from goddess braids to platinum pixies, we explore today’s harlem beauty renaissance

Harlem’s style legacy didn’t end with the Harlem Renaissance. i-D discovers a new era in the New York neighborhoods beauty that draws from the past and looks toward the future.

by Jessica C. Andrews
Nov 24 2014, 12:00pm

Photography Daniel King

Candice Idehen has long ombre hair with honey blonde tips. Her nails are stiletto-shaped with Swarovski crystals atop bright purple polish, a favourite of clients at her Harlem-based nail salon, Bed of Nails. "We love bold colour in Harlem, whether on hair, lips, nails or clothes," she said, citing a marked difference from Manhattan's storied love of black. "We're different from the rest of New York City. We have our own beliefs of what's in and what's hot. We admire fashion but we make our own trends."

Harlem is indeed a style mecca unto itself. Where Manhattan style can be gritty and minimalist, Harlem is a study in spectacle. Compared to the ease of Brooklyn dressing, Harlem doesn't mind effort; in fact, it takes pride in it. Harlem's style philosophy rose to prominence during the Renaissance era when women were careful to style their finger waves and line their kohl-rimmed eyes with studied precision. That bold, thoughtful approach to beauty persists today. But finger waves have been replaced by big, voluminous curls. "Harlem beauty is all about texture. We see a lot of big curls like Teyana Taylor and SZA," said Niki McGloster, digital editor of Hype Hair. "If you aren't going for texture, you're rocking bold colours and cuts. Purple, blonde and blue extensions are huge. And everyone's going shorter with bobs and pixies with platinum blonde or purple colour for a little edge."

Edge, personality and attitude are at the heart of Harlem's current beauty aesthetic. Harlem women don't merely want to be the best-dressed person in the room; they want that one-of-a-kind look no one in the room can duplicate. "We need something shiny and unique that attracts attention at all times," said Idehen, "whether it's adorned overcoats, statement accessories or even embellished nails with glitter or stones."

"People like [hip hop fashion icon and designer] Dapper Dan helped foster that attitude in new-age Harlem," Idehen continued. "You may find someone wearing a mink fur with a pair of regular blue jeans, just because."

Harlem's affinity for glamour endures, regardless of what mainstream trends dictate. "The beauty is different from a modern day magazine's dictation of beauty, because Harlem defines its own beauty," said Brandice Henderson-Daniel, founder of Harlem's Fashion Row designer collective. "From the size 12 voluptuous woman that struts with complete confidence to the most refined woman you've ever laid eyes on, Harlem women are not afraid to be unique."

Braids have always been one of the more unique hairstyles in the African-American community. And Harlem has the largest concentration of hair-braiding salons in New York City on its famed 125th Street. Dressed in traditional African garb, stylists move their fingers furiously and skillfully as they weave a myriad of intricate styles on women of all ages. "Goddess braids, two French braids and box braids with colored extensions are all popular styles," McGloster explained. One of the classic and enduring looks, she said, is "cornrows with baby hair gelled down like FKA Twigs." "Baby styles in general are seeing a resurgence. Baby bangs like Beyoncé, baby hair, baby bobs - the look is bold yet endearing."

There's also an uptick in DIY, especially among Harlem women with natural hair. Going natural gives them a sense of autonomy over their look, as several choose to style their hair independent of salons. And when they do, they turn to any number of beauty supply stores on that bustling retail behemoth, 125th Street. Though most stores aren't black-owned, 125th is still the epicenter of Harlem's historic black culture. When women aren't pouring money into commercial product lines, "Harlemites swear by the shea butter that African men sell on the street," explained Idehen. They attribute their healthy hair and "soft, ever-glowing skin to it." Oils like coconut, castor and jojoba are also sold on the street in abundance, and the purchases make Harlem women feel like their money is going back into the community.

The idea that Harlem shoppers are informed, and perpetually looking for the best in beauty, drives many of the neighborhood's entrepreneurs. Ruth Brooks opened the first green salon uptown, Simply Hair, in Kalahari, Harlem's only green high-rise condo. Her clients, who are "socially, economically and culturally diverse," flock to her salon because her products are organic and her manicure and pedicure services are non-toxic.

Lisa Price, founder of Carol's Daughter, says shoppers at her Harlem boutique are happy to pay more for quality products and services. "Harlem women INVEST in beauty," she said. "It's not just about the latest and greatest product in that moment. They are usually educated on ingredients and take their beauty regimens very seriously. Beauty for our clientele is an affordable luxury."

Following the tradition of black-owned businesses during the Renaissance era, Price was one of the first entrepreneurs to get real estate in new-age Harlem with her flagship store on 125th Street. "In the time of the Harlem Renaissance, successful African Americans moved to Harlem as a symbol that they had arrived," she said. "So for Carol's Daughter's flagship store, that was the perfect location. We had arrived and we celebrated that arrival as our predecessors would have."

When Brandice Henderson-Daniel formed her company, which gives designers of color a platform during New York Fashion Week, she knew she wanted to tie the name to Harlem's rich history. "As I started to think of a name for [Harlem's Fashion Row], I was inspired by all of the artistic and cultural movements rooted in the rich history of Harlem." It's a cultural movement that hasn't slowed down or died with her generation. "The bold spirit of elegance that first emerged during the Renaissance era absolutely still exists in the women that reside in this neighborhood now."

Traces of that golden era are palpable in every facet of modern-day Harlem culture. In the 1920s, Harlem women took great delight in dressing to thrill, and today's breed of trendsetters are no different. "There is definitely still a nostalgic aura of being as well-dressed as possible because you are in Harlem," Price said. "It's sort of like everyone is a stakeholder in holding up the legacy. Your hair, makeup, clothes and everything should always be crisp, stylish, and fashion-forward." You can tell, from their irreverent stories of textured curls and braiding salons run with factory-like efficiency, Harlem is passionate about continuing its legacy. With every stylish Harlem woman, that legacy grows, evolves and marches triumphantly into the new millennium.


Text Jessica C. Andrews
Photography Daniel King

New York
Daniel King