When it comes to hairstyles, few require more patience and diligence than African braids.
Fortunately, 23-year-old braider Helena Koudou grew up in an entrepreneurial family who stressed the values of hard work, perseverance, and tradition. Originally from Africa's Ivory Coast, Koudou spent countless hours as a child watching and learning from the women of her family create an array of natural, intricate styles of many people in their Brooklyn salon, Alima's Hair Braiding.
This meant long hours standing up for those doing the braiding, and long hours in the chair for clients. By watching and learning, Koudou took on her first clients at age 13 and a familial love grew into an artistic passion. Now, 10 years later, having established a solid client base, the braider and model is pulling back the curtain on what the intimate cultural process of African braiding is really like for the world.
She's doing it through her personal hair braiding brand, @SlayedInBraids, and through a beautiful, two-part short film made in partnership with community-oriented content platform, Sunday School Creative, called The Hair Appointment. Last year, Koudou and Sunday School put on an interactive exhibition at Brooklyn's Okay Space Gallery, which recreated the convivial atmosphere of her family's salon, and featured braiding workshops led by her aunts, as well as live poetry and musical performances from local artists.
The first part of The Hair Appointment, Koudou says, "shows the intimate hair braiding experience between a braider and her child," while the second focuses on the relationship between client and braider in a salon environment.
Koudou says it's crucial to share her experience growing up in the hair braiding community because "people from the outside looking in don't know what it's like for us braiders."
Conversely, people aren't widely aware of how traditional African braiding, an often painful experience for both braider and client, can make for a truly unique bonding experience.
"The same way clients feel pain when getting their hair braided, is the same way we feel pain when we're standing on our feet for long hours," Koudou explains. "The same way kids feel pain from getting their hair done the night before school, is the same way braiders feel pain wrestling with them so they can stay still. Nevertheless, seeing the satisfaction on people's faces after their hair is done is worth all the pain."
Despite the painful process, the finished product upholds a longstanding Black cultural tradition of celebrating natural hair, its versatility and sense of pride in the wearer.
"The Hair Appointment project highlights the African hair braiding experience and celebrates the beauty of African braids," Koudou says. "It is important for people to acknowledge and appreciate the struggles that African hair braiders go through to make the clients look beautiful."
As Vogue reports, The Hair Appointment already made its way to Peckham Palms in London for a second exhibition just a few weeks ago, where Koudou braided models' hair and visitors received customized styles, including X-Pression hair extension packages from Tolu Oye of Oye Green. There was poetry by Lanaire Aderemi; sounds from Born N Bread, DJ Femo, and more. Koudou also hopes to share her work in Ghana for a 10-day immersive exhibition this December.
Koudou's empowerment-focused mission going forward is clear: "Coming from a family of hair braiders and being a creative myself, my plans for The Hair Appointment and for my hair braiding brand, Slayed In Braids, is to continue to showcase the artform of braids with creatives from all parts of the world."
Follow Helena Koudou on Instagram @SlayedInBraids.
Photography: Jeremy Rodney-Hall