashion magazine Rags (the Rolling Stone of fashion).  To me, he (and Jimi Hendrix) was the ultimate in hipster chic.  But Miles was even more so with his cool slim cut bell-bottoms, velvet jackets, white shirts and great desert boots. He showed me his closet and even modeled his latest “hippie” suede fringed jacket that his second wife Betty had just gifted him. At the time, Betty Davis was a “funk” musician in her own right, and had a noticeable style. 
Betty Davis photographed by ©Baron Wolman/Iconic Images in Rags, 1971.
Within a month, Betty and I became best pals, and suddenly I was dressing like her — I too sported an Afro, suede fringed pants, silk print blouse, skinny scarf and Indian jewelry.  She also made me get over-the-knee suede boots at Henri Bendel. When she wasn’t recording her own music or inspiring the likes of Carlos Santana, Betty was shopping and to this day I think Betty Davis was the best natural born “stylist” I ever knew.

Apparently Betty went on to divorce Miles and became a cult “rocker” who influenced Lady Gaga, Tina Turner, and even Cher.  She is still alive but has totally disappeared, by her own choice.  I guess it is hard surviving as a former music and fashion statement. 
Miles and Betty Davis. ©Baron Wolman/Iconic Images
But style influence doesn’t disappear, it just transforms.  Recently I saw Chris Rock’s great documentary “Good Hair,” which for me was as much a documentary on the history of African-American style as it was of hair.  Black hair is a $9 billion dollar business.  No Kidding!  Not only does he explain the various processes of relaxers, weaves, braids, wigs and afros, but it was all presented with various black women speaking the mantra, “Don’t touch my hair ... you can do anything, but don’t touch my hair.”  It made me realize the importance of black style from the head to the toes (after all, it was Betty Davis who taught me the importance of shoes, above all!)
Black Style Matters is now a major reality. More than ever with hair, and more recently, nails. Hair and nail salons are action central. Everything happens in these neighborhood strip mall specialty shops.

Though fashion happens on the streets — Bill Cunningham taught us that — for me, it can actually arrive in your own living room.  Two years ago, my 98-year-old father required home care. Jay Gordon arrived on our doorstep to help my Dad live out his final 18 months.

My dad under Jay's care (with a little help from Sunshine).
I would watch her turn him and give him breathing treatments with the most beautiful jewel encrusted, long glamorous fingernails I had ever seen. And her hairstyles went from straight relaxed bob, to a micro-braided cascading ponytail overnight! She was also the first person I ever saw to wear indigo matte lipstick without looking Goth, sick or dreary.  The clothes were important, but it’s the accessories! Jay taught me that “God is in the details — that’s hair, nails, makeup, shoes, and bling!” She would arrive for her 12-hour shift in jeweled flip flops, and leave in a pair of sky-high heeled booties.

My Dad has been dead two years this February. But Jay has stayed on for me, and my 94-year-old mom (who doesn’t really need help at all), mostly to keep us culturally current.

Recently she told me that skinny is out, and “thick” is in. Thank God ... but I already knew that since the Kardashian girls had sent that message with their big booty look.  However, Jay reminded me that Beyoncé owns that “chunky trunk” also – so does Michelle Obama (who is resembling Beyoncé more of late). Even Naomi Campbell has a fuller figure (as Oprah starts to shrink on her Weight Watchers diet).

And though Rihanna may be the current “light skinned goddess”, Jay reminded me that while lighter skin is still considered more attractive (I think Michael Jackson was trying to go for this), darker skinned women like Lupita Nyong'o and Viola Davis can still wear the brighter fashion and ebony colored lips better than anyone!!
Jay has given me a real style education.  She took me to her nail salon, and her hair braider to get me “up close and personal” with the true artistry behind the look.

PR Nails is located in a tiny Phoenix strip mall. It is a neighborhood business with a dedicated following.  All nationalities and sexes (transgenders are welcome) line up for Nina Win and her staff of 3 — all day every day.
Nina Win, owner of PR Nails in Phoenix.
Nina is a 35-year-old woman from Vietnam — it is no news that the Vietnamese have taken over the Mani/pedi business.  It used to be the Russians who ruled, but I know a lot of billionaire men who ended up marrying Russian manicurists — the Russian girls may have used the nail biz as a “entry position” but most have moved on.

The Vietnamese have now taken over and remain on top.  Nina has been in her “family business” (her Mother is the bookkeeper/owner and her two sisters are the other techs) for 7 years. And she is booked. But she doesn’t just do simple manicures, gels, or acrylics — she is a “nail artist.”  In the beginning, YouTube was a great resource for inspiration and technique, “then I went on to do my own style of triple layered painting and applique.”  Her art takes three hours to create.  She uses special ordered polish and  glitter special ordered from Japan.
Nina Win's wall of colors.
Nina Win's wall of nails.
A closeup of the wall samples.
The price list.
She admitted that she got into nails “because I didn’t have to know perfect English to get a nail license.”  She works with a mask, and rarely speaks.  Jay lets Nina determine the design. Last summer, she did an “Orlando” theme to memorialize the Club shooting, which consisted of layers of orange and explosive zig zag lines of silver glitter, topped with an applique of gold stars. According to Nina, there are three styles of super long nails — Stiletto (long and pointy), Coffin (narrowing to a squared end) and Almond (long and rounded).  Michelle Obama is now sporting moderately long white “Stilettos.”
Acrylic nail application.
Shaping the nail.
Jay Gordon with Salon Owner Nina Win finishing up the first step.
Jay admiring Win's work.
The artistry in detail.
Three hours later ($55) Jay sported 10 jeweled “Christmas gifts” at the ends of her fingers.  She will return in a month for a new set and a new theme. As for Nina, I never saw so many tools and brushes in all my life at a nail tech station. Her walls are lined with mannequin hands displaying samples of her incredible creations. I see why the neighborhood stands and waits for a session with Nina.  These are not porn nails. These are three-dimensional works of art — each nail is a unique triple layer cake with bling on top!
The finished product.
Detail of the finished product.
Now braiding is an entirely different story.  I noticed that trend in all salons with “ponytail braid” bars.  At John Barrett in New York you can get a beaded French or Fishtail braid done for $75. Micro braiding your whole head is more complicated, and can run $800 - $1200 depending on the style and hair.

Face it — for traditional African braiding you need to head to 125th street in Harlem, and many people do. The most famous is Aminata who will spend 6 hours and cost you $200 to give you a version of Erykah Badu.
Uptown version of single braids at John Barrett Salon — starting price is $75.
Actually, Erykah Badu recently spoke about her famous floor length braids, which are done every 4 weeks by Yasmin Amira Davis who also does Janet Jackson and Sean Paul. Apparently Davis arrives at Badu’s hotel room at 11 PM and leaves at 5 AM.  Badu told the New York Times that when she gets her hair braiding done, “We are all together — the rhythm — there’s incense, it all feels really good.  It’s like a village, a tribe ... braiding is a sacred sharing kind of thing.”
Erykah Badu's floor-length braids being held up by Yasmin Amira Davis. Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times
If you are not Badu or Beyoncé — who used her real hair and woven wig for her many braid in her recent “Formation” video — there are traditional African Braiding salons such as The Grace, where my friend Jay Gordon took me.  The Grace is owned by Mirra Amadou Traore and is located in the Metrocenter Mall in central Phoenix.
Storefront in the Metrocenter Mall, Phoenix.
Mirra arrived in New York City from Nigeria in 2012 and worked as a braider in Harlem. “I was never schooled in braiding — it is something I knew and my whole family knew from birth. We breathe ... we braid.”  She moved to Phoenix to be near relatives and opened her own braiding shop in in 2013.  “I am also a dress maker and sell my own African fabric designs. The women in my family are all craftsmen.  We sew, we weave, we crochet, we braid.”
Display of synthetic and real hair extensions, and incense.
Swatches of African fabric for sale.
She has two other braiders but Jay goes to Mirra every three months and swears by her technique “because my head doesn’t hurt after she’s done and the braids are finished off right, they don’t fall out.”  They both talked about all the different styles of braids; kinky twist, goddess, boxer, French, macro, micro, fish scales, corn rows, and of course, dread locks. Both Jay and Mirra worked together on the color and style.  Jay got a shorter “Kinky Twist.”  Clearly braiding has come a long way from Bob Marley “dreads” and Bo Derek’s “10” cornrows.
Grace African Braiding Shop Owner Mirra Amadou Traore wearing her own design. Mirra and Jay in process.
Shop owner Mirra twisting Jay's hair.
Shop talk.
There are all kinds of colors and types of hair to choose from for each braid — you can have it sewn in, or braided, or glued.  It tookJay  6 hours and $150.  MIrra’s hands worked so fast I couldn’t tell whether she was twisting it “underhand” or “overhand” as she tried to explain it all to me. Jay kept her head steady looking at the giant TV screen provided for the customers along with an assortment of snacks. Clearly this is not just a “day of beauty.”  It is a major commitment and an intimate sort of “ritualistic” experience.

“Braiding is of course a black African tradition.  But now it is very much in fashion — so I am very popular” laughs Mirra.  She also sells her African fabric dresses, incense, and all the hemp oil and creams to keep the braids in good shape.  “My hair has started to really grow quicker and look better since I came here — it stimulates the scalp” insists Jay.
Jay Gordon's opening moment.
Kinky Twist Macro Braid.
Two-rope Kinky Twist.
Later on that evening when she arrived for work, sitting with her bejeweled nails and freshly woven braids, Jay admitted, “My hair and my nails are my luxury items.  They give me my power, and make me feel complete. And both experiences are like meditation for me — I guess it’s kind of like my own sense of “Black Magic.”

And that transcends all Fashion.
"The Look."
The Details.