Originally published on White Noise
From snipping the locks of Diane Abbott to P. Diddy’s mum, we met the celebrity hairdresser shaping an afro revolution.
Walking down a narrow corridor into Derek ‘DeCutter’ Clement’s section of Bella & Bello Hair and Beauty in Ealing, I’m met with a flurry of customers entering, leaving and waiting. Known for his dedication to black hair, the Grenada-born hairdresser’s career spans over three decades. Having worked with the likes of Billy Ocean and Patti LaBelle and in the historic Splinters salon, his CV is enviable. The DeCutter range now encompasses hair products, cosmetics, and nutrition. He’s even penned a series of erotic novels set in hairdressing salons.
Derek shared the secret of great haircut, the future of black hair, and how he impressed P. Diddy.
You’ve said that hairdressing found you after you visited a salon. What was it about that visit?
I never knew about hairdressing. I must’ve been 17 or 18, walked into Splinters International, owned by the late Winston Isaacs. While I’m sitting there waiting for my girlfriend to get her hair done, I saw all these black people. As a black child going to school, the white kids would be pushed to excellence and we weren’t. I thought to myself, “Bloody hell. When I leave school, it’s quite likely I’ll experience the same thing, so I need to work for a black company.” But no such place existed. I went to the West End, and there it was, a black salon! Owned by black people!
Splinters was nothing but brilliant. It was the Motown of hair. You were taught to speak, to dress well; the standards were extremely high. The place was massive. There could have been 50 young hairdressers working at the same time. I started shampooing hair, I moved up to become artistic director of the company and, soon after that, I owned my own shop.
How have you seen black haircare change?
Black hair’s evolved phenomenally. We used to emulate the white salons, the big names like Vidal Sassoon – the Trevor Sorbies, the Daniel Galvins of the day. Winston Isaacs himself was a Sassoon-trained hairdresser, so he brought the technique of cutting white hair into afro hair. Our approach was to ensure that afro hair was relaxed, that it moved, bounced and had direction. We expanded on the idea. So when you see a customer from my shop, you’ll see the bounce. Afro hair moves with shape and balance. Afro reincarnation, that’s the term I use! For years, it’s been straightened, it’s been Jheri curled, but 90% of our clientele prefer the natural look at the moment.
What was it like working with the likes of Billy Ocean and Patti LaBelle, as well as managing P. Diddy’s personal barber shop in New York in 2001?
Splinters was the salon to go in those days if you were a celebrity, politician or lawyer. Everyone aspired to Splinters; it was a high-end salon. I was blessed to do all the famous people. As a young stylist, it was brilliant. Sheila Ferguson, Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott, they all came to the salon and I did their hair. I was very blessed indeed.
Were you starstruck, awkward or nervous?
No, I think P. Diddy was quite impressed with me. [Derek laughs.] I’m from London! They loved it over there.
You’re also big on the teaching element of hair.
It’s about honesty. Somebody taught me the trade; it’s incumbent upon me, therefore, to teach others. My daughter’s only two and that’s all she talks about: hair, hair, hair! It’s important to ensure that we create legends of the future. Hair growth is holistic. The hair shaft is actually dead, it doesn’t have any feelings. The hair root however, is within the scalp. So the emphasis should be on healing or nourishing the hair root.
And you run hair surgeries too?
I use this wonderful thing called a hair and scalp facial: coconut oil, aloe vera, mangoes and bananas mixed together and put it on the hair. The scalp is where the hair enters into the world. It’s like your plot of land. It should be healthy, nourished and moisturised for the hair to be healthy. The scalp, to me, is absolutely fundamental.
Do you find that scalp issues are more problematic within our community, as opposed to other ethnic groups?
Not really. I think black hair needs moisture and as a result, I tend to recommend that my clients drink water. It’s crucial. It goes directly to the hair root and nourishes the scalp.
Do you deal with problems like traction alopecia?
Traction alopecia is massive; it’s almost pandemic. Weaving is fine, wigs are great, braiding is brilliant. But we have to ensure that the braids aren’t done too tight, the weave shouldn’t stay on your head as if it’s the be-all and end-all. Wear a wig, fine, but remove the wig at night. Your weave should be done in a way that won’t break off your hair. The problem is leaving a weave in for too long.
Let’s talk about your technique. What is it about cutting that you love so much?
With a good cut, the customer gets the benefit of a great shape. You’ve got three things in a good cut: shape, balance and movement. Without those three things, the hair doesn’t move, there’s no direction. There’s nothing better than seeing a woman walking on the street and her hair’s moving, but it falls back into that shape based on the cut. As a result, I’ve created my own scissor collection. They’re marvellous. I love cutting hair.
What’s been the high point of your career so far?
I opened my first shop at the tender age of 24. It was a three-storey building in Maida Vale called Derek Clement. A year later, we had another shop in Lewisham called Noir. We had another shop in the West End where we collaborated. The year after, I was nominated for afro hairdresser of the year by the Hairdressers Journal. I didn’t accept it. I was young and naïve. I thought, “Why am I afro hairdresser of the year? I’m a hairdresser! I didn’t want to be referred to as an afro hairdresser.” So I didn’t take the award.
Do you mind being called an afro hairdresser these days?
Oh, I love being called an afro hairdresser now! I love it; it’s afro hair! [Derek laughs.]
What’s been your biggest obstacle?
I love obstacles. Obstacles are nothing but stepping stones, so when I come to them, I have to keep it moving. I lost my shop in 2014. It got burnt down. I’ve had to collaborate with others since that time. The only obstacle I have now is to make sure that we get back the Derek Clement shop.
What do you think the future of black hair is?
Black hair is going places. It’s achieved respectability and integrity. It’s a great thing to see that the average black girl doesn’t feel embarrassed to wear her natural hair. I’m looking forward to the different trends, textures and styles. I’ve got this wonderful acronym called BLACKS: braids, locs, afro, curls, kink and straighten. Afro hair can do all of those things. Afro hair is phenomenal. It has no bounds, it’s brilliant. My business partner, Rudy Page, says afro hair is vibranium. It’s the one thing that brings us all together. Wherever you come from or whatever texture, it binds us together.