Written by: Phindile Le Bris Sithole-Spong
Solange said it best when she sang “Don't touch my hair”. A sentiment that was felt by women of colour everywhere. If you are a woman of colour, chances are your hair has come up in discussion more times than you care to count. Whether it's questions about whether or not it's real, how you take care of it, how you feel wearing other peoples hair, why it looks like “that” (that being short, afro, dreadlocks or what ever else may be seen as different or offensive)? Which is why when you bring up the topic of hair to most women of colour, the answer is often met with a sigh and a long tale of their journey. Not only has our hair been misunderstood, replicated, ridiculed and then idolized in rapid succession. It seems to come up in places and spaces it shouldn't.
As someone with my own hair stories and trauma's I wanted to get deep into the idea of black women's hair and the politics around it. Which is why I had a chat with my good friend and hair expert Sisi Nxumalo of Hair by Sisi and Hair by Sisi Express on her thoughts on black women's hair.
Phindile Sithole-Spong; Hi Sisi. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. I want to start at the beginning. What is Hair by Sisi and how did you get started?
Sisi Nxumalo: Hair by Sisi is a premium hair extensions company and wig store, based in Johannesburg, South Africa but we ship internationally. I started Hair by Sisi by luck and curiosity. I had never worn human hair extensions before 2010 and when I moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg I bought very bad hair (thinking it was top end). The stylist convinced me to buy some Brazilian hair bundle 9inch and basically sold me dreams. R3500 later I left that salon looking like a movie star. This feeling however lasted a couple of weeks and then I started looking more like a birds nest than a movie star.
So after reaching out to the stylist and being ignored and finally shouted at, I decided to do some research to learn about my birds nest. After some research I learnt about the hair I had bought, which wasn't great quality. So, I set out on a journey to find great quality hair. After some months and many more birds nest later, I quit my job, made a bulk order (after being introduced to a great supplier), and set out selling hair from my boot then later Wendy house, 27 boxes and now Bryanston . Almost 5 years later and I (we) are still at it.
PSS: Hair can be such a political and emotional discussion for black women which is why I love that at Hair by Sisi you embrace ALL types of hair. Was that intentional?
SN: Yes, it was very intentional. My inspiration is black woman and we come in all shapes, forms, sizes, textures and embracing everyone was part of the plan. I started Hair by Sisi by chance, but what motivated me is that I do what I do, so that one day black women can have hair freedom. If you want to wear your hair in a weave, you should be able to without people commenting about “you not knowing yourself” or “wanting to be white”.
If a black woman has her hair natural, her hair should not be called unkept or unprofessional, if a black woman wears her hair in a fro people should not assume that she is making a political statement and if a black woman decides to relax her hair she should not be intimidated by those who don't relax their hair. Hair is very political, but really it shouldn't be. Our (mostly men's) energy needs to be focused on other things like world hunger, climate change, inequality, education rather than policing and claiming ownership of what a woman wants to do with her hair and her life and choices! Because when a man cuts his hair, dyes his hair or gets rid of it all, no ones says anything!
PSS: As you well know I've had a buzz cut for a verrrrry long time. After having my hair relaxed, pulled, twisted, dyed and even tried some terrible wigs and weaves myself, I decided to just stick with something super simple and easy to manage and maintain. That was of course until I met you and you introduced me to wigs (the good kind) and even got me to grow out my hair for the first time in ten years. What would you advice someone like me who is looking for a change but not sure how or where to start?
SN: Hair comes with maintenance, some hair is much higher in maintenance than others, so before getting a 30” wig or dying your hair platinum blonde, evaluate your lifestyle and then choose accordingly. If you are a busy person with very little time for a glam routine, stay away from hair choices that require one. The point of changing your hair is that you should be able to manage it yourself, long after leaving the salon. Start simple, gain confidence and the work you'r way up.
PSS: Last year you opened up a second location called Hair by Sisi express. What was the motivation behind this?
SN: A large majority of our clients at Hair by Sisi work in the corporate space and usually have very busy work and personal lives. After realising that if they missed the turn off to our store, they would rather go home or about their day, I decided to be closer to them. I think it's unfair that woman (mostly black women) have to take time out of their weekends and personal time to get their hair done. But (my thinking) if I could offer them hair services at their workplace so that they could do their hair before, during or after work, then they wouldn't have to compromise on their personal time.
Your hair is part of your corporate appearance, so I think services like grooming should be more readily available (for black women) in corporate spaces. At Hair by Sisi Express we only do express services. Yes we are a hair salon, but we also sell convenience. We try to make getting your hair done at work convenient. You can bring your laptop and work while we do your hair, and then when you are done, simply pop back to your desk in minutes. I just want (black) women in corporate to be able to get a simple service like a hair wash, plait or sew in, during their lunch breaks and not have to miss out on their personal or family time (if they don't want to), because they have to get their hair done.
PSS: I can imagine that like many businesses Hair by Sisi has been affected in someway or other by Covid-19. What are some systems you have put into place for customers to feel safe when coming to get their hair done?
SN: Covid has really changed the way business is done for many businesses. Hair by Sisi and Hair by Sisi Express are small and only service 1 – 3 people at a time. We try to keep as few people in the store/salon at any given time, so that people are able to do work, join zoom meetings, without being disturbed too much. So in that regard we haven't been too affected.
Where things have changed are with peoples buying patterns. Getting your hair done every two weeks has become a luxury to many people, so both businesses have seen a turn in how often we see many of our clients. Hair by Sisi Express saw this more than Hair by Sisi as Hair by Sisi Express is inside 1 Discovery Place ( a large corporate campus/block) and because many people are still working from home, the convenience aspect of Hair by Sisi Express has changed.
PSS: Speaking of Covid, now that many of us are staying home more and more. What are some tips do you have for good hair care at home?
SN: Just because you are not going out as much and not seeing as many people (and because it's difficult to see how grown out your braids really are, on zoom) doesn't mean you have to compromise on the health and the state of your hair. So, invest in good product (you only need one). Take this time to learn about your hair and even try doing your own hair, so when you eventually do go back to the salon, you really do appreciate the work of your stylist, after having to deal with your own hair firsthand.
PSS: Apart from taking care of women's hair you also have a hair care line. Tell us more about the products in your line. What are they and where can our readers get them?
SN: I have the Hair by Sisi hair care range which is for human hair weaves, wigs and extensions. These are specifically made for hair extensions, and makes it easier for you to have Great Hair Every Day.
People often think that I only work with hair extensions, but I have natural hair too. So for me it is important that my natural hair is strong and healthy, so that I can weave, braid and wig my hair. If your own hair is not healthy, unfortunately you may become a “slave” to weave/wig, only because your own hair is permanently damaged. So, I started Roots hair care, which is an organic hair care range of natural butters and I live on the Roots Moisturising Butter.
All of the Hair by Sisi hair, hair care products and Roots Butters can be purchased on www.hairbysisi.co.za
PSS: I can attest to the power of roots. It has changed my hair for the better. I have the whole kit and even use the conditioner for washing my 8 month olds hair which is still deciding which way to go (because she is mixed race so her hair pattern is very much a mix right now) and I must say I see the difference. In both my African hair and her mix hair. What are the key ingredients you in Roots that make it so good? And how did the idea of an organic hair care line for African hair come about? Especially as roots has been around for a few years now and is quite ahead of the curve.
SN: Roots came about when I was looking for something to use on my own hair. I wanted ingredients that I could pronounce and found that everything organic can be pronounced and understood even if English is not your mother tongue. I was also inspired by my mom who had twin girls (my sister and I) and used to do both our hair and I found this to be such an empowering time in my life. So I wanted to recreate that moment for other moms. Because Roots is organic it can be used by both moms and their children.
PSS: As someone who works with hair, I imagine you have had some interesting personal hair experiences. What have has that been like? And do you have a style or look preference?
SN: I find hair/wigs fun, some people buy sneakers, I buy wigs. So, when I first started Hair by Sisi back in 2014, I used to change my hair (weaves and wigs) every week. I was always trying new textures, lengths etc. I had a lot of fun with that (and so did my husband, he would call my wigs/weaves girlfriend no1, girlfriend no 2, girlfriend no 3 etc. etc.). But over the last two years I have scaled down on my wig collection and mostly stick to one hair texture (Hair by Sisi BlowOut Kink Wig). I mean, I still change my wigs here and there, but these days I mainly do braids/faux locs and sometimes I have my hair natural.
Recently, after one month in lockdown, I decided to dye my natural hair light ginger, because I just wanted to try something different and had the opportunity to do so. I didn't like it at first because my natural hair colour is a dark ginger, so going lighter made my hair, skin complexion and eyebrows look like one colour. Not my best hair moment, but since then the colour has faded and I actually grew to like it.
PSS: Having spoken and worked with you I now have a more fluid idea of hair and my personal hair identity because like the clothes I put on, I see hair as another form of self expression. I now own 3 wigs from Hair by Sisi and use them when ever I need a change or to switch up an outfit. Is this also your hair philosophy and how many wigs should a girl have?
SN: You can never have too many wigs, hahahahahaha, no I am joking. You need one great quality wig, one that is a staple, that won't let you down. One that you can wear for years and she will never skip a beat. Then you need one fun wig, a different texture to your staple girl (like a curly texture, or a different colour), this one is usually higher maintenance than your staple, but she is your in-between girl, when your staple is in for a treatment, you wear your in-between girl. She is still beautiful, but because her maintenance is higher, you only wear her for a few weeks, maybe a month, before your braid or do something else to your hair. So I would say one great wig, one good wig and the rest is up to you.
PSS: You recently became an aunt for the third time and I know how hands on you are with your nephews and how much you enjoy spending time with them. What else do you enjoy doing?
SN: Indeed, I am a very hands on aunty and person. I am a maker of things, I love making things and working on creative projects. So, in my spare time you can usually find me pursuing new business venture, making shoes ( I have a small eco-shoe company, with my two sisters called SoulShooz) and Dj-ing.
PSS: Final question, what does self evolution mean to you? And how do you make sure you are constantly growing and evolving?
SN: Self evolution to me is being able to try something new, like really try and master something new. My sister and I from the age of 20 (thought we were getting old and to stay youthful we challenged ourselves to learn and try and master something new every year/2 years).
I (we've) learnt to skateboard, play chess, play tennis, DJ, learnt Dutch and Mandarin (a work in progress ), my sister leads because currently she is learning how to be a mom hahahah. Although I have only mastered a few, I learn new things all the time and every year or so, I can look back and see how far I have come. So for me self evolution is tied very closely to growth, learning and reflecting.