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Hairstylist Dionne Smith on Representation in Beauty

Hairstylist Dionne Smith Tells Her Story: "The Conversation Around Afro Hair — I'm Fighting For It"

Too often, the best beauty stories go Untold, solely based on a person's skin colour, religion, gender expression, disability, or socioeconomic status. Here, we're passing the mic to some of the most ambitious and talented voices in the industry so they can share, in their own words, the remarkable story of how they came to be — and how they're using beauty to change the world for the better. Up next: Dionne Smith, hairstylist and founder of her beauty brand Signature By Dionne Smith and the Ebony Afro hair training doll.

My hair journey started from a very young age. My dad was a Jamaican-Caribbean guy, and he's a lot older, he's not with me anymore, but he was one of those really old-school, traditional people. He used to set chores for all the children, and I have two younger sisters, and my weekly chore on a Sunday was to wash both my sisters' hair, blow-dry it, and plait it before they went to school. At first, I was around 12 or 13, so I didn't want to sit around and do my sisters' hair, but then the more I started doing it, the more I started to fall in love with the idea of it. That's when I started to learn to braid.

I soon got creative with the braids, and when I used to go to school, people started asking my sisters, "Oh my gosh, your hair looks so good." The mums would say, "Where did you get your hair done?", and my sisters would tell them it was me. Before I knew it, I was doing friends from school, and mums used to bring their children. I was making my own money from a really young age — paying for my own lunch at school, buying my trainers, buying all the things I needed. I also started to fall in love with hair.

I've always been really business savvy, so I made up these business cards, and as women were getting on the bus, I'd be giving them my business cards.

Although I was making the change as a child, and it was fun and everything, for some reason, in my mind, I didn't think hairdressing was going to get me to where I wanted to be. It wasn't going to give me the life that I want; it's just hairdressing. As a child, you're always taught to grow up and be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a dentist. That was drummed into my head as a child. I didn't really know much about the creative industry, I just enjoyed it.

I started doing all kinds of jobs; I drove a bus, I worked in a pub, I worked in retail. At the time, I didn't realise how lucrative hairdressing was. I kept getting pulled into it. It was something I had always done on the side, but then I thought, "I need to make some more money, I want to start taking the hairdressing more seriously."

I've always been really business savvy, so I made up these business cards, and as women were getting on the bus, I'd be giving them my business cards like, "Hey, I do hair as well." From that, it just grew and grew and grew, to the point where I was getting burnt out because I couldn't keep on top of it all plus raising three boys as a single mother. I went part time and slowly built up on the hair side until I was making enough money to be able to do it full time.

After that, I had a client, one of my neighbours, who initially I thought was a spy or something, but then I realised that she was seeing the clients coming in and out of my house. One day she stopped me on the street and asked if I'd do her hair. She quickly became a regular client, and our relationship got so tight that she put me in my first salon — she literally gifted me 10 grand and put me in my first salon.

She would always inspire me and say, "I think you should open a shop, you're amazing, look at all these creations," and I'd reply, "I'm just not in a position to do that, I wouldn't know where to start." She kept saying she could help me until one day she said: "Dionne, what do you need? Like £10,000? There's a shop literally on our street, go and speak to the manager and see if he'll give it to you." I thought she was joking at first, and I kept saying that it didn't feel right. But every time she came in, she'd say, "I feel like you can do this."

I spoke with my friends, and they told me I should do it. So I said to my neighbour, "OK, I'll take the money under the condition that while I'm paying you back this money, I'll give you free haircare," and we agreed on those terms. She's still my neighbour now. That's why I really believe that you can try to run away from your gifts or run away from what's destined for you, but it'll come and find you. From there, everything started to fall into place. I started with the original salon, then outgrew that salon, went around the corner to the main road, and opened up a bigger shop, which had six seats for styling, two beauty rooms, and two nail spaces.

It's really hard for me, even now, to swallow that Afro hair is not a mandatory module in education — whether you want to learn it or not.

One day, a lady called Alex Box, who is a makeup artist, came into my salon. I didn't have any idea who she was, but she wanted hair extensions. She later told me that she struggled to find anyone who could put hair extensions in properly, and she was telling me how big it is in the European market. I had no idea. I was just so focused on Afro hair. She introduced me to her agent, who then asked me to assist some of their stylists, one of whom was Malcolm Edwards. I started to assist him at all these London Fashion Week shows, and it was another world. I was blown away.

From there, people just kept encouraging me. I've always been encouraged. I went on to win Sleek's Best Cornrow Based Weave — Weave Wizard Award, and after that it got me thinking maybe I should enter the Wahl Awards — I did, and I won best braids in the Wahl Awards. It gave me a lot of confidence.

It got me thinking that I didn't just want to be a salon stylist, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to do hair wherever hair was needed. But after a while, it got to a point where I started to get a little overwhelmed because I was doing a lot of session work as well as being in the salon. I had to make a choice. I thought, "It's my time to shine now. I want to fly a bit now," so I shut shop. I made the decision to close the salon down and go freelance. It was the best decision I've made in my life.

I spent so much time building a career and everything, but then COVID-19 hit. I thought to myself, "OK, Dionne, what's next? I'm not sitting down doing nothing, I'm going to make this happen." I wanted to bring out my own line, so I did. I have my straighteners, Signature By Dionne, and I also wanted to bring out an Afro training head.

It's really hard for me, even now, to swallow the fact that Afro hair is not a mandatory module in education — whether you want to learn it or not. It's always troubled me because you wonder, how can you call yourself a hairdresser if there's hair types coming into the salon that you can't do? To me, you're not a fully qualified hairdresser. The thing is, I'm not blaming anyone, because even with a lot of European stylists, they actually want to learn Black hair but they're scared to mess up someone's hair. But then what do they practice on? Where do they learn it? There's nothing to facilitate their learning. I thought to myself, this is the time for me to bring Ebony, the Afro doll training head, to the world and try to help those people.

I get so many emails from European mums who have had mixed-race children that have never seen or touched textured hair in their life. They don't even know what to do with their child's hair or where to start. Children then grow up with issues and complications because of these things. That's why Ebony is so much bigger than just an Afro doll, if you think about the entirety of what it represents. It's not just hair, it's everything. There's so much culture attached to our hair. The conversation around Afro hair — I'm fighting for it.

Image Source: Dionne Smith
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