In London beauty circles, Charlotte Mensah’s name is synonymous with perfectly quaffed afro hair. Her magic hands have the ability make your curls bounce, your hair shaft shine and your braids turn heads and the Ghanaian-born hair stylist and business woman has a loyal clientele who clamour for an appointment at her Notting Hill salon, The Hair Lounge. Based on the busy Portobello Road, the chic parlour serves as a calm oasis; complete with the feeling of a home away from home, and it’s not uncommon to see some of Refinery29’s favourite celebrities nipping in for a sprucing up.
Names you ask? Well she's isn’t one to brag but rapper Eve, author Zadie Smith and singer and actress Janelle Monae all call on the services of Charlotte and her team. Far from an overnight success story, Charlotte’s ascendance was years in the making. She trained at the London College of Fashion in 1986, while undertaking an apprenticeship at hair salon Splinters under legendary stylist Winston Isaacs. After the birth of her first son at 23, she decided to take the leap to work for herself and approached the Prince’s Trust to help her with funding to set up her first shop in 1999 on the Kilburn Park Road before moving to Notting Hill in 2003.
Charlotte’s unique styles have won her Afro Hairdresser of the Year twice at the prestigious British Hairdressing Awards as well as scooping Afro Stylist of the Year at the Sensationnel Awards. This year she's created her own product line using the rare Nambian-derived Manketti oil as the base of her three-piece line of shampoo, conditioner and hair oil and take it from us, the line is a god-send for thirsty locks and smells absolutely heavenly. We got the skinny from how Charlotte became one of the most noted hair stylists in the UK and tasked her with creating four protective yet stylish looks to take afro hair effortlessly into winter.
What first inspired you to get into hair?
Unfortunately, my mother passed away when I was 13 and my younger sister was three at the time so it meant I took charge of doing her hair and I just loved it. I think it was a good way to bond in a traumatic time. She always loved what I did and even though she was really young, it made me feel good. The trauma from my mother dying meant I didn’t perform as well as I should have in my GCSE's; instead I used to look at fashion magazines and think ‘I could do that' – but I wasn’t the girl who always wanted to be a hairdresser per se.
How did the salon on Portobello come to be?
I had worked for a number of great salons across the city but when I had my son at 23, it was really hard to juggle work and motherhood so thought it would be ideal to have my own shop. So I put together a business plan with the Prince’s Trust when I was 27 and got my first shop in Kilburn. It was in a business centre and it was pretty hidden but from the 50 clients I had I was able to build it to over 300 and moved the shop to Portobello four years later. I've had it for 13 years and it’s a dream, it’s the perfect spot for me. There’s a great community spirit here in Portobello and the fact that some of the stylists who work here live locally makes me really happy.
We have had so many people... Eve is a regular, Beverley Knight, Lorraine Pascale, Joy Bryant, Janelle Monae, Zadie Smith. Thandie Newton wants to come in, she’s been doing lots of pieces around my products. Even Senegal’s first lady!
What’s been one of the most memorable moments of your career so far?
Definitely winning Afro Hairdresser of the year and the launch of my products. I have been working on them for so long, it kind of felt like I was pregnant for six years and when they were released I gave birth! [laughs] And of course, having my children, they are my rock.
What did you think was missing from the market that you wanted to bring with the introduction of your line?
I just felt like there wasn’t a desirable line for afro hair. There wasn’t anything luxury or prestige. I was forever giving clients advice and tips and isn’t it better that I give them something that afro hair needs. It needs moisture and nourishment and that’s what the Manketti oil provides. Black women spend so much on their hair and they deserve an aesthetically beautiful product that works.
What is the Manketti oil’s main benefit?
In 2010, I had the great pleasure of doing one of my client’s hair for her wedding in the Serengeti and I had a head massage with this oil and I just thought it was incredible! I found out what it was and researched it and it’s been the hero ingredient in my products.
How in your opinion, have you seen black beauty products embraced by the mainstream?
It’s just so much more accessible. Online has meant easy access to great products. European salons are also offering afro services on their menu which is great. There is a strong turn to the afro movement and heroes like Lupita Nyong’o have brought black hair to the forefront.
What do you think about the cultural appropriation debate that is currently surrounding black hair and high fashion?
I think hair should be inclusive. If you point back to where you got the inspiration from, that is fine, but what I find disturbing is when people completely disregard where hair styles may come from. I might be inspired by something I've seen in Greece but I always give the reference back to where it came from.
How does it make you feel when models like Leomie Anderson call out the lack of beauty artists able to cater to black models?
I find it really crazy. There are so many great afro hair stylists out there. Even if they can’t deal with the hair, they could learn. I am actually coming out with a whole series on the art of afro hairdressing next February. There will be courses every four weeks. I still go on courses – you are always learning when it comes to hair.
What else have you got in the pipeline?
I have new products coming out in 2017 and I will be out on the road with my Charlotte Mensah Academy. Ultimately I just want to keep doing what I am doing and keep striving!