“People take things way too seriously,” says Nikki Nelms, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand hairstylists, who laughs as she affixes an insect pin to the top of a model’s impressive curls. “Like, ‘Oh, this orange butterfly is so symbolic because blah blah blah. No! I just put it up here because it looks good. I’m about vibes.”
That’s Nelms’ technique in a nutshell. You’d think that the genius behind the headline-making textured looks seen on Zoë Kravitz, Janelle Monáe, and Kelly Rowland would be all about making a statement — but her approach is actually more radical because of her refusal to make a big deal about it.
“It’s literally our hair!” Nelms says. “If you think that texture is a trend, then you’re late to the party. It’s been a thing. It’s OUR thing. You wouldn’t praise someone like Kate Moss for wearing her blonde hair in a bun. So why is it shocking when we play with ours?”
The keyword here is play. We invited Nelms, who is known for her whimsical and effervescent approach to styling, to dream up eight fresh spring hairstyles using natural hair as her canvas. Paired with the season’s biggest fashion resurgence, turtlenecks, these looks stand the test of time.
Fluttery Faux Bob
Nelms might not find symbolism in these butterflies, but she will spill the inspiration. “This is definitely a vibe you’d see Diana Ross do in the ‘70s, and compared with the messy curls, it’s another throwback-meets-today moment,” she says.
Kristina already has perfect spirals, so it wasn’t necessary to use any kind of definer – just a really good leave-in conditioner. Nelms did want to give her a shorter look, though, and faked a cut on Kristina with pins. She left out strategically-placed sections to create “branches” for the butterflies, which she purchased from the craft store and glued on pins.
Marc Jacobs turtleneck; Marc Jacobs Oversize Long Sleeve Cardigan in Pink, $2,300, available at Marc Jacobs; Marc Jacobs Elastic Waist Culotte in Pink, $1,100, available at Marc Jacobs; Poppy Lissiman Crystal Beth Sunglasses in Yellow, $120, available at Poppy Lissiman.
Inverted Triangle Halo
For this look, Nelms saw Chavi’s sunglasses as a modern-day crown, and decided to create a hairstyle inspired by royalty.
Nelms grabbed a handful of bobby pins — heads up, you’ll want to gather a lot of them — and began to flatten the center of Chavi’s fro, layering them criss-cross style so the hair laid flat in a circle. If you’re having trouble controlling your curls or coils, try blowing out those pieces so that they’re a little bit smoother, Nelms suggests. To get that triangular shape, Nelms used an Afro pick to pull the bottom sections upward.
Prada Printed Sable Top with Feathers in Powder Pink+Petal Pink+Silver, $2,980, available at Prada; Prada Printed Sable Pants in Powder Pink+Silver, $2,620, available at Prada; Prada Two-Tone Leather Slingbacks in Chalk White+Black, $990, available at Prada; Hannah Jewett Rude Earrings, $105, available at Hannah Jewett.
“This is more of a medieval feel,” Nelms says of this look, citing Game of Thrones as a reference. Obviously, Zora’s got amazing hair, and Nelms didn’t want to alter her curls too much.
Zora was already washed and blow dried, so Nelms misted a bit of leave-in spray all over, scrunching it in so that the curls would be tighter closer to roots. Then, she created two flat twists side-by-side from the front of her hairline to the middle of her head, and used a needle and a silver string to stitch them together like a corset.
Mary Katrantzou Petunia Dress in Paint by Numbers Saturated, $1,919, available at Mary Katrantzou; Mary Katrantzou turtleneck; HYGGE Väri Watch in Sunset Orange, Ocean Blue, and Forest Green, $185 ($30 for Strap), available at HYGGE.
There were plenty of fun accessories to pull from, but none of them resonated with Nelms as much as these beaded plaits, which ended up doubling as earrings. The accessories hold special meaning to the stylist. “The same beads that everyone loved in the Solange video are the ones that Venus and Serena got teased for when they wore them on the court,” she says.
Nelms set aside two, one-inch pieces from Jewellianna's hairline (to later create the braids) and scooped the rest of her hair into a high ponytail. She misted a little bit of strong-hold hairspray all over the tail, and then picked at it with a comb so it would stick straight up like a cloud. She pulled out a couple pieces, weaved them into braids, and looped them from the base to the top.
Once she was satisfied with the updo, Nelms created a shoulder-length cornrow on each side of Jewellianna's head, stringing a few beads towards the end of each braid. Turning these braids into “earrings” was relatively simple — she just clipped the tail of the plaits right above the ears with bobby pins. Bonus points if you match the plastic beads to your makeup look, like Jewellianna did here.
Negative Space ‘Fro
The fastest way to upgrade your Afro, Nelms says, is with certain angles, shapes, and modern trinkets. “That pushes your hair from the ‘70s to the future,” she says.
To start, Nelms stretched medium-sized sections of Chavi’s hair out as far as possible by running a dryer (on the coolest setting) from roots to tips. Once she had a little more length to work with, she made a deep center part and grabbed a small chunk from her hairline to create a cornrow that ended just above her ear.
Once she finished the braided part, Nelms took two pieces of stiff cardboard and clipped them to the hair on either side of Chavi’s braid to create the “negative space." She misted the cardboard with Pump It Up, the classic styling spray, until it was damp and then let the hair set. After two minutes, she removed the cardboard and smoothed the sides and edges with a bit of styling wax (Nelms reccommends the Tancho Tique Stick). She then used an Afro pick to further perfect and mold the rounded shape.
NARS Eye Paint in Solomon Islands, $26, available at NARS
Alejandra Alonso Rojas Mercedes Dress, $1,895, available at Alejandra Alonso Rojas.
When Nelms pulled out a huge bag of pom-poms, it was an instant throwback. “These were the same kind that I wore on the back of my socks when I was a kid,” she explains. If you, too, are feeling nostalgic, then grab a glue gun to tack the pom-poms to the top of a U-shaped pin. Or if you’re not in the arts and crafts mood, you can always just hit up Etsy.
To start, Nelms sectioned off some hair from Zora’s part and gathered the rest into a high ponytail with an elastic. She separated the tail in two and twisted each piece in opposite directions while wrapping them over each other to form a giant two-strand twist. She took the sectioned-off hair and smoothed it down and under the tail for an elegant side part. Next came the puffs — add as many or as few as you like, depending on your style.
Floral French Roll
If this style looks old school, that was Nelms’ intention. “I always look at old pictures of my aunts and my mother,” Nelms explains. “It’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from. They were super stylish and cute, and I try to recreate things they did. I even call them for tips, like to see which direction they curled their hair.”
Nelms started by blow drying Jewellianna's hair as straight as possible without removing too much of her natural texture. Once her curls were prepped, Nelms parted her hair into two sections and then carefully rolled each section up, pinning them around the head at ear level. (Pro tip: Grab a can of hairspray and roll the hair around it, sliding it out at the end to get that hollow shape.) To ensure that the hair didn’t fall, Nelms stuck a few more U-shaped pins into the base and “froze” the look with more Pump It Up.
Wolford Viscose Pullover Turtleneck in White, $275, available at Wolford; Self-Portrait Candy Stripe Jacket, £320, available at Self-Portrait; Jennifer Fisher earrings; Julie Thevenot Contre Forme Series #6 Earring, $238, available at Julie Thevenot.
In a way, this style, along with the others, are a giant fuck you to the schoolyard bullies and snooty critics who considered cornrows "ghetto" and naps a no-no. Instead of trying to smooth out her kinks, Nelms used Kristina’s frizz as her inspiration — a theme Nelms recreates over and over again in her work.
“Everything doesn’t always have to be so precise,” Nelms explained to me, right before pulling out a few of Kristina’s pinned-back curls before she stepped in front of the camera. “And what’s funny is that this look is so effortless, but beautiful. That’s just how our curls work… ‘cause we’re magical like that.”