There are some beauty trends the '90s can keep: ultra-skinny brows, silver lipstick, greasy tendrils... But it seems that chunky blonde highlights have clawed their way back. And actually, we're not mad about it.
Like all the biggest hair trends of 2019, from the bob to the shag, the rebirth of chunky blonde highlights took place on Instagram. Colourists are moving away from the seamless blending techniques synonymous with pretty, flowing balayage and gravitating to a style that's a lot more obvious and rigid. No, this isn't Nick Carter's seriously stripy curtains or Buffy's streaky layers. This time around, chunky highlights have undergone a handful of modern twists: hair isn't brassy-tinged, dyed strands are no smaller than finger width, nothing is too close to the root or zebra-esque, and hair is all one, blunt length.
Lots of colourists are taking a leaf out of Kardashian hairstylist Andrew Fitzsimons' book and mixing up hues with biscuit and caramel undertones, leaving negative space in between and stopping a few inches short of the root. Others are winging it with much brighter blonde tones but with one important rule in mind: the bulkier, the better. And the cut of choice? A shoulder-skimming lob, aka long bob.
"Previously, colour has been about making hair look natural," said Adir Abergel, hairstylist and creative director of Virtue. "But this doesn’t support a haircut," he continued. "The reason we're seeing all of these highlights and chunky colour placements is to prop up a blunt cut. We saw this in the '90s with the supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Naomi Campbell. When they swooped their hair over, you could really see the movement."
Luckily, I already had a blunt lob (the result of lazily skipping trims to keep my very high maintenance bob in check) and as someone with virgin (undyed) hair, I figured highlights would be the best way to ease myself in to the colour club. Interestingly, friends and family tried to deter me from touching my chocolate brown lengths. "You'll really have to keep on top of maintenance," warned one friend. Another said: "Don't you think those highlights are a bit...severe?"
Of course, I didn't listen to any of them (what kind of beauty editor would I be if I didn't put my own hair on the line?) and on a recommendation, I booked in for half a head of highlights with Shannon Gallacher at Nicola Clarke at John Frieda. In 10 minutes my colour was mixed with a dose of Virtue Colorkick, a smart protein treatment which enlists human keratin to prevent breakage. Shannon backcombed my hair at the root to make the blend a little less blocky and more wearable, and used her hands to paint on the colour before wrapping each chunk of hair in a large sheet of foil.
Despite initial fears that I'd be sitting in the salon chair for hours on end, the dyeing process took around two. "Virgin hair will lift fairly quickly," mentioned Adir, who also advises asking for a low peroxide dye, so that you aren’t blowing up the cuticle too much.
The initial result was bright, brassy yellow. Naturally, I panicked. The effect was more bumble bee than '90s cool. But 30 minutes slathered in toner dialled it down to this noticeable but not too in-your-face blonde – and I'm feeling it! I opted for a dead straight blow-dry to continue the '90s theme, as anything tousled would look a bit old-school.
While my hair doesn't feel dry as a result of bleach, it does need extra care. I picked up Pureology Hydrate Colour Care Shampoo, £19.95, and Conditioner, £23.10, which are pricier than high street versions but leave my thick hair frizz-free and feeling like silk. After towel-drying, I apply two pumps of Kérastase Elixir Ultime Rose Hair Oil, £43, and comb through Aveda Heat Relief Thermal Protector and Conditioning Mist, £26, before blow-drying straight, going over it with straighteners. Hairstylists up and down the country are wincing, I'm sorry. I finish off with a puddle of Virtue Polish Un-Frizz Cream, £19, to smooth down flyaways at the root and any fluffy ends.
When it comes to maintaining '90s chunky highlights, Adir reveals it's not as bad as you might think. "You may have to go back in a month or so, as the colour could become lighter than you want or even a little bit brassy," he told me. "For this reason, I'd suggest booking in for a toner every three weeks to a month, which is a 30-minute process," something Shannon seconds.
Booking in for regular treatments is a bit of a faff, though, so in the meantime I've stocked up on BLEACH London Toner Kit, £9, and Redken Blondage Express Anti-Brass Mask, £24.65, to keep my blonde bright. Using a purple shampoo, mask or treatment once or twice a week is also a good shout, according to the pros, so I have John Frieda's Sheer Blonde Colour Renew Tone Correcting Purple Conditioner, £5.99, on hand for a quick in-shower fix, too.
Before you commit to nostalgic chunky highlights, there's one important thing Adir wants you to know. "As you can see specifically where the placement of the highlights are, you have to commit to where you’re going to part your hair," he said. "Otherwise, the finished result could look odd and unsymmetrical." I'm unadventurous and stick with a centre parting, so that was easy, but if you like to switch up your style or wear your hair in a bun or ponytail, this is definitely something to consider.