The long overdue rise of the luxury afro hair salon in London

As Europe’s first department store afro bar opens in Selfridges, Emma Loffhagen explores the complex relationship many Black women have with their hair
With openings like The Steam Bar, afro hair care is becoming mainstream
ES composite

For the first 20 years of my life, I never stepped foot in a hair salon. Growing up, my haircuts exclusively took place in the living room of a family friend’s terraced house in Acton, the only person whom my mum trusted to lay a finger on her children’s hair. She knew that more often than not, when a little girl walks into a hair salon with afro hair, the question is not how to care for it, but how to tame, straighten or hide it away.

Even growing up in a city as multicultural as London, mainstream hair salons have, for the most part, been ill-equipped to deal with textured hair. As a result, the few black hair salons that do exist are often vastly oversubscribed. According to one survey, the UK has just 314 afro hair salons out of almost 45,000 registered hair and beauty salons. The options are extremely limited, and when the supply doesn’t match the demand, customer experience can suffer. Every black woman I know has a horror story about multiple hour-long wait times and less than optimal service, to put it mildly. Even for those who can afford a more luxury experience, for a long time the options simply haven’t existed.

It is this reputation that Judy Koloko, founder of The Steam Bar, a new afro hair salon in Selfridges, is trying to combat. The first afro hair salon to open in a European department store, it is part of a wave of luxury black haircare lines and salons — such as Pattern Beauty by Tracee Ellis Ross, Cécred by Beyoncé, The Curl Bar in north London and This Hair of Mine by session stylist Cyndia Harvey — that deliver a luxury experience to black women and men who have felt underserved.

I know that a lot of people have had a traumatic experiences with their hair

Judy Koloko

When I visit on a Saturday morning, the salon is at its busiest. Up on the third floor of Selfridges overlooking the thrum of Oxford Street, hairdressers buzz around, extensions and combs in hand, diligently crafting every variety of the chameleonic hairstyles on offer. Pictures of supermodel Jourdan Dunn, the face of the brand, peer from the malachite green walls.

Emma Loffhagen visited The Steam Bar in Selfridges

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Koloko laughs, as we sit down for a chat during my trim. “It’s a simple concept really. It came as a result of so many conversations I used to have with my girlfriends. I was working in a space where I was lucky enough to be going to all the best restaurants, the best hotels, spas, and I just thought to myself ‘wow, the only thing that lacked this elevated experience was my hair’.”

One of these girlfriends was Camilla Lowther, mother of Vogue cover star Adwoa Aboah, whom Koloko met while working as a talent agent at Lowther’s agency CLM. Aboah is now a co-founder in The Steam Bar — one of the many high-profile names affiliated with the new venture.

Judy Koloko, the founder of The Steam Bar
Kacey Clarke/Blank Tile

You go to salons at times, and you can end up spending half a day there,” Koloko says. “Black hair does take time, but it doesn’t need to take the time that it often does. When our clients come into the space, we want them to feel like the service they are getting is premium.”

“The location is also essential — we want people who are working in the West End or Soho to be able to just pop in after work, or even at lunchtime, to get a blow dry and not have to travel to the far depths of London.”

For black women, hair is a deeply sensitive and political issue, often tied up with a lifetime of internalised shame. We have often been conditioned to think about our hair as a time-consuming burden. The pervasive concept of “good” versus “bad” hair is ingrained, (hence Beyoncé’s iconic Lemonade lyric “Becky with the good hair”). Tightly-curled, kinky hair is still often deemed unprofessional, unruly, ugly and unfeminine.

“When I was at primary school I was not a fan of my hair,” Koloko tells me. “I’ve relaxed it, hot-combed it, I’ve weaved it. As I got older, it became the weaves and the wigs. You wear them and then you’re like, ‘I’ve completely damaged my hair’. I know that a lot of people have had a traumatic experiences.”

To many, hair might seem like a frivolous matter, but trauma is no exaggeration. A fifth of black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work, according to research from De Montfort University. In 2015, 21-year-old Lara Odoffin was refused a job unless she removed her braids, with her unnamed employer saying: “We cannot accept braids — it is simply part of the uniform and grooming requirements we get from our clients.” Even Michelle Obama has spoken about wanting to wear her hair in braids during her time at the White House, yet deciding that Americans “weren’t ready” for her natural hair.

Michelle Obama has said she didn’t feel America was ready for her natural hair in The White House
via Getty Images

The focus of The Steam Bar is a holistic approach to haircare, improving the overall health of hair that may have been damaged by years of chemical alteration. The salon’s particular focus is scalp care — what Koloko calls “skin care for the scalp” — and steaming, which allows for maximum absorption of the active ingredients in hair masks. “When we’re working with people, we’re not just giving them fantastic hairstyles, we also want to educate them,” Koloko says.

Haircare techniques like steaming, but also deep conditioning, skipping out shampoo, scrunching and oiling are all mainstays of the black community, but have recently been adopted by non-black consumers as well. The “curly girl method”, a phrase coined by hairstylist Lorraine Massey, has seen social media virality in the last few years — currently sat at almost 120 million views on TikTok — with video after video of non-black women gleefully discovering the natural curl patterns in their hair. Beyoncé’s recently launched haircare line Cécred has tapped into this — the site’s strapline reads “haircare for all hair types” — but has a heavy product focus on deep conditioning, masks, rice water treatments and oils.

Now we’re witnessing a ripple effect where the care of black hair is influencing other cultures

Charlotte Mensah

In 2021, after several years of lobbying by advocacy groups, the UK’s Hair and Beauty Industry Authority updated its certification standards, declaring that all hairdressers across the country were required to learn how to style Afro and textured hair.

Curls may be de rigueur now, but one person who knows it hasn’t always been this way is superstar hairdresser and founder of the Hair Lounge, Charlotte Mensah. “When I started my training back in the mid-Eighties, we mostly focused on chemical treatments like relaxers and curly perms,” Mensah tells me. “Back then, the European beauty standards pretty much dictated that if your hair didn’t fit the norm, it needed taming. If you didn’t, it was tough to even land a corporate job.”

In the Afro hair sphere, Mensah occupies legend status. Her experience as a stylist spans three decades and innumerable awards, including winning British Afro Hairdresser of the Year three times. In 2017, she became the first black woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Hall of Fame. Her Notting Hill salon is a pioneer in the luxury realm, hosting an impressive list of clients spanning from Zadie Smith, Erykah Badu, Michaela Coel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Janelle Monáe.

Charlotte Mensah is an legendary afro hair stylist and businesswoman
Matt Writtle

“I’m really proud to say that hairdressing today isn’t all about chemicals like it was when I started out,” she says. “I’m not a fan of trends, but I can’t ignore that we’re in a special time where natural hairstyles are popular everywhere. Because of this, clients can now easily see themselves trying out these styles.”

Over the past seven years, Mensah has been running workshops teaching people how to properly care for their curls. “Now we’re witnessing a ripple effect where the care of black hair is influencing other cultures, with more people now embracing their natural texture.”

There is an oft-quoted statistic that black women on average spend six times more on haircare than their non-black counterparts, something that brands are beginning to wake up to. The likes of L’Oréal, Aveda and Oribe have expanded their ranges to cater for afro textures. Space NK now has a section with black-owned haircare brands — unthinkable even a few years ago.

“For far too long, our purchasing power has been underestimated,” Mensah says. But as a veteran of the game, she is wary of over-confidence. “Yes, there’s a movement, but we still have a long way to go. We’ll reach a critical point when a child of black heritage, living in a remote part of the country where most people are white, can still feel confident that they will be able to look after and style their hair properly.”