Originally published on White Noise

August 2018

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’ssection of Bella & Bello Hair and Beautyin 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.


Originally published on White Noise

July 2018

Instagram is their shopfront and their salon is someone’s living room – their place or yours. But the inexorable rise of the social media nail artist has mostly remained an East London phenomenon. Arnelle Paterson paid a visit to one of the exceptions: Triple N Salon.

With nearly 10 years under my belt, when it comes to acrylic nails, I’m a veteran. Stiletto, coffin, oval, ballerina, square, French, plain, and huge chavtastic gems – I’ve had them all. You’ll usually find me on the high street amongst a stream of Vietnamese chit-chat, low prices and minimal interaction. Today, however, I’m ready to take it to the next level.

Mobile and home-based nail artists have been popping up all over my Instagram feed with a brilliant array of designs and colours, but until now they’ve been primarily in South and East London, and I’m not prepared to make a nearly two-hour trip.

Triple N Salon is one of the few independent nail technicians in West London that offers the kind of nail art you’ve got pinned to your Pinterest board, and I’m pretty pumped.

The woman behind it, Niki Nikolova, opens the door to her home nail business in Isleworth, which started in February this year. She describes nails as her passion, a hobby that she’s had all her life. It’s no surprise when she tells me that she grew up around hair and beauty: Niki’s mum owned a salon in Bulgaria complete with nail technicians and she used to observe them working their magic. In fact, she’s only had someone else do her nails once or twice. I think I’m in safe hands.

Bulgarian-born Niki moved to the UK nine years ago, and that’s when she started to experiment with nail art. “Back then, my English wasn’t even entry-level. It was really bad. I couldn’t understand English for a few years!” she admits. “It was time for my GCSEs and they gave me a list of subjects that I had to choose from, and I was thinking: what subjects can I pick where I don’t have to speak English?” she laughs. “And I thought: art! Oh my God, that’s it! I’m going to start drawing. My teacher was such a great lady that I fell into it.”

She went on to study computer animation and effects for films at university, but nail art was always at the back of her mind. Later, after bagging an office job in Colchester, she had a revelation: “The guy that was sitting next to me, every single second that he wasn’t working on an actual project he was researching stuff. He was into the job, and I wasn’t,” she confesses. “I was trying try to sneak a look at nails, or thinking about what I was going to do to my nails that night. I was really good at my job, but that’s not enough. You have to like it as well.”

After a year, Niki decided to get her hands off the keyboard, and into some adhesive. “I wanted to be my own boss. Being able to schedule my own time – I absolutely love it. I usually prefer to work in the evening. My brother is five years old and when he’s not at school and someone has to take care of him, we can take turns.” Judging by the beaming family photos surrounding the room, it’s obvious that family is important her. “It shows me that in the future when I have kids, it’s going to be so easy. I also love going on holiday, so this is perfect. I don’t have to ask anyone for permission, I can just book!”

I ask her about a typical workday. “On most days, I work 11 or 12 hours back to back.” My eyes widen at her response. “But it’s so fun, I love it! And sometimes those hours are travelling between clients, so it doesn’t really count.”

It’s not only Niki’s new-found freedom that she enjoys. “There was this girl that had an operation on her toe and her whole nail was gone, so she needed something because she was going on holiday,” she recalls. “It was just so sad – you want to look pretty! So I did an acrylic extension and she was so happy. It made my day.”

Want to be a nail art pro? “It’s just practice. Everyone has different nails and you have to know how to work with that. You can’t do one or two people and expect to be good.”

Niki’s technique is completely different to what I’m used to. Each small movement is carefully calculated. I’m impressed that she remembers the exact size and even hue of ombre that I wanted. It feels different too, less plastic, more nail-like. Showing me an array of samples, she realises how indecisive I am. Is it that obvious? “I’ve got three shades of pink. I think the middle ones are more like the ones you showed me,” she smiles. Phew.

Niki warns me that my nail-biting habit may affect the longevity of my acrylics, although I’ve never had that problem before. She also gives me some pre-holiday advice. “Be careful with sun lotion, same with chlorine or swimming in the ocean. Don’t bang them against anything, or open cans with them.” I leave feeling pretty inspired.

After the appointment, it quickly dawns on me how immobilising nails this long can be, from putting necklaces on to keeping them debris free (the chicken eating experience just isn’t the same). One of my nails fall off in the shower sooner than I expected, and I blame London’s hot climate. Niki advises that I get some nail glue prior to my Marrakesh trip and it does the trick. Nearly a month later, my gel polish tootsies remain intact. Long nails don’t work for my everyday routine, but you can bet you’ll find me with a full set before any special occasion.

Originally published on White Noise

July 2018

Lately, we’ve been taking trips just north of White City to ArtWest, a loose collective of studios scattered across Harlesden and Park Royal. This time, Arnelle Paterson paid a visit to Renata Fernandez.

I bump into a petite, raven-haired woman in the corridor of ArtWest’s ACAVA building, holding a kettle in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. Renata Fernandez is pretty chirpy for someone who’s yet to start her creative morning regimen of coffee and Radio 4. “The first hour has to be mechanical, not thinking too much, and then later on, I do something more free-flowing,” she says as the kettle whistles, vying for attention. “I wish I had a personal DJ that would put the music on for me, because I can’t be bothered to change the music.”

Fernandez was born along Venezuela’s Caribbean coastline in the city of Caracas into a deeply religious Spanish family. She says, “I was one of those really annoying kids who always knew what they wanted to be.” Coming from a family of professional musicians, she instead studied art at university, and specialised in painting and sculpture. “I always did or thought in 3D,” she explains.

In her own words, Fernandez is a “methodological and rational” artist who uses charcoal, pencil, oil paint, and the socio-political context as a canvas for creation. The deep impact of the political situation in Venezuela infiltrates all of her work. “My country’s been completely destroyed. I don’t recognise the neighbourhood where I grew up. I don’t have a place to show my kids because of state war,” she says in a matter-of-fact manner. “I mean, Syria wins because it’s worse, but it’s very similar in a way. We don’t have bomb strikes, but we have gangs with Russian weapons just killing people for food.”

Back in the 90s, she had what she describes as a premonition. “I had to leave my country. My intuition was right. I could never imagine it’d be so bad, because at the moment my country is in the middle of the worst humanitarian crisis ever. In the 21st century, people are dying because they don’t have antibiotics and no food. It’s horrendous.” Her foresight wasn’t wrong. Last year, it was estimated that prices in the Latin American country would increase by more than 700%, while 75% of the country’s population lost an average of 19 pounds in weight between 2015 and 2016 because of food shortages.

Undoubtedly, Fernandez’s work is deeply rooted in culture. She explains, “You’re influenced by where you come from, where you go, and even where your grandparents are from.” She gives me a snippet of her childhood influences: “Galicia, north of Spain, medieval, Roman-esque. I went to many churches, far too many. The Catholic imagery – you take a child there and it could be considered child abuse because it’s too visual. There’s blood and raaaaah!” She imitates a dragon’s roar. “If you’re an Anglican, a Church of England kind of person and you go there, it’s like, ‘Oh, God!’ But that’s how we grew up. So that has an influence on the way you see. The way you confront reality is different.” Eventually, she moved to England to learn English where she “fell in love with the country.” Her eyes light up with enthusiasm. “I fell in love with the English. I got stuck in this way of life. Whilst I was learning a language, I was learning a culture.”

Fernandez’s solo exhibition at Museo Alejandro Otero in Caracas in 2013 was a landmark show for the artist. The works on display were 14 charcoal drawings measuring two metres high and based on the urban jungle. She gesticulates to illustrate just how big the plants are. “Where I come from, the plants were always monster-like, beautiful and menacing. Leaves as big as me – and I’m not very big,” she smiles. Her decision to draw in charcoal was a conscious one. “When you take a photo and translate that into black and white, you start seeing the engineering. It’s fascinating.”

It took a moment of intuition before Fernandez realised exactly what she had created. “People would say, ‘Ooh, I can see a face here! I can see a face there!’ and it’s like: ‘Do you?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, somebody’s hiding there.’ The soldiers. They became a metaphor for the menace of someone that’s lurking behind and might jump at you. There’s a contradiction between beauty and the menace, and I realised that I hid something subconsciously.” As her works make their way across the globe, she’s aware that the interpretation may differ. “I think I was thinking about what was going on in my country, the militarisation of society. A dictatorship supported by the military – puppets. People who see my drawings in Madrid? They don’t think of that.”

Her decision to tell the museum about the content of her exhibition was a bold one, as it subtly referenced the nature of authoritarian regime that has left over 8,000 people dead. “It was a controversial thing to say because the museum was still being controlled by the regime, but I did what I had to do. If they didn’t accept it, so be it.”

And for the first time in her life, she started taking her own photos to draw from. With only 10 months to produce this mass of work, she managed to do it in just eight. With a nursery-age child as well, she was left exhausted. “But by being exhausted, something connects. A revelation happens, because you’re not rationalising the process. So the first two drawings I didn’t like too much, but the ones that followed, they were better and better and better!” The creation process also took a toll in other areas. “Because you’re so exhausted, you’re drinking condensed milk and you get really fat,” she laughs. “I mean coffee and condensed milk with digestives? Hello!”

She makes her stance clear: she’s not an emotional person. Fernandez says, “I can be intense, but you’ll never see me wailing,” she wails dramatically. “That’s why I’m quite good here, because in my country, everybody was like raaaaaah! And it’s like: oh come on, control yourself! It’s something very un-Caribbean about me.” But she does feel like a “masqueraded emotion” has seeped through her work. “I happen to be doing stuff that’s linked to my country, because of the tropical plants. And it didn’t start like that. I guess it’s an element of nostalgia, lost memories, and the unattainable, things that are long gone.”

She recently had a commission in Fulham working alongside eight kids from a local school passing on block-printing skills. “When you teach someone a technique, they have to start solving problems and it has an impact on their life. There’s something that art teaches you, the ability to solve problems.” Her eyes are fixated on me as they intensify: “Your brain becomes malleable and more open to adapt, and that’s something that permeates all areas of your life and that’s why teaching art is so bloody important.”

But she admits that having an impact was something she never used to think about. Not, at least, until her work started having a positive effect on the people that worked at Museo Alejandro Otero, as well as those from the shanty town across the road in Caracas. “My parents used to go to the prayer group that happened to be in that shanty town. My dad was very proud and he told me what people were saying, that it was having an impact in the community.”

Art has a special role to play within society, she argues. “It makes you more sensitive to your surroundings, and you know what? It might make you change the way things look. It’s a valuable thing to say, ‘I’m going to improve the way things look around me.’ It makes me feel better. Sometimes, Banksy puts up stuff that criticises things other people don’t notice. That’s very important. It’s not just about the nice paintings.”

She’s philosophical about her legacy. “The planet’s going to disappear eventually. I think about that a lot. What’s going to happen to all the master works? They’re going to disappear. There’s artists from 200 years ago that nobody remembers, but they were bloody happy and they had an impact on the people around them. That’s the legacy. In this world of Instagram, who’s famous and what for? Because they do make-up tutorials? How many bases are you gonna put on your face woman? And those eyelashes? They’re obviously fake! They look like a broom!” Ultimately, the artist’s motives wind down to one thing. “It’s not that I have Catholic guilt. Someone taught me how to paint as a child, and it had an impact on me. I want other people to have that chance.”

Originally published on White Noise

July 2018

Following her artistic dreams had always felt like an admission of defeat to Emma Davis: a pursuit less legitimate, less intellectual – less feminist even – than, say, the sciences. The Willesden-based creative told Arnelle Paterson about an epiphany that changed everything.

A petite woman with thick, layered hair greets me at the door of the art studio space. Her eyes light up as she offers me tea and coffee. It’s early – too early – but coffee’s never really been my thing, so I politely decline. Like its occupant, the space inside is serene, breezy and inviting.

This woman is Emma Davis, a writer and visual artist based at ArtWest who uses oils, watercolour, etchings and pencil to explore the effect and meaning of line, pictographic languages, calligraphy, and colour. Drawing serves as the canvas for all of her work, and she’s greatly influenced by abstract painter Howard Hodgkin.

Davis is just one of many creators from ArtWest, a collective of printmakers, painters, sculptors, ceramicists, and much more, who are based in a collection of buildings dotted around the NW10 postcode just north of White City. Every year, they swing open the doors and invite the public into their creative spaces to learn, commission, buy or simply have an inquisitive wander around.

The art bug bit Davis at an early age; she was “always drawing as a child.” She explains: “I was good at English and I was good at art so for a while, there was a bit of conflict between the two.” The bias of her school didn’t help matters, they were “very negative about anything that wasn’t scientific.” Davis says, “It was as though you were letting down the female sex if you were artistic. It was as though you were being a bit lazy and unimaginative, and that what you really should do was aim to be a lawyer or a doctor.”

This belief niggled away at her artistic dreams. “It meant that I thought that to go to art school was a sort of admission of being thick.” She believes that this issue is still on-going amongst the younger generation: “You have to make a choice at something like, 12? If you have any family pressure, you probably will say no to art and music.”

After studying English literature at the University of York, she found herself wanting to return to her artistic roots. But the school stigma continued to follow her, and Davis struggled throughout her twenties with the question of legitimacy. She says, “I was living with people who were going into PR and Advertising, and I didn’t particularly want to do that, but I hankered after a more standardised, legitimate life, where people go, ‘That’s brilliant! Oh, you’re a lawyer? Oh, you’re a doctor?’ Those kind of established existences that make you look like you belong to a certain world, you have achieved a certain amount. If you are to say that you’re an artist, that’s a peculiar things to say sometimes. People will either think, ‘Who do you think you are?’ or they’ll say, ‘Do you sell?’ Basically, are you legitimised by the world? I thought it’d be nice to have a more standard life, but it never really worked.”

One day, Davis had an epiphany. “Somebody said to me, ‘I guess it depends what you want to do every day.’ And you go: ‘God, it’s as simple as that. What do you want to do every day? What do you want to keep in your life, and what do you want to get rid of?”

Yet returning to creative practice wasn’t an easy process. “I had got out of the way of drawing, and I got really anxious about starting to draw. It made me feel depressed; it didn’t look right.” State of mind is very important when it comes to creating art, she explains. “You drift out of the usual world into an alpha pattern. Your brain switches.” Alpha brain wave patterns are present when your brain is in an idle state, such as daydreaming or meditating. Davis references Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainby Betty Edwards. “She said that when you draw, you need to turn the verbal side of your mind off. If you try and talk while you draw, it disrupts. I think you can flip between them, but you can’t write a novel while you’re trying to draw someone’s portrait.”

The workings of the mind are a running motif within Davis’ work. Her paintings explore the response that colours can provoke, but it’s a lot more than that. “I often thought that those works would be quite good in therapeutic settings because colour just resonates like music… I like abstract qualities because they give you breathing room to weave your way in and out if people can bother to give it time, or maybe no time.”

Despite this, Davis feels that there isn’t a rigid science to appreciating art. “Visual’s weird. You don’t have to stand in front of something for an hour to know whether you like it or not, do you? I think a lot of people don’t quite know how to look at stuff, so they get anxious. They quite like it to be a tree, because then they go, ‘Does it look like a tree? Am I happy with this tree?’”

When it comes to the question of the Emma Davis art legacy, it’s still in the works. “I read that Jasper Johns, once he discovered the way that he liked working, destroyed everything else,” she reveals. “And I thought ‘That is a really good idea!’ There’s a load of stuff I wouldn’t want to be my legacy, so I might have a go through, might have a big clear out.”

But how does the artist herself want to be remembered? Cocking her head to one side, she ponders. “Well I don’t think I’ll be an icon, but it’d be nice to be. If you can live a life with some sort of integrity, and some sort of authenticity and you follow your own path, I think that’s enough, isn’t it? Especially as a woman, you’re brave if you do that.”

Originally published on White Noise

May 2018

To round off our Growth theme, we decided to focus on that one thing that we all have in common.

It’s never just hair. It can signal how your day is going, the weather, your heritage and even your personality.

With 40,000 hairdressing, barbering and beauty businesses in the UK , it’s a pretty big deal. So we headed out to White City Place to find out what coiffed your cheveux.

“I don’t know who I’d be without this kind of hair actually.”
“I’ve started to recede a little bit now, I feel like I’m losing a little bit of me.”
“I feel like it’s important to have some kind of cultural symbolism especially as I work in a very white area.”

White City is a melting pot of diversity, so I expected nothing less than hair being seen as an emblem of identity celebration. What struck me about the comments was the strong sense of pride that people felt towards their barnet.