In Charlotte Mensah’s own introductory words to her debut book, Good Hair is “a how-to guide, a history lesson and an intimate recollection of my life experiences, all rolled into one. It’s a tool for getting to know, looking after and loving your hair.” With almost 35 years in the industry, a flagship salon – the Hair Lounge in London’s Notting Hill – as well as her own range of products, hair maestro Mensah certainly has the expertise and fanbase to be sharing her tricks of the trade with the masses through her new publication.
Mensah’s client list may include names such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michaela Coel, Zadie Smith, Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu, but in fact her little sister was her first ‘regular’, and the person with whom her whole hair journey began. After their mother passed away unexpectedly when Charlotte was just 13 years old, she took a keen interest in styling while caring for her younger sister’s hair, and never stopped. She went from apprentice – perfecting her craft at the renowned Black hair salon Splinters in Mayfair in the late ’80s – and rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a business owner herself.
For far too long, there’s been rigid beauty standards that have been used to define what good hair is. All hair is good hair”
After being inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame in 2018, and the first Black woman to receive this prestigious accolade, Mensah was approached by publishing house Penguin to talk about writing her own book. “We had a meeting and it felt like the right thing to do,” she explains to me, a loyal customer of hers and someone who swears by her Manketti Oil. “It’s been 18 months of really putting everything together, making sure that it’s what I want to put out there.”
“It’s very different to other hair books,” Mensah continues. “When I was training, there was never really a book that I could look at and think ‘that could be me’. There were hair books, but they were heavily focused on the science of hair and doing techniques. There wasn’t any real story on how these people got there.” Instead, Good Hair covers the complex history of Black hair while also telling Mensah’s rich personal story and imparting advice on how to care for and cherish your own crowning glory. “It inspires you on all different levels – not just styling your hair, but in business and even the challenges I’ve had in my own life.”
Through sharing her own trajectory, Mensah’s Good Hair offers valuable career advice to aspiring hair stylists. “Go to school, learn how to do hair properly. Respect the hair,” she stresses on our call. “The process of learning and failing [is] so important.”
So, how exactly did she grow her impressive empire? “I had been renting a chair in a European salon; it was going well, but then my clientele grew, and it got to the point where I needed to stand on my own two feet,” says Mensah. “I live in London’s Portobello, and a client told me about the Portobello Business Centre. I went along to one of the sessions and, luckily, because I was under 30, I qualified for the Prince’s Trust enterprise scheme. The Prince’s Trust is a brilliant charity that gives you all the tools you need to set off in business. They provide you with a mentor, you go on courses… But once you’ve got all the training, it’s down to you to make a success of it.”
When I was training, there was never really a book that I could look at and think ‘that could be me’. There were hair books, but they were heavily focused on the science of hair and doing techniques. There wasn’t any real story on how these people got there”
Mensah’s mentor was an accountant, who taught her how to save, the importance of cash flow, and the reality that it might take two years to break even. The business, born in 1999, flourished, and now Mensah has come full circle, mentoring many young people herself. “I’m happy that I’m in the community and that I’m able to be the [Prince’s Trust] ambassador and a mentor, but it takes a lot of work. I’ve set up my own foundation in aid of my mother, which is mainly focusing on students in Ghana and helping the underprivileged in Accra.”
Alongside her charitable contributions, Mensah is also wholeheartedly committed to diversifying the world of beauty. Over the past 10 years, the industry has had a wake-up call as consumers, the media and brands have begun to acknowledge, address and interrogate the one-dimensional portraits of beauty that have been upheld for decades, if not centuries. “For far too long, there have been rigid beauty standards that have been used to define what good hair is,” Mensah asserts. “All hair is good hair. What the book is here to show is the key to caring for it, and how to protect it. We ourselves abuse our own hair a lot. In the quest to look like the rigid beauty standards, we don’t respect or honor our hair.”
Although conversations around greater representation and inclusivity in the beauty world have been building, the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has certainly escalated that action. “It’s the perfect time, actually. I remember a few months ago, during lockdown, the number of emails, text messages and phone calls [I received] from clients who felt so lost. When you’re already feeling down and your hair doesn’t look good, you don’t feel good; it makes it really difficult to get through each day,” Mensah muses. The idea that looking good can mean feeling better is a truth universally understood, regardless of ethnicity or hair type, and Mensah strongly believes her book will be a “game changer”. I don’t doubt that at all.