Four brilliant braid styles for Afro-textured hair
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
For many women with Afro-textured hair, summertime means scouting out the perfect braids. Hotter weather calls for low-maintenance hair that looks chic for weeks.
Single-plaited hairstyles – where the hair is combed into small sections and then braided – last anywhere from six to eight weeks, and one appointment with a hairdresser can take anything from six to 12 hours. The goal, therefore, is to achieve a perfectly parted array of glossy plaits that will last.
Rooted in Africa and ranging from the Namibian Himba red-clay strands to the Fulani braids of the Sahel region, braiding is a potent symbol of black heritage and identity. Most extension hair is synthetic, a tradition that comes from ancient Egypt, when braided wigs – a mixture of human hair, palm fibres and wool – were worn by the ruling classes; symbolic markers of divinity that were often buried with their owners.
Today, different styles are worn across the African diaspora. Trends move hand-in-hand with fashion – take the transformation of ’90s pick-and-drop braids (seen on Brandy) into Y2K-style French curls (loved by Zoë Kravitz). The most popular are both nostalgic and new.
Braiding is an intimate experience intertwined with community and sisterhood; I’ve had my hair braided by friends, cousins, my mother and my grandmother. The few hairdressers I’ve had have come to my home, or I theirs, where we share a laugh over a Nollywood film (or five). They have always been the highlight of my otherwise simple beauty routine. But selecting the right braid style is crucial: after eight hours in the chair, there’s no going back. Here are four of the best.
French curl braids
Popularised by Beyoncé, Laura Harrier and influencers Temi and Tobi Ojora, these braids have gone viral. Incredibly difficult to master, the style is comprised of slim plaits, which open into beachy waves. It’s essential to find someone experienced to do them: try Amanda Nice & Neat London, a salon loved by the Ojora sisters. Buy pre-curled hair and ensure the knot at the end of each half-braid is tied just right: too loose and it’ll unravel; too tight and it’ll look bulky. The best thing about French curl braids is their versatility: when you’re ready for a change, return to the salon for a layered chop.
The cornrow updo
Hair Lounge founder Charlotte Mensah, whose clients include Erykah Badu, Tracee Ellis Ross and Michaela Coel, recommends a cornrow coiffure, a style that involves braiding the hair close to the scalp and wrapping the ends into an elegant bun. One version with shimmery freshwater pearls clocked up over 52,000 likes on Mensah’s Instagram.
“Cornrows are one of the most protective and low-maintenance braided styles,” says Mensah. “They can take on a variety of shapes depending on the look you’re going for.” Their longevity is in the aftercare: Mensah recommends applying two to three drops of her Manketti oil to the scalp and ends once or twice a week, before spraying the braids with a finishing mist. “Wrap a silk scarf on your head or use a silk pillowcase at night to keep any rough textures away,” she adds. “This will keep your hair from getting dry and brittle.”
Bohemian goddess braids
For a laid-back look, Shayna Dawes, owner and director of Braid Bar Ldn recommends “boho goddess braids”, where loose waves are combined with fully and partially plaited hair. Start off with knotless braids – a process that gradually feeds in synthetic hair rather than knotting it at the root – and add kinked or curled extensions, gently pulling out small strands of natural hair as you go. Or braid to the end of your natural hair and curl the strands with perm rods or bendy rollers.
Maintenance, says Dawes, who has styled Grammy-nominated singer Tems, is simple: “oil your scalp regularly with a lightweight oil such as olive or carrot, and mousse every other day to keep the flyaways tidy.” Stay away from caster oil, which can cause product buildup, a problem for any braided look. Her hero products include African Pride Olive Miracle (£4.59, sephora.co.uk), Mielle Rosemary Oil (£6.97, sephora.co.uk), ORS Olive Oil (£1.71, feelunique.com) and IC Fantasia Coconut Oil Mist (£7.49, southwestsix.co.uk).
For a splash of colour, opt for Peekaboo, where the braids near the nape of your neck contrast with the rest. The technique can be applied to any of the aforementioned styles: just add a different coloured section of braids to the back few rows. Box braids – a box-shaped arrangement of single plaits, secured with a knot at the top of each – are a great starting point. Promise Okoye, founder of Glasgow-based salon Beauty Splendour, says that the style is “perfect for protecting your natural hair from the sun” as it conceals it within the wefts of plaited extensions. (It is, however, still important to use SPF on your scalp.) Elevate with beads and shells.