I Got The ’90s-Inspired Highlights You’ve Seen All Over Instagram

Photo: Jacqueline Kilikita.
Ultra-skinny brows, frosted lipstick, greasy tendrils: There are some beauty trends the '90s can keep. But it seems that chunky blonde highlights have clawed their way back onto our radar — and they're definitely not the worst thing to make a 2019 comeback.
Like all the biggest hair trends of the year, the rebirth of the chunky highlight took place on Instagram. We've seen some colorists move away from the seamless blending techniques synonymous with flowing balayage and gravitate toward a style that's a lot more... obvious. No, this isn't Nick Carter's seriously stripy curtain bangs or Buffy's streaky layers. This time around, chunky highlights have undergone a handful of modern twists: The color isn't brassy, dyed sections are no smaller than finger width, nothing is too close to the root or zebra-esque, and hair is all one blunt length.
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Lots of colorists are taking a leaf out of Kardashian-favorite 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 long, shoulder-skimming bob.
Photo: Jacqueline Kilikita.
Before the highlights...
"Previously, color has been about making hair look natural, but this doesn't support a haircut," says Adir Abergel, hairstylist and creative director of Virtue. "The reason we're seeing all of these highlights and chunky color 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 I figured highlights would be the best way to ease my virgin hair into the color club. Interestingly, friends and family tried to deter me from touching my natural chocolate-brown color. "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 London. First, Gallacher mixed my color up with a dose of Virtue Colorkick, a protein treatment that uses a patented form of human keratin to prevent breakage. Then she backcombed my hair at the root to better blend each section, and used her hands to paint on the color before wrapping each chunk of hair in a large sheet of foil.
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Despite initial fears that I'd be sitting in the salon chair for hours on end, the dyeing process only took around two. "Virgin hair will lift fairly quickly," said Abergel, 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 bumblebee than '90s cool. But 30 minutes slathered in toner dialed it down to a 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.
Photo: Jacqueline Kilikita.
... and after.
While my hair doesn't feel dry as a result of bleach, it does need extra care. I picked up Pureology Hydrate Shampoo and Conditioner, which are pricy but leave my thick hair frizz-free and feeling like silk. After towel-drying, I apply two pumps of Kérastase Elixir Ultime Hair Oil and comb through Aveda Heat Relief Thermal Protector and Conditioning Mist, £26, before blow-drying straight. I finish off with a puddle of Virtue Polish Un-Frizz Cream to smooth down flyaways at the root and any fluffy ends.
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When it comes to maintaining '90s chunky highlights, Abergel says it's not as involved as you might think. "You may have to go back in a month or so, as the color 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, which is a 30-minute process, every three weeks to a month."
In the meantime, I've stocked up on Redken Color Extend Blondage Anti-Brass Purple Hair Mask to keep my blonde bright. Using a purple shampoo, mask, or treatment once or twice a week is also a good call, according to the pros, so I have John Frieda's Sheer Blonde Colour Renew Tone Correcting Conditioner on hand for a quick in-shower fix, too.
Before you commit to nostalgic chunky highlights, there's one important thing Abergel 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 center 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.
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