During the height of my biweekly trips to Marjorie’s for a wash and set, I’d kill time by poring over fashion magazines as I waited for my hair to dry. While the old stylist ran a hot comb through my mother’s hair, I’d lose myself in images of Linda, Christy and Naomi bound in Alaïa or draped in Donna Karan. But those editorials didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as the Benetton mini catalogs that were inserted into the magazine. Never before had I seen a prism of models of every ilk dressed in richly hued textiles and patterns. Prior to my introduction to the world of fashion magazines, my reading consisted of Tiger Beat (Corey Haim and Kirk Cameron), Right On! (Bobby Brown and Al B. Sure), YM (properly pairing acid wash with scrunchies) and Sassy (too irreverent for my 4th grade mind at the time). So when I started reading Vogue, Elle and Bazaar at the hair salon, I discovered perks like Giorgio of Beverly Hills perfume samples and the Benetton miniature lookbooks.
While I wasn’t comfortable buying my own $3.00 Vogues just yet and I was still devoted to my teen idols and R+B stars, I needed to possess the Benetton booklets on their own. My only way of obtaining them was through purchasing an entire issue of whichever magazine featured the insert. They were portable, visually stimulating and an entry level pathway to legitimate fashion. Up until that point I’d only been exposed to mall mainstays like Contempo Casuals and Units. Even though Benetton had a presence in my hometown mall, the majority of my school clothes were purchased at Zayre, K Mart and on the rare occasion when name brands were in order, Marshall’s. So for me, in my isolated world of budget retailers, the Benetton booklets offered digestible fashion I could wrap my brain around.
I’m not proud of this, but while Marjorie, the other stylists and patrons (including my mother) weren’t looking, I gently ripped the lookbook out of the Vogue and quickly slipped into my pocket. While this wouldn’t have gotten me a segment on America’s Most Wanted, I still took something that wasn’t mine. Instead of going down the crooked path of theft, I could have easily asked the proprietor of the salon if she would allow me to take the catalog. But in my 10-year-old mind, transgression was the past of least resistance.
Within a year’s time I would go on to start buying the fashion magazines that featured the little Benetton lookbooks. It was never fully about dress when it came to the Italian brand. Truth be told, I never really owned any Benetton pieces (save for a too-short skirt bought in 1999 and a red sweatshirt borrowed from my friend Preethi during the 6th grade school trip to D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg). I was always intrigued by their controversial ad campaigns and replaced the teen idols on my bedroom wall with them…although I could have done without the Angel and Devil ad.
The other evening I saw Pierre Thoretton’s L’amour Fou at the IFC Center. I was anticipating the film for some time not only because I consider Yves Saint Laurent to be the greatest designer in the history of fashion but also because I’m convinced that he’s influenced the dress of every woman in Western society. While I was disappointed in the film (plodding pace and meandering plot), it was visually stunning to see Saint Laurent at work in his atelier or to watch his rainbow hued group of models glide down the runway wearing Le Smoking, a safari minidress or sumptuous ensembles from his fall 1976 Russian collection.
In her book The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake chronicles the heady days of 1970s Paris by documenting the rivalry between Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. She follows the designer from a youth in Oran, Algeria all the way through his career as a couturier. When I read the book several years ago I felt I was getting a full-bodied picture of Saint Laurent the man, in addition to Saint Laurent the designer. This is where the film is lacking. L’amour Fou certainly gives the viewer a look into his professional career, but the emphasis was more on Pierre Bergé and Saint Laurent’s passion for art as well as their personal and professional relationship. But it never fully settles into either narrative. Instead it ricochets from one point to the next.
A year before his death (at the suggestion of my Counterfeit Caper cohort), I sent Saint Laurent the only fan letter I ever wrote in the form of a get-well-soon card while he was convalescing at the American Hospital in Paris. Who knows if he ever read the short and saccharine note I wrote, but I wanted to impart what he meant to me not only as a woman but also as an observer of dress. My most cherished item of clothing is a Rive Gauche skirt from 1980 that I love it for its specious simplicity. The piece is essentially a modified circle skirt, but the construction is exquisite and the quality is rarely seen in contemporary ready-to-wear due to diminishing production standards from cost-cutting.
It’s absolutely dreadful that for some Saint Laurent has been reduced to a three-lettered logo plastered on a t-shirt. L’amour Fou did a tolerable job of countering this, but that’s not good enough for a movie documenting Yves Saint Laurent. It would have been a more effective film had the director focused more fully on the designer’s passion for art, his relationship with Pierre Bergé or as a visual survey of his life as a designer, not a mediocre mix of all three. Saint Laurent contributed far more than initials to fashion; he made modernity in clothing the standard. Unfortunately, Thoretton failed to capture this seamlessly.
Over the past decade it seems as though luxury has devolved from class to mass to crass. I attribute this to the logomania of the late 1990s/early 2000s, which was itself a backlash against the minimalism championed by the designs of Jil Sander and Helmut Lang for the majority of the Nineties. It seemed as if every fashion house succumbed to the desire of the people and created overtly branded pieces for mass consumption. This democratization of fashion offered entry level opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford luxury items—think key fobs and sunglasses. I personally benefited from this when I bought the Louis Vuitton pochette in 2000. This begs the question of whether or not luxury can retain its prestige if it’s accessible.
In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas conducts an exhaustive and thoroughly researched examination of the practices of all the major luxury firms. She travels from one continent to another in attempt to answer why the prices have gone up yet quality has diminished, or why every flagship shares a near identical aesthetic to all the other luxury shops on the street.
When the author was publicizing the book in 2007, I attended a reading she did at FIT and was taken aback by how deceptive some of the brands were in their marketing of products. As she did in her talk at the school, Thomas eloquently articulates the current fashion system’s shrewd methods that force one to reconsider purchasing that “handcrafted” bag that is sold to the consumer as having been “made in Italy”.
Yesterday the New York Times published an article on the rising trend of weave theft. Owners of salons and beauty supply stores from Houston to Minneapolis to Dearborn have increasingly been falling prey to this very specific crime. One salon had $150,000 worth of human hair stolen from their inventory. Items such as flat screen TVs, digital cameras and cash registers have been bypassed in lieu of the valuable commodity. How is that thieves have circumnavigated electronics and liquid cash for hair extensions? How did the weave become the next bootleg DVD?
Women of all persuasions utilize hair extensions. Naturally, I’m more familiar with the affinity for the pieces within the context of the African diaspora. While I’ve never worn a weave, I did wear my hair straight from the time I was 9. I remember being one of the last girls in my 3rd grade class to do so. At that point, I was simply drained from having my natural hair feeling as though it were being torn out of my head every time my mother combed it.
The hot iron, sizzling on the stovetop, offered a welcome reprieve from the multitude of methods my patient mother had tried to release my tightly coiled hair. Through the years she had combed different tonics into my hair in an attempt to make hair grooming less painful. I remember the daylong process of the Kiddie Perm and its nausea-inducing chemicals that broke down the curl. She may have missed a step in the equation, because my hair turned out as thick and coarse as it had been before. After that came the Sta Sof Fro curl activating spray. That didn’t do anything either. We just ended up using Vaseline for a while until I begged for my hair to be “straightened out”.
I bravely tolerated the burns on my scalp and earlobes in order to get the smooth, lengthened and shiny results. At 9 I felt like a new woman. That only lasted a year as I began to complain about the burns I’d managed to endure. By the summer of my 10th year I told my mother I needed a relaxer, often referred to as a perm in the black salons. My mother took me to her hairdresser Marjorie for my first appointment. I remember sitting in her chair and looking in the mirror, emphatically stating that I wanted her to give me “Whitley hair”. I was a big fan of The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World and I pined for hair like Jasmine Guy, the biracial actress who portrayed Whitley Gilbert. In its wet form, my hair was indeed Whitley-esque. But then Marjorie blew it dry and smeared it with a coating of thick, green grease. It no longer moved the way it had when it was yet, and it ending up leaving stains anywhere I rested my head. That was fine up until I transferred to a predominantly white private school a year later. There my classmates would touch my hair, grimace with a WTF? face, look at their sheen on their hands, then wipe it off on their uniform skirts. This led to me to using a paper towel to futilely wipe any surface residue off of my hair. I continued to get a relaxer until my hair started falling out. Then my mother and I reverted back to the hot iron—which she had never thrown out.
Once again I grew tired of the burns and found a hairdresser who worked out of her home and would pick me up and drop me off in one of those vans with the velvet upholstery. Once I left Florida for university in New York, I would either tag along with a friend to her stylist or I’d fine one who did hair from her dorm room. By the second semester of my freshman hair, a friend had introduced me to the Dominican way of hair relaxing. For the first time in my life my hair had real movement—like the kind in the Dark and Lovely commercials. The stylists at this particular salon in Queens didn’t use the thick pomades that Marjorie favored. Their post-shampoo process involved sitting under a dryer for over an hour with rollers, then having it blown straight only to be placed back into bigger rollers and blown straight a final time with a blow dryer.
Over the years I bounced from one Dominican Salon to another, depending on where I lived. I loved the results but I hated commuting to the salon and then listening to endless chatter under a hot bonnet for two hours. I attempted to do my hair from home as my aversion towards the laborious process grew. By 2005 I wanted to cut it all off and essentially make my hair a non-entity; essentially becoming something I only thought about when it needed a trim. I soon started washing my hair and wearing it in a bun wet without combing through the tangles. This resulted in locks forming—more Deadhead than Rasta. By December of that year, I was over the whole notion of straight hair and long hair and moveable hair. I ended up cutting out my entire perm, none of that growing it out and trimming the new hair. I was done. It was liberating and a mild shock to the system.
I’ve worn my hair short and natural ever since. I don’t spite anyone for wearing their hair straight or utilizing a weave. How a woman chooses to wear her hair is a very personal choice and I don’t impose my views on others. Girls, particularly girls within the African diaspora, are taught about the currency of their hair from a very early age. “Indian” or “tall” hair (in Jamaican parlance) is the pinnacle of so-called good hair. It’s long and shiny with a beautifully textured wave. I knew the value of this even as a 1st grader as my classmates and I stood around a kindergartener who was of mixed ancestry. Her mother usually gave her one or two long braids that went down her back. She also frequently wore Michael Jackson Thriller and Beat It jackets, which raised her profile even more. Just as the white girls had objectified my “exotic” hair by standing around stroking it, I’d done the same thing 5 years before to the kindergartener with the tall “mixed” hair.
In bell hooks’ Happy to Be Nappy, she writes of black hair as being “soft like cotton, flower petal billowy soft.” While I don’t foresee myself ever getting a weave in the near future, intellectually I understand the need to spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to obtain Whitley hair that one may not have been born with. It makes sense that the demand for this premium supply would result in a criminal faction of the industry, but what’s even more criminal is a little girl who is taught, whether directly or obliquely that there is something inherently wrong with her hair.