From tightrope-taut pigtail braids to neon-bright locs and a sculptural plaited updo inspired by African royalty of centuries past, braided styles of all shapes, sizes, and textures are taking center stage. And as these five women show, individuality—at long last—is king.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tolu Cecilia Oye
Or better yet, queen, if Tolu Cecilia Oye has anything to say about it. Of all the intricately woven looks in her repertoire, the 21-year-old student's re-imagination of the shuku, a traditional African hair shape characterized by a tall, cone-like stack of braids and famously worn by Moremi Ajasoro, a Yoruba warrior princess, is the one she wears with the most pride. For Oye, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria before moving to Columbus, Ohio at the age of five, her hair is linked to her upbringing (she spent much of her childhood inside the braiding salon where her mom worked), as well as her heritage. "Even though I was always surrounded by braids, I didn't always recognize the art of it," she explains, adding that she spent many of her coming-of-age years relaxing her hair to fit in at school before chopping it off and going natural. Trips back home to Nigeria were also pivotal in shaping her identity, helping her gain a deeper knowledge of traditional Yoruba braids—and realize how beneficial hair products "straight from the motherland" could be for women back in the States.
So, Oye co-founded Oye Shea Butter with her mother, Adepeju Oye, offering the homespun recipe Adepeju would whip up from Shea tree nuts in Nigeria as a beauty cure-all. As mother and daughter, their collective dream is to open up an Oye Salon and Hair Gallery in Columbus. "We want to educate young black girls on how to take care of their natural hair from an early age, so they don't spend half their life not knowing what to do with it," says Oye.
Education is equally important to 20-year-old hairstylist Awa?Kaloga, who works at Nya Salon, a braiding bar in Berlin, Germany. Kaloga learned to braid from her Senegalese mom at age 7, and from then on tended to her own hair, as well as that of her three younger sisters. Over the past few years, she's been imparting her well-honed skills and wisdom on the German capital's steadily emerging braid scene. "There aren't a lot of places for people with natural hair in Berlin, but I'm starting to see more spots pop up where afro-haired women can get their hair cut and treated properly," Kaloga explains. Showcasing the beauty and versatility of braids on herself, Kaloga gets experimental with color, weaving vivid extensions into cascading plaited styles. Her go-to? "I love faux locs because they look better the longer you have them in and protect the hair so that it can grow without breakage," she says, adding that she likes to embellish with shells, thread, and jewelry as well. When working with clients, Kaloga finds braiding to be a nuanced experience, from a technical point of view as well as on a personal level. "I love the symmetry, clean lines, and crispness of perfect braids," she explains. "And I love the connection I get to build with my clients. We usually sit in a room together for at least 3 hours, which gives me the opportunity to get to know them better and create a style that suits them. It's a special bond." And as the offerings for natural hair evolve in Berlin, Kaloga hopes to see more women of color express themselves that way. "A couple centuries back, hair was all we had to show who we are and where were from," she says. "All the details, every single braid, bead, thread, or pattern has a specific meaning—and I want to be able to to share everything I know while expanding my own knowledge."
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Photo: Courtesy of Aba Mfrase-Ewur / Pearle Knits
For model and artist Aba Mfrase-Ewur, a first generation Ghanaian-American growing up in Virginia, it was a slow roll towards cherishing the braids she wears proudly today at 25. "Where I grew up in Virginia, there was often a lot of racial tension, which had an intense effect on how I adapted to the world around me," she explains. "I was the singular African girl with a giant gap in her teeth and a super long last name. At the time, no one was talking about #blackgirlmagic, so in an effort to deflect the negativity, I straightened my hair." It was during college at Virginia Commonwealth University that Mfrase-Ewur first decided she wanted to transition her hair from chemically straightened to natural, eventually shaving her head to start completely anew. Since then, her passion for plaits has grown. "Nothing beats the [visual] poetry that is Senegalese and Ghanaian braiding," she says. "All over Africa and in the diaspora, braids are a cornerstone of our culture and when I braid my hair, I do so with this knowledge." For inspiration, Mfrase-Ewur looks to her collection of vintage Ebony magazines, as well as archival images of African royalty, deeming these sources a "refreshing change from Instagram." As she continues to use her hair as a vehicle of self-exploration, Mfrase-Ewur hopes her work offers solace to girls who are facing struggles similar to what she experienced when she was younger. "I want to help [these girls] skip to the part of the story where they love themselves," she explains. "I want them to know there is space for them and that they add beauty to this world."
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Photo: Mikala Langston / @electric.b1ue
With waist-grazing length and fluorescent cyan hues, New York model Alees Yvon has often looked at braids through the lens of pop culture. "When I was young, my mom would do my hair and always kept it cute with ribbons and bows," explains Yvon, a native of San Francisco, California. "Then one day, I told her I wanted my hair like Da Brat and Snoop." From then on, Yvon would always micro-manage the "creative direction" of her hair looks, she says with a laugh. Iconic black artists have always had a strong impact on Yvon above the neck —she credits Grace Jones' envelope-pushing attitude and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes' chameleonic style for stoking her inventiveness—but the sci-fi films she'd watch with her grandma as a child proved to be equally influential. Wearing dizzying, Day-Glo plaits that snake down her back alongside graphic metallic eye looks and colored contact lenses, her look veers, very intentionally, into extra-terrestrial territory. Still, she says, braiding is a ritual that will always ground her. "It can be pretty therapeutic because sometimes as an artist or creative, there's a certain way you envision something and only you can do," she explains. "I just follow my intuition and do what feels ripe."
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Photo: Sukey Parnell-Johnson / @sukeyp
It's a similar story for rising British electro-pop singer Lola, who has made towering twin braids one of her beauty signatures. "There's something magical about braids," says the 22-year-old Londoner. "They hold so much symbolism for many different cultures and for me personally, a lot of memories, such as my mother and grandmother doing my hair before school. It's an intimate act, almost like you're giving a gift—making someone else feel beautiful." Always sporting a crisp, deep center part, she enjoys flexing the endless possibilities of braids, often adding muted pastel streaks for dimension, as well as embracing the youthfulness of dual plaits. "Pigtails are a little more playful than a ponytail and create more of a character," she says. "They can make a simple look far more interesting without having to put in much more effort. Pulling hair back into two sections makes it easier to slick, and as a perfectionist, that's a major plus." As far as inspiration is concerned, old anime films, as well as Galadriel from Lord of the Rings are what have Lola treading into real-life Rapunzel territory, while Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones is her mythical hair idol. "I want to look strong and ethereal—and braids embody those characteristics to me."