Europe

A Scientist’s Salons in Paris Cater to a Neglected Trait: Curly Hair

When it came time to find a salon for her daughter with coiled hair, Aude Livoreil-Djampou discovered what many women with curly or textured hair in Paris already knew.

“I realized there was no hair salon where I could take my daughter,” Dr. Livoreil-Djampou said. “We live like certain people do not exist. People don’t like when I speak of hair apartheid, but it is what it is.”

The dearth of salons specializing in textured hair has been a common and longstanding complaint among curly-haired Parisians, especially those with ties to North Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean, but Dr. Livoreil-Djampou felt she was uniquely positioned to do something about it.

For many years, she was the head of a laboratory at L’Oreal, the French cosmetics company, overseeing straightening and perm hair products.

A scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou, 53, had never wanted to confine herself within the walls of a laboratory. At L’Oreal, which she joined in 1998, she made frequent field visits to research centers in the United States and Brazil, two of the primary markets for her products, where she could examine people’s hair and talk to those with expertise in styling it.

“I would hear a hairdresser explain things that I could understand through molecular chemistry,” Dr. Livoreil-Djampou said.

She’d then return home to experiment for L’Oreal in her quest to invent more inclusive beauty products for women.

But it wasn’t until Dr. Livoreil-Djampou — whose own hair is straight — went shopping for a salon for her daughter, whose father is from Cameroon, that it dawned on her that it wasn’t only products that needed to do a better job of catering to different hair types.

Pieranlly De La Cruz working on a customer’s hair at Studio Ana’e.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

While Paris was not entirely without salon options for curly hair, they were hard to find, especially in the center of the city.

“I found it abnormal, going all over Paris to find a rare gem, when I wanted it to be as easy to find a hairdresser as it was for my straight hair,” Dr. Livoreil-Djampou said.

So she switched roles, from scientist to entrepreneur.

In 2015, she opened her first hair salon in Paris, Studio Ana’e, and has since added two more salons in the French capital and one in Lyon, with further expansion planned.

Nestled in the fifth district of Paris, an upscale neighborhood home to the Sorbonne and the Panthéon, the original Studio Ana’e has the feel of a sanctuary. On a Friday in September, soft music played while a client closed her eyes as a hairdresser massaged and shampooed her hair.

In theory, Studio Ana’e is a place for all hair types, and for men and women, but on that September day, the steady stream of clients was almost exclusively women with textured hair.

The salon offers haircuts, coloring, braiding and custom-made wigs, and it has become common for clients to stay for hours, sometimes stepping out to take work calls. Other clients isolate themselves in a space that can be closed with shutters, a room often used by women wearing hijabs who want more privacy.

One woman was receiving a deep moisturizing treatment, while another was getting blonde highlights. “I have never seen my hair like this,” said a customer as she smiled at herself in the mirror after having her Afro styled.

“We hear extraordinary stories every day,”said Aïcha Gobba, 42, the manager of the salon. “Some women always thought of their hair as suffering on their heads,” she added. “I’ve even seen clients crying when they realized what their hair could look like.”

In theory, Studio Ana’e is a place for all hair types, but most of its clients are women with textured hair.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

While conceding that her salons’ services aren’t cheap, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou said that the broad menu of treatments includes affordable options, and that her salons had many clients with lower incomes who would come every six months, or once a year, to treat themselves.

Dr. Livoreil-Djampou grew up in Toulouse, studied chemistry as an undergraduate in Montpellier, then earned her doctorate in 1996 while doing research in Strasbourg in the laboratory of Jean-Pierre Sauvage, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. While she liked academia, she wanted to use her passion for science on something that could be part of “real life,” she said.

She met her Cameroonian husband, a driver for the Paris tramway system, in 2006, and their daughter was born in 2008.

While her hair salon venture has been a success, she faced a big challenge right from the start: finding employees trained in treating textured hair.

The hairdressers who work for her were for the most part trained in-house, in private institutions, or by foreign professionals — because the French education system didn’t offer a certification in the styling of textured hair.

But that changed this year.

Building on the work of Black French activists, who for years advocated more inclusivity in the training of hairdressers, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou used her scientific background and her determination to help influence government officials to create a certification program in curly hair for the country’s coiffeurs.

In 2021, she helped a member of the Senate draft a question to the minister of education about textured hair. In response, the Education Ministry, at the time headed by Pap Ndiaye, the first Black person to hold the post, said it was working on addressing the training issue. In 2022, it created an advanced-level certification program available to those who have already secured a basic hairdressing license.

Last month, five schools in France began offering this new, specialized training.

Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist and filmmaker who interviewed dozens of Parisians about their experiences and challenges related to their hair for her book “Afro!”,said the new certification was a welcome first step but that more needed to be done.

“It is an important advancement that also shows how necessary it would be for this skill to no longer be an option but a requirement,” said Ms. Diallo, who is one of France’s most prominent voices in antiracism efforts.

In finally getting the government to act, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou credits the efforts of activists like Taj, a famous Parisian stylist from Martinique, who died in 2019 and who had long championed this cause. And, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou added, the timing was also right.

“It was the right moment,” she said, referencing the widespread debates about identity and discrimination that were then taking place in France on TV, in social media and on the streets. Plus, she said, “I knew how to speak their language. I had the expertise and the experience at L’Oreal. Did it help that I was white? Partly.”

The salon’s hairdressers were for the most part trained in-house, in private institutions, or by foreign professionals — because the French education system until recently didn’t offer a certification in the styling of textured hair.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

As she got her own salon project off the ground, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou herself went back to school to be trained as a hairdresser, in part because banks had been reluctant to finance the venture if she lacked that credential.

With the official training program just getting started, Dr. Livoreil-Djampou has had to teach some of her own employees.

Pieranlly De La Cruz is one of them. The 35-year-old hairdresser, who is from the Dominican Republic and who has lived in France since 2010, said she has learned from her boss to be meticulous about her work. She only cuts hair when it’s dry, to better control the precision of the desired length.

As she started working on a first-time customer, Ms. De La Cruz first asked for permission before gently combing through the woman’s voluminous black hair.

“What do you love the most about your hair and what do you like the least?” Ms. De La Cruz asked the new client, Houleye Thiam, who had commuted to the salon from the outskirts of Paris, where many residents have to rely on uncertified hairdressers.

Ms. Thiam, 26, whose parents come from Senegal, wanted mahogany highlights and also to get some advice on how to moisturize her hair. She had spent her childhood braiding her hair because her mother couldn’t afford much more, and only got what she called her first “real” haircut at 22.

“I am so happy,” Ms. Thiam said some hours later, as she checked out the results in the mirror. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”

Some of the customers at Studio Ana’e, which has the feel of a sanctuary, stay for hours. Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
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