Strolling down a couple of blocks in Asheville, one might see a neat buzz cut, long dreadlocks, a cute bob, a tight weave, fairy hair, mermaid hair, hair everywhere and a big, bushy mustache — maybe even all on the same person.
When it comes to hair, Asheville is “anything goes,” says Jami Redlinger, Best of WNC Hall of Famer for Hairstylist and co-owner of The Middy. But beneath that diversity, she explains, is a unifying theme: self-expression. “I feel like there’s a lot of really creative people here, so people want to get really creative with their hair, too.”
Tina Ford-Cox, a former multiyear Best of WNC champion who operates out of The Parlor of Asheville, agrees that Ashevilleans do their ’dos with purpose. “Asheville is not sloppy,” she says. “People dress with intention.” And the same goes for hair.
As without, so within
For Ford-Cox, style comes down to what’s inside. After she won Best of WNC, before she built her current client base, she had people coming to her under the impression that she could “fix them.” But that’s not how style works, she says. “They would use their hair as a metaphor for [what was wrong with them] … [but] your style is not going to fix what’s wrong with you. Your style is going to exemplify who you are, the best of you.”
Redlinger’s best advice for Ashevilleans looking to purposefully get their looks right is to trust the stylist and be open to their professional perspective. “If you’re going to try something new, really find someone that you can trust and have some fun with it,” she says.
After 20 years of experience, Redlinger says, she does her best work when people let her do what she knows. “I’m pretty good at judging people’s boundaries with hair, like I know that my client from Biltmore Forest is not going to want a mohawk.” She likes to add funky twists within the framework of a classic, lower-maintenance cut, like juxtaposing a brighter-than-natural blonde or shockingly deep brown with a crisp bob.
Not all trends come from stylists’ advice. If one style is screaming “Asheville” to her right now, Ford-Cox says, it’s middle-aged and older women who are not dying their gray or white hair but are brightening their locks with tinsel instead. The so-called “fairy hair” doesn’t damage hair, lasts for months, can be brushed and is easily undone. She thinks the look just might be more than a fad; after a few years of growing popularity, she’s even considering adding it to her services.
Yet Ford-Cox laments that other voices in Asheville’s stylistic scene aren’t speaking as loudly. Between the influx of new residents and the onslaught of tourists, she says, “our local style has been a little watered down.” She no longer sees as many of the iconic looks downtown that make her say, “That’s so Asheville.”
That view may make her a “grumpy local,” Ford-Cox admits, but she believes Asheville’s style is supposed to be eclectic. From her time growing up in the area and attending Warren Wilson College, she remembers “crusty punks, people with gauges, people with tattoos, people that smell bad, people with dreads, people doing their own thing” — an assortment of expression paying no attention to the normal or mainstream.
Candler collagist Terry Taylor also has fond memories of Asheville style, but he doesn’t think the spirit of individuality has left the region quite yet. With the progressive bent of Asheville, he says, “everybody’s trying to find something that will mark them in some fashion apart from somebody else.” For him, it isn’t the hair on his dome, but rather that which graces his face. “No two mustaches look alike,” he says, and he appreciates that his look is his alone.
In his post-pubescent life, Taylor has always had some sort of facial hair, even if it sometimes dwindled to just a scraggly little mustache. But about 10 years ago, he started seeing mustaches appear everywhere in subversive pop culture, perhaps spurred by the rise of hipster fashion. In the midst of what some might call peak mustache era, he told his barber at Tom’s Barber Shop in West Asheville (where he has been going for nearly 30 years), “let’s just let this grow and see what happens.”
Taylor says he just wanted to see if he could grow his mustache into a handlebar of some kind — and indeed he could. In his fully groomed glory, Taylor has a well-sculpted handlebar, flatter than some but with a distinct upward flair at the ends. In a more distinctive move, at the suggestion of his barber, he’s also elected to leave his eyebrows long and often waxes them into horns emulating the hair on his lip.
Admittedly, Taylor’s style isn’t always the most practical. On days he doesn’t groom it, things can get messy. “It’s big and bushy,” he says, “and I can’t eat soup that day.” Even worse, he adds, red wine invariably drips on his shirt. But he’d never give it up; he says it’s part of his face.
Taylor doesn’t venture to say whether mustache enthusiasm is on the rise in Asheville. But walking around town, he says, he experiences a “sort of brotherhood of people who have mustaches, who just look at each other and go, ‘Uh-huh, that’s nice.’”
In the chair
That sense of community around hair doesn’t arise solely among people with similar coifs or cookie dusters. Holiday Childress, a repeat top three Best of WNC winner for best Hairstylist at Sola Salon Studios, has found himself getting closer to all sorts of people who hop into his chair. While he initially thought hairstyling would be superficial work, he says he’s found the exact opposite to be true. “The hair is just a medium for the deeper relationship with the patron,” Childress explains.
Soce Ahmed, who learned to braid hair socially as a little girl in Senegal and currently runs Soce’s African Hair Braiding on Eagle Street, beams as she talks about her own variety of clients: all walks of life, young and adult, homeless and well-situated, people of many races. She says she’s watched clients grow up in her chair, braiding the same locks for years as elementary school children grow up, get jobs and start families themselves. “I am not rich in money,” she says, “but I am rich in people.”
The community aspect is also part of Redlinger’s interest in her work. “I don’t want to say it’s like networking — it’s more like connecting,” she says. Through her salon, she has put clients together to help people find jobs, houses and new area connections.
But Redlinger finds that hairstyling doesn’t just help her make connections between people — she builds connections with them as well. “When they leave here, everyone feels better than when they walked in. And that’s really a really powerful thing for me,” she says.
“I call it ‘hairapy’ sometimes,” says Ford-Cox about her client relationships, “because people dish and vent and work through their issues.” She theorizes that hair’s social aspects come about not just because patrons have to spend a good deal of time with their stylists, but also because appearance and self-esteem are so closely tied.
There’s a grand tradition of hair-care professionals being rooted in the people they serve, says Childress. “It’s just taking care of people, like barbers and hairdressers have taken care of their patrons for hundreds of years. I’m the community hairdresser, and I like to take care of my community because it’s a rich fabric of people in this town.”
And while many factors contribute to the sense of well-being one gets fresh out of the barbershop or hair salon, Childress says, it boils down to a pretty simple idea. “If you feel right about the way that you look, in the way that you are in the world, that gives you more confidence and makes you feel more like yourself.”