On a cloudy January afternoon in downtown Seattle, hair stylist Jackie Page Christian was on her sixth client of the day. Her salon, Six17, sits in the back corner of the Exchange Building’s ground floor, the last in a lineup of similar studios. Inside, the soulful sound of India.Arie’s “Chocolate High” can be heard when the hum of the blow-dryer in Christian’s hand goes silent.
Christian, 53, and her client, 32-year-old Alexis Piper of Seattle, were talking about work and weekend plans before the discussion turned to hair. Piper detailed her recent success setting her hair at home with flexi-rods — foam rollers that serve as an alternative to heat-produced curls.
“I was looking so cute on Monday!” Piper exclaimed.
Piper’s regularly scheduled appointments with Christian are more than just a chance to chat — the stylist-client bond is sacred. It’s why Black stylists in Seattle are so in-demand.
After moving to Seattle in 2007, Piper, a Black woman, says she tried a few salons in the area but gave up on finding someone to style her hair regularly. “I kind of tried to teach myself how to do my own hair, but I really wasn’t taking good care of it,” she said. That was until Piper met Christian, who has been working in Seattle since 2019 and who says Piper’s inability to find a trusted stylist in the Seattle area is a story she’s heard often from other clients who are Black women.
The term “Black hair desert” or “Black salon desert” refers to an area where there are a very limited number of salons that specialize in curly to coily hair. This leaves Black people with few options: either travel a significant number of miles to find a trusted stylist or become their own.
The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area boasts Washington’s highest concentration of hairdressers and hairstylists, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But it makes for a more complex environment when an open salon doesn’t necessarily mean all curl patterns are serviced.
The Washington Department of Revenue “does not collect data on the ethnicity of the business owners,” but reports 14,162 registered salons in Washington; this includes salons that offer skin care services, like facials, but does not include barber shops. Excluding self-employed workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2020 estimates there are 5,700 hairdressers and stylists in the Greater Seattle metro area. In Central Washington, those numbers are in the hundreds.
Based on the lengths Black women travel for an appointment with Christian, it’s clear her Seattle salon has made a splash when it comes to options for textured hair care. She has clients who faithfully travel to her from as far north as Oak Harbor, and others who brave Interstate 5 traffic from as far south as Tacoma and Puyallup.
It was Christian’s sister who first told her of the market opportunity to open a salon in Seattle when her own stylist search was coming up short.
“My sister was sharing with me conversations she had with colleagues who were flying to New York, California, Atlanta, Chicago to get their hair done,” Christian said. “It was unbelievable to me, because in Atlanta, good Lord, you can walk out your door and just put your head on a swivel and find a Black salon.”
In January 2019, Christian decided to test the waters, hosting a pop-up in Seattle to offer her salon services. She set up shop for six days and serviced a total of 48 clients, all Black women. That was enough to persuade her to pack up her life in Atlanta and move permanently to Seattle, giving those women one more option in town.
Sabrina Gray, who began styling hair in Burien seven years ago, recently relocated her salon, The Curl Garden Studio, to be closer to her home in Puyallup. Gray recognizes the demand; she has clients who travel from as far as Marysville and Bremerton to see her.
“Here, white people can walk into any salon and get their hair done, and [the stylists] are going to know how to do it,” said Gray, 29. “For Black women, we don’t have that luxury.”
There are even fewer salons that specialize in styling Black women’s hair in its natural state, Gray noted. That’s definitely something Christian observed when she hosted her initial pop-up.
“What I was hearing was that braids, [faux] locs, wigs, weaves, extensions were all very prevalent,” Christian said. “But after a while, that takes a toll. You can’t do that forever. What happens when you have to come out of that and do your natural hair?”
Both Christian and Gray offer popular hairstyles for Afro-textured hair, like flat twists, two-strand twists, wash-and-gos and rod sets. They both also offer the curly cut, a type of haircut tailor-made for women who wear their hair in its natural, curly state.
For Black women in Seattle, the collective shift away from the practice of chemically straightening their curls has mirrored the national natural hair movement, said Lashawn Jenkins, 42, whose Beauty by Lashawn salon can be found at Noir Beauty Bar in Bellevue. Originally from Seattle, she has been styling Black women’s hair around her hometown for more than 20 years. She, too, has seen how, over the past decade, there has been an extreme focus on encouraging women of African ancestry to celebrate their kinky, curly and coily hair texture. Social media posts continue to soar about the “#bigchop,” natural hair care brands have sprouted by the dozens, and lawmakers have passed legislation like Washington’s House Bill 2602, or “The Crown Act,” making hair discrimination illegal in schools and the workplace.
“We have fallen in love with our Blackness and our Black hair,” Jenkins said. “Most of my clients, they just want long, healthy, natural hair. I hardly do relaxers.”
These days, two of Jenkins’ most requested services are sew-ins (where a weave is sewn into natural hair) and silk presses (where the natural hair is straightened using a blow-dryer and flat iron). In each of these instances, because hair is being added and heat is being applied, preserving the integrity of her clients’ natural hair is paramount, Jenkins said.
It’s that emphasis on hair care that drew Afton Drake to keep returning to Jenkins’ chair. After wearing her natural hair out for years, Drake, 34, switched to wearing extensions. She goes to Jenkins for installation and removal of the extensions and style-maintenance services.
“Maintaining my natural hair under these extensions is important for me, because I want to maintain the hair that I have,” Drake said. “Every time [Jenkins] removes an installation, she deep-conditions my hair, she trims my ends.”
Jenkins says clients have come from as far as Portland and Yakima to seek out her services. And as she’s in high demand: Booking an appointment a month or two in advance is standard practice among her clients. Monique Caldwell, 26, drives 60 miles from her home in Lacey to see Jenkins in Bellevue. But, Caldwell says, it’s worth the wait and the road trip.
“My clients have said, ‘I don’t care where you move to, I’m following you,’” Jenkins said. “Just creating these relationships, it’s a ministry.”
Another level of loyalty is unlocked when a Black woman finds her trusted stylist. But it’s much deeper than vanity, Gray said.
Hair has a unique and unmistakable connection to identity in Black culture, especially for Black women. It has been a symbol of resistance and empowerment, as noted by the bold Afros worn in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Hair, however, has also been a source of pain and division, through permeating ideas of texturism and beliefs that certain texture patterns signify how beautiful a person is.
Now, with more Black women taking steps to embrace their natural texture, Christian says the stylist-client relationship is even more treasured.
“When this movement first started, most of my time spent behind the chair was just affirming Black women: ‘You’re beautiful. Your hair is beautiful,’” she said.
Christian is less of an affirmation coach and more of a cheerleader these days, she says. Clients are becoming more confident in their natural-hair journeys and are ready to be more adventurous with their hair choices. Piper, for example, wants to dye her natural curls green this spring.
It’s a choice Christian rejoices in, and one that she hopes, as a stylist, she created the space for. The three numbers in her salon name, 617, derive from the street address of her parents’ house in Louisiana. She says they represent home, a place where clients can come in and let their hair down — literally and figuratively.
“It’s a place to go and be safe. No judgment, just love,” said Christian.
“If I can provide a space for a client to come and exhale, even if it’s just for an hour and a half, I’ve made a difference in their lives.”