Fresh from winning her latest accolade, ‘Best Afro Hair Enhancer’ at the Best Beauty by Stylist Awards, less than six months after launching in the UK, Melan Magazine talks to celebrated and multi-award winning hair stylist Charlotte Mensah about her journey with hair.
Nestled in between boutiques, trendy cafes and other stylish businesses, Hair Lounge on Portobello Road, was tastefully decorated with shiny wooden floors, twinkling chandelier and large mirrors around the room.
Charlotte’s warm personality was immediately evident as she ushered me in the shop and I was offered a lovely herbal tea and home-made cake by her friendly staff. We soon settled down and with Melan Magazine photographer clicking away in the background, we got down to the interview proper.
Melan Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Charlotte Mensah: I call myself British/Ghanaian because I was born in London, but at only three months old, I went to live with my grandparents in Accra, Ghana. So I see myself as both British and Ghanaian as I lived in Ghana until I turned 11.
MM: When did your passion for hair begin?
CM: I remember returning to the UK at the age of 11 with my two sisters to live with my mum, but sadly within just a couple of years, my mum passed away. My younger sister was only three-years old at that point and I became responsible for looking after her hair. I loved braiding her hair and looking at fashion magazines for inspiration and I would say to myself, ‘oh I can recreate this style’. My sister in turn would say, ‘wow, I love this’. This always boosted my confidence and I would say to myself ‘Gosh, I’m really good at this’, [laughs]. But seriously, due to all the tragedy that I’d been through, I didn’t do as well as I could in my formal education and exams. Rather I embraced my creative talents and nurtured my gifts for doing hair. A little later on, just before my 16th birthday, a school careers office spotted my skill and managed to get me a youth training scheme space at a renowned salon called Splinters, the first black salon to open in the UK (in 1970). For four days a week I was at the salon and one day a week was spent doing hair theory at the London College of Fashion.
MM: How important is formal training?
CM: The recognised route nowadays is to do an NVQ, but in my day it was called City and Guilds. You definitely need to have good training under your belt. I did two years at College where I learned the theory side of hair dressing, both Afro and European hair. Also, having the opportunity to work in a real working salon was invaluable.
MM: What made you want to set up your own salon?
CM: Having training at an established salon like Splinters, a very high end salon, showed me the social aspect of hairdressing and I was influenced by the glamour and sophistication of my boss, the legendary Winston Isaacs. I knew that he had started the business up from scratch, and seeing what he’d been able to achieve, owning his own salon in Mayfair, had a big impact on me.
It was a gradual process. At 17 I never dreamed that I would someday own my own salon. What I did know was that having such a strong foundation and learning from Winston Isaacs really set the bar for me. Fast forward a few years and I became pregnant at 21. By then I was a junior stylist and I’d gotten some training under my belt. After working for a few other salons, I decided that I needed a more flexible arrangement to be there for my son, so at 25 years old, I started renting a chair in a European Salon, not too far from where we are now in Portobello Road. I grew my clientele from a handful to more than 200. By 1999, I was ready to get my own shop. Incidentally my first shop wasn’t actually a shop. It was a business centre that had no shop front and everyone said to me, ‘you’re crazy, how can you open a salon with no shop front, no one will know you’re there’, but for me, it was important to be somewhere that was mine and that I could manage the way that I wanted to, while still being a mum to my son. It really worked! To the point that I grew my clientele to well over 500. I had to go on the move again. I’d always wanted to have a shop on Portobello Road because I’ve lived here since I was 21 years old and I love the area. In 2003 I found number 347 and we’ve been here ever since.
MM: Do you have plans to expand your business?
CM: I have lots of plans for Africa. I go there very often. In fact I’m going back there towards the end of September. I do loads of workshops and I am constantly planning how to develop my hairdressing academy. I have big plans, but we’ve decided to start with smaller steps. We now have a bus that goes to where our students are. The reason for this is that during a workshop I was doing in Tanzania, one of the ladies who wanted to attend my class walked for about four hours because she was so poor and couldn’t afford the ride. It broke my heart, so I thought to myself, why does the bus have to be stationery? Why couldn’t we take it on the road and bring it to people instead? So I’ve been working on that idea and developing it. So watch this space. In fact, when I go to Ghana in a few weeks I will be doing another day workshop and the beauty of the bus is that we can rock up almost anywhere and as long as we have our mannequins and books, we can teach.
MM: What services does Hair Lounge offer?
CM: We cater for all types of hair. We mainly deal with Afro-Caribbean hair, but not exclusively. For me the most important thing is hair texture, whatever type of hair that you have, as long as you have hair, we can look after you. We offer all types of services from braiding, to treatments. I’m a stickler for healthy hair. Whether it is an inch long, or it grows down to your waist, it has to be healthy. So I’m always encouraging clients to have treatments, trims and take good care of their hair.
MM: How has the industry recognised you and your work?
CM: Oh gosh, where do I start? I mean I have been in the industry for over 30 years. In fact, many of my contemporaries who I started with have given up and re-trained. To stay in this industry, you must be driven and passionate about what you do. The industry has been great at recognising my work. Many have been supportive, and I have been recognised in countless awards such as Afro Hair Britain, which I’ve won twice (in 2013 and 2014) and then I have won well over 15 awards with Black Beauty Hair Awards, three awards with Black Hair Afro Salon of the year, I’ve won Black Woman in Business, there are too many to mention [laughs].
MM: What’s the most recent award that you’ve won?
CM: I received my most recent award only two days ago. The amazing Stylist Magazine awarded my flagship hair product, Manketti Oil, the Best Afro Hair Enhancer. It was incredible to attend the award ceremony on Monday 5 September, and to be in a room with people like Jo Malone, Bobby Brown, Laura Mercier. It was amazing. I grew up with my Grandma and my mum, and they’ve both passed away now and so whenever something amazing like that happens, I really feel their presence and say ‘wow, the angels are watching over me from heaven and they are so happy’.
MM: What three pieces of advice would you give to anyone who wants to start a hairdressing business?
CM: You definitely need to be passionate about hair because it’s a tough industry and there will be many challenges. You need to have that fire, ‘do you really want this’?
Be prepared to continually learn. People say to me, ‘Oh your amazing, you do so much, but every day I make a point of learning something new as I feel you need to keep learning and renewing what you know. The hair industry doesn’t stand still.
Thirdly, you need to be focused. Be very clear about what you want to achieve. That consistency is important. It’s easy to start something but if you lose sight of why you started it in the first place you won’t achieve much. You’ll be wasting your time and it won’t work.
MM: What’s next for Charlotte Mensah?
CM: We have a few more products in the pipe line that we are working on and so we would like to launch those in the very near future. I just want to keep getting better at what I do and keep going!
Charlotte Mensah’s current range of hair products can be purchased @ www.charlottemensah.com.