The Broader Picture: Crazy about the hair

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The Independent Culture
YEARS AGO, everyone said African hair wasn't versatile,' said Donavon Nelson, organiser of the Afro Dizziac Hair Awards. 'Now we're showing the sky's the limit.' A 34-year-old Londoner with a background in the music business (he once managed Boney M), Nelson is determined to prove to the world that Afro hair-styles really can be avant-garde. Last weekend, he seemed to be succeeding.

At Hammersmith's Le Palais in west London, scores of models paraded the floor, balancing gravity-defying structures on their heads, as ten salons from around Britain competed to create the ultimate in futuristic hairdos - and don'ts - at Europe's only 'alternative Afro hair show'. Entries combined elements of sci-fi fantasy with Mardi Gras kitsch. Each salon had its own group theme, from tribal dancers to Blade Runner, and music, costume and dance all played parts in displays reminiscent of carnival floats. But hair was the main focus - and, indeed, hardly needed the supporting razzmatazz. Fenella, for example, over 6ft tall (excluding hair) and dressed in black Lycra, almost defied belief as she walked carefully around the stage, balancing on her head a 2ft 6in-wide diamante-sprinkled spider's web made from different coloured hair attachments. Other breathtaking creations included a 2ft 'barrel', constructed - by the Montana Hair Salon, Walthamstow - from wire with hair plaited around it. As part of her act, the model removed the barrel from her head as if to fill it up with water, then tilted it to show that it was 'overflowing' with more multi-coloured hair. But the show was stolen by the surreal Cinderella-theme appendage - also created by Montana, and worn by Jennifer - which won first prize: a foot-high sweeping 'staircase', made entirely of tiered hair, with a papier mache silver shoe attached to one of the 'steps' and each step layered with silver sequins.

Despite appearances, such creations are not all that difficult to carry. 'As long as you keep the neck rigid it's comfortable,' said Everton Boothe, salon manager at Montana. 'They're quite light.' The 'staircase', for example, was hollow inside. The hair had been woven round a cardboard template; then, once copious amounts of hair spray had been applied, the base was removed.

This was one of the qualities that distinguished Montana's efforts from the rest: their use of lots of hair and very little else. 'A lot of people rely on props,' said Boothe. 'Not us. We just use hair.' (Not all of this, it must be said, is the models' own, but it is real. Much of it is imported in bulk from Korea.) Each hairdo fantasy can take months to complete. Boothe and his salon started work on their concepts in early July, spending 18 hours a week testing and perfecting their ten entries.

A panel of judges marked the competitors on style, creativity and overall presentation. In general, according to one judge, Irene Shelley, editor of Black Beauty and Hair, this year's 'look' fused old and new: Paris catwalk outrageousness and ancient tribal designs. 'It's a Nineties interpretation of classic African styling - eg, hair attachments and ornaments which give a sense of height and width,' she said. 'It's actually a form of art.' And though many of the entrants echoed traditional African fashion, it wasn't 'just a lesson in black culture.' Much of the visual imagery was influenced by Japan, China, America and Europe. 'Everyone had a different springboard for their ideas.'

The show is now in its eighth year, and next spring Nelson will be

taking it to Paris. He hopes it is only a matter of time before Afro-Caribbean hair-styling achieves mainstream fashion status. 'Hair is hair,' he explains. 'There should be many different styles for it, irrespective

of race and colour.'

(Photographs omitted)