We speak to the owner Antonia about her shop that’s been visited by Mykki Blanco, Naomi Campbell, Serena Williams, and Solange
“A- List Lace Salon in west London is one of my favourite hair salons in the world. Black-owned and catering to an international, multi-ethnic clientele, I wanted to profile A-List to get to know the owner and to talk about how Black Beauty culture has now become the foundations of the mainstream” – Mykki Blanco, guest editor of Dazed, August 2018
Did you just say … wig? It’s the sentence that spawned a thousand memes, but while Katy Perry was trying to tap into online black queer lingo during the American Idol clip, it’s also a reminder that wigs are huge right now.
Not only are they peppered throughout internet slang, but in the last couple of years the wig industry has boomed, fuelled by an improvement in the look and price of good lace fronts, and a culture that’s more accepting of experimentation. It’s hard to put a figure on it since there are so many mini-entrepreneurs sourcing hair from wholesale suppliers, and selling handmade wigs online via their own sites or social media. However, last year IBISWorld estimated that the value of the wig and hairpiece manufacturing industry in the US stood at $474m while stores made $346m. In the UK, wigs can cost set you back a month’s rent. Wig witchcraft is an Instagram sub-genre, and there are countless videos zooming in on women’s hairlines, only for the cameraperson to pull it back and reveal cornrows or wig caps beneath. In an over-saturated market, Mykki Blanco tells me he’s found an accessible hair haven in west London that makes all of their customers feel like celebrities – including the numerous stars that are now fans of the business.
Tucked away on the high street next to West Kensington tube station, A-list Lace Hair has served the likes of Solange, Naomi Campbell, Stefflon Don, Lily Allen and Serena Williams, most of whom came across the salon on social media. The basement salon is split into six sections, with private rooms for trying on and styling, so while high calibre customers like Naomi Campbell sit in the back trialling new looks, the other customers are none the wiser.
“Someone tagged us in one of her pictures, saying ‘your hair looks great but you need to go to A-List’”, says owner Antonia Okonma Shittu. She booked an appointment immediately after. The supermodel soon became a regular visitor, dropping by for additional styles for the BRITS red carpet, Fashion Awards, and magazine covers. She refuses to give me any further details about her clients because she values their privacy “no matter who they are”, which is likely why they feel comfortable with her.
“It all started when we set up our Instagram,” says Antonia. “Serena Williams said we came up on her explore page. She saw it, clicked on it and made sure that she got her hair done during Wimbledon 2016,” she says. Serena debuted her A-list tresses at the Wimbledon Champions Ball and then sported some of her other purchases in Vogue. After that others soon followed. “I came in and had nowhere to park my car, there were all these black Mercedes everywhere with these special number plates so I called the shop. It was the President of Angola and his wife.”
Antonia’s success is impressive considering the business was originally run from the boot of her car. “I’ve been doing hair since I was eight-years-old but I’ve never thought I’d be doing it professionally. My parents are Nigerian so you have to be a doctor, a lawyer, accountant, or engineer, those were your four options” she says. However, she gravitated towards other more creative exploits. In the early 00s, the now 34-year-old appeared on screens as the tempestuous Darlene Cake on ITV’s female prison drama Bad Girls. At the time the show viewing figures were climbing and it picked up countless awards, and Antonia’s character was often cited as one of the most popular on the show. Even with the allure of showbiz she was drawn back to hairdressing. “A lot of what I learned was actually from working as an actress on a TV show. It was just meant to be my hobby,” she explains. Eventually she started gaining a local customer base. “I’d go around with my box of stock in my car, I had about 12 wigs in a plastic tupperware box and I’d go to people’s houses so they could pick which one they wanted and I’d fit it for them.”
“An A-list wig is not going anywhere. By the time someone got to tug on it, your elbow will be on their face first” – Antonia Okonma Shittu
Recently, there have been strides to tackle the lack of inclusivity in salons. Stylist ran a campaign tackling the “high street inequality” that means black women find it harder to find salons that can care for their hair. Meanwhile, some startups have made being a queer and transgender friendly salon their USP. As a queer black man, Mykki is intrigued by this salon’s welcoming attitude and multiracial following. “It was a rainbow of people sitting in the salon chairs getting their hair done. I love the feeling of togetherness and community that takes place, as growing up as a little boy I was never allowed in these femme spaces that really are actually extremely nurturing,” he explains.
Another shock came when he realised the salon was in west London, when most of the businesses in the high-rent area neglect to even cater to women of colour, let alone have black owners. Mykki continues: “It can be the case that black beauty salons or beauty suppliers are owned by non-black people. There is sometimes the sense that they’re poaching off the community and there have even been incidents of racism in these shops – think of the many accounts you’ve heard about racially charged arguments happening at London chain PAKS, which is not black owned.” Antonia agrees. Often her customers are shocked not only to find the salon, but to see that she owns it. “They say ‘oh my god, you’re the owner? I thought the owner was white, I can’t believe you’re black’, and it’s really quite strange. It just goes to show that it is an achievement in a way.”
Feeling like a minority on the west London landscape may have made her more equipped to create a more inclusive space. “The minute I started our website, about a third of our clients when we first started, or at least 20 per cent, were transgender or had hair loss. We were sensitive to different challenges and it’s been built in from the start.” Accessibility doesn’t begin and end with offering service with a smile to anyone who walks in. A-list hasn’t really changed its prices in 10 years with full lace units available from £200. “I’ve always wanted the units to be affordable to the majority of women. Obviously, they’re not cheap, they’re not your £30 wigs but they’re not £1,000 either. I think we have a happy medium where it’s affordable to most that appreciate its value. It works well for me. For me, it’s a numbers game. I’d rather have lots of women wearing our units multiple times over than stocking them at £1,000.” She recently did a free giveaway to followers who have lost hair for medical reasons. “There were woman battling alopecia, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and we all had food, drinks, shut the salon and cried. That’s been the most satisfying work I’ve done in a long time.”
Most salons rely on footfall to pull in customers who might catch a glimpse of stylists with customers through the window, but the salons discretion was a major selling point. When the time came to move to a permanent space Antonia antagonised over a salon that offered her customers privacy. “I didn’t want you to see us putting a wig on through the window, we wanted a little bit more intimacy,” she says. “In the early days, we had a lot more clients that were suffering from hair loss so privacy was paramount. Not only that, there’s something about putting on a wig that you kind of don't want to be doing through a window. You want to sell that dream that it’s that person’s hair.”
With intricate handmade lace wigs complete with realistic baby hairs, braids and shades the salon is one of the city’s most highly-rated dreamweavers. The process takes the team three weeks to complete, however, customers can walk out within a couple of hours with customised wigs made in-store. “We apply every strand by hand and then we tint the lace to make it match the customer’s skin tone a bit better, trim the lace and make sure it sits flat,” she says. It’s taken her over a decade to develop her technique and now her craftwork means that now half the sales are shipped internationally, and there’s a whole room in the salon for an online team. “The US is a big market, plus Brazil, Angola, South Africa, Nigeria, France, Portugal. I think we ship to 128 countries and at least 70 odd countries each month. But, I’d say about probably 30 per cent of all our online sales are to the States.” Antonia reveals she’s considering hosting classes as she “doesn’t mind competition”.
My trip to the salon left me incredibly impressed and envious of the wide variety of tresses. The walls are adorned with wig heads topped with wavy balayage units of ashy blonde hair, big full curls, kinks, and bone straight looks. Turning to Antonia I tell her how amazingly real they all looked, and joked that the experience had snatched my wig, and I need her to help me secure it again. “An A-list wig is not going anywhere,” she laughs. “By the time someone got to tug on it, your elbow will be on their face first.”