October 12, 2016
Whether you rock it low, have locs or have followed in the footsteps of Morris Chestnut and gotten rid of it all together, how you choose to rock your hair reveals a good deal about who you are. For most of us, hair is an integral part of our identity. Often times, it’s the first thing people notice.
It should go without saying, that whoever’s chair we sit in to keep us looking fresh is awarded our complete trust. Instinctively we all know this, but if you can’t trust the person holding the sheers to keep it one hundred, then who can you trust? Just ask Kanye West. Ibn Jasper, his barber and childhood friend, has been shaping him up for nearly 20 years.
So when we asked Vernon François, the hair genius behind behind Lupita Nyong’o’s now infamous close cropped cut that graced the cover of last year’s October Vogue, how he’s built a global clientele that includes the likes of Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Uzo Aduba, it was a relief to hear his answer. “I’m always honest with my clients, no matter what – it’s the only way you can have a truly transparent relationship. Without honesty there is no trust, which in my opinion is the foundation of any long-lasting client relationship.”
Like most of the greats, Vernon is self-taught. Even more impressive, is that he feverishly began pursuing his passion as a professional hairdresser at the tender age of 14! Within moments of speaking with him – his British accent is warm and invitingly charming – it’s clear that cutting and styling hair is more than just something he does for a living, it’s who he is, and it still gets him excited.
Despite being insanely busy, he just dropped a line of haircare products that is certain to shake up the industry, Vernon was able to carve out some time during a recent jaunt to NYC, to chop it up with us about hair, growing up a redhead, politics and staying true to your roots.
Bevel Code: Most people know you as Lupita’s go-to hair guy, but you’ve actually been in the haircare business for quite some time (16 years to be exact). What initially attracted you to the hair industry?
Vernon François: To be honest, it was Mum who really started me on this journey. I was born in Northern England and grew up in a pretty typical, traditional Caribbean household. Sundays were about two things: 1. Sunday dinner and 2. getting your hair done. My mum did my hair. I didn’t like it and expressed this to her. That’s when I decided I could do a better job. And that’s really started it all.
BC: It seems like your family played quite an important role in helping you explore and embrace your gift of hair care.
VF: Oh yes! If it wasn’t for them who knows what I’d be doing. In fact, my mum and brother were my first clients, if you can call them that. And I proudly still do my mum’s hair to this very day.
Once that fire was lit, I knew I had found my calling. I started twisting and locking pretty much anything I could get my hands on, the ends of rugs, mops, my brother’s hair. You know those wooden bead curtains? My grandmother had one of those in her house. I even took up twisting and locking that, and this was at eight years old!
Interestingly enough, it was my dad that really championed me and got me excited about doing hair. All you really need is one person in your life early on to tell you that it’s okay, that you can do it. My family instilled a sense of security in me early on. I knew they were in my corner rooting for me, which gave me the push to pursue my passion with, well, passion. So for that, I’m eternally grateful.
BC: That’s amazing! More people need that type of encouragement from early on. So you’ve become pretty notorious for your own grooming and hairstyles. Any story behind that?
VF: I grew up a ginger, aka a redhead, in a Caribbean family so you can imagine how much I stood out as a child. Here I was, this little Black boy running around England with red hair. So I’m used to getting attention. As I’ve gotten older, I really embraced the lessons I learned as a child about being secure with who I am. And so I’ve always been really expressive with my hairstyles; I’ve tried it all.
But oddly enough, as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to embrace the mantra of less is more. And don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s important to have fun and experiment with your look!
BC: Do you bring any of your own personal ideas about grooming and hair care to the work you do with your clients?
VF: Of course. Inevitably, I always bring a piece of myself to every interaction with my clients. It’s hard to turn off that personal filter, and at the end of the day, I think that’s why I’ve been able to develop such meaningful relationships with my clients.
BC: Speaking of your clients, I think many people would be surprised to know that you have quite a number of male clients.
VF: Yeah, actually I’d say my clients are about 60/40, 60% women and 40% men, and my male clients take hair care and grooming very seriously. In the last 5-6 years I’ve seen a dramatic jump in the number of men in my chair, which I find very interesting.
On the whole, grooming and caring for oneself is still seen as feminine so I think it takes a bit more to make them feel comfortable. But once you’ve established that relationship you’ve got a bond for life.
BC: What exactly can a guy expect when they sit in Vernon François’ chair?
VF: I treat all my clients exactly the same, from the super famous to my mum. I’m always honest, so he can definitely expect that.
But I really try my best to make every guy that sits in my chair comfortable with taking care of himself in this way and to educate him on how to keep up his grooming at home. So I talk to them about product selection, product application, and even the best way to dry their hair. He can also expect for me to push him to think about grooming in a new way!
BC: We all know you’re the mastermind behind Lupita’s natural cropped style, a style that a few years ago may have gotten a very different reaction. And there’s no denying that over the past few years there’s been a wider embrace of women experimenting with shorter more cropped hairstyles, what do you think about this?
VF: I think it’s amazing! I really think women and men should feel free and safe to experiment with their hair. Like I said, I really push my clients to experiment and push the envelope. So if I have a client that’s even considering going shorter, I’ll push them to really think about it. And typically I get my way.
BC: For a lot of us, our hair is a part of our identity and how we choose to style our hair is almost always assigned a deeper meaning by others, particularly for people of color. Do you find yourself having conversations about the politics of hair?
VF: I’m constantly having these conversations, and to be honest, I love it. Platforms like Instagram, which allows individuals to explore and learn in solitude, have done a lot in changing the way we speak about natural hair. Social media has allowed us to have conversations, and for outsiders to ask questions in such a way that real information, sharing and understanding can take place. We’re finally at a point where we can have open dialogue about women of color and natural hair; it definitely doesn’t have the same stigma.
BC: In many ways you’ve become the king of natural and textured hair.
VF: I mean, I started out doing natural hair; those are my roots and I could never deny my roots. When I first started, there weren’t many people embracing and doing hair that’s thicker, more textured. This allowed me to really practice my craft and carve out a niche for myself.
Traditionally, there’s been such a lack of knowledge about the best ways to treat, care for and style hair that’s curly and coarse, which is why I think so many have shied away from doing it. But I’m glad I’ve been able to at least be a part of that change and help push the conversation forward.
BC: There’s no denying that you bring a level of artistry that isn’t always thought of or seen when it comes to hair care. What inspires you to keep experimenting and honing your craft?
VF: Do you remember that movie Edward Scissorhands? As a child, and as a young hairdresser just starting out, that was literally my inspiration. I would watch, no study, that movie so I could understand how he worked with his hands because that’s how I wanted to work on my clients hair; seamless and with precision. I’ve come a long way since then. And while I still love that movie dearly, today I’m mostly inspired by clients; from their questions, to their stories, and even their lives. That’s what gives me inspiration and keeps pushing me to be the best at what I do.