The mohawk, the Jheri curl, the perm: it’s easy to bring them to mind but hard to find the cut that suits you. We took a hair-raising trip to Los Angeles – clippers in hand – to lift the lid on the latest styles.
Hairstyles. Not a small subject. So we went exploring the crazy urban sprawl of Los Angeles – a city of cities joined by highways and burnt by sun – to document how tribes, towns, neighbourhoods, places and their races look; and how they style what they’ve got up top.
There is nothing more definitive or intimate than your hair and what you do with it. You lived with it as a child, you became conscious and self-conscious of it when you were a teenager and then you just live with (or without) it as you lean toward the warm breeze of age – or is it a chilly breeze? Your hair – say your friends and your lovers, says your own image in the mirror – is vital to your sense of self.
So we drove. We drove from LAX to Downtown where quiffed and coiffed hotel bartenders shake Old Fashioneds and flirt for tips. We drove from Downtown to El Porto Beach to see surfers in the misty dawn; regulation blondes in wetsuits gazing at breakers and swell. Are you even allowed in the sea if you’ve got dark hair? Guess not.
From El Porto we drove up towards the hills, almost to Los Feliz, to check out the barber shops of what’s become Little Armenia. This place is different, like you’re not actually allowed out if you’re blonde. This is where barbershops are male as hell and the talk is all chicks and cars – and the calendars are from autoshops in the unreconstructed 1980s. Customers come in and ask for buzzes and fades, and the taxonomy of styles and language of the scissors is a jargon as dense as jungle.
Beers are served and we drive to Culver City to visit Nina Simone at Love Tribe Hair, her salon where she plays stylist and soothsayer in equal measure. “I like people to feel very comfortable in here, to look forward to it,” says Nina. “Then we talk.” I bet they do. And is that your real name? “Why, sure.” Here Melinda is having a “four ups” (a close shave all over). She’s beautiful; we take her picture; she’s on her way to church.
Nina introduces us to Chuck Taylor down the road. Chuck’s built like a quarterback: he must be seven-foot tall, dressed in cool navy, dreadlocks busting out beneath a baseball cap. Chuck and his wife specialise in African-American hair, a whole other universe of curl and weft, qualities specific and administered to by machines and metal and heat. It’s Saturday and there are a lot of kids coming in for some sharp styles. There are folks nodding and laughing as the big televisions show the Lakers, and the men to argue and scoff. We don’t really want to leave. We eat California rolls and chat while the parking lot bakes outside.
Later that week we go uptown. Alex Polillo is an in-demand stylist and impresario, it seems, of everything to do with hair. Alex’s salon is called Mare and sits in West Hollywood. In the garden, beneath the shade of banana leaves, Alex talks about stylists judged on their number of Instagram followers and the world of styling Hollywood; how some travel the world with actresses to make sure they’re just right for junkets, commercials – hell, even movies. Inside, Abbey Heerrwagen is colouring her sister Caroline’s hair. She’s the lady looking right out at you from beneath the hairdryer. I can’t hear everything – someone put a curse on someone, cold turkey, napping – but what I definitely hear is that their mother can do “the plank” (a sort of exercise) for nine minutes. “I mean, it’s insane.”
In Larchmont we go to a well-known little old place now run by Jorge Hilario called, simply, the Larchmont Barber Shop. It’s “the only place on the street that’s stayed as is”, say a couple of customers. Jorge’s doing a brisk Sunday morning trade for guys getting more than just a short back and sides. There is terminology being traded here too. Where Chuck Taylor’s joint was all Lakers vibes, Jorge’s thing is baseball and there’s a lot of talk about the Dodgers playing the Yankees that afternoon. It’s a grudge match, a dust-up, a derby that isn’t. KOST 103.5 plays on the radio: Tom Petty, Bon Jovi and a commercial that says, “Toyota of Orange: you won’t get a lemon.” It’s a time warp.
We drive to Koreatown, which is so bustling that your car insurance is dearer if you live here. We valet the wheels and go to Ssooniestyle. This is a place decked in pink, where the female stylists wear tartan miniskirts and take 1,000 photographs of themselves, us, their clients, a dog that walks past, their fingernails. K-Pop that sounds like a 33 played at 45 booms out and everyone’s about 19, max. Oh hang on: at the back there are some middle-aged ladies with sturdy handbags and court shoes grooving over by the hair-washing basin. Linda’s had her hair dyed on-trend ash grey but today, she tells us, “I’m just getting my waves done.” She’s got taped-in extensions that she happily twirls about, like a really cute cavalier king charles.
Finally we thank the LA gods for a shaded parking spot in Beverly Hills and pound Rodeo Drive searching for styles after meeting Asifa over juice at Alfred. Asifa’s been working out (read on to have a look at her picture) and tells us she’s never had her photograph taken without make-up on. We Googled her while she moved her Range Rover from the parking lot entrance – and it’s true. Down the Drive we go; it’s like strolling down a catwalk. At the end we meet Samia and Darrius who look great, like an advert for something. For Los Angeles itself, maybe.
Before LAX and a Valium for the plane, we go for an ice-cream sandwich and a pot of Earl Grey at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In the Cabana Café, by the pool, we meet Christen and John, on holiday from Boston. Christen’s got Lolita sunglasses and has gone California blonde. She calls it “vacation hair”. Christen’s great.