big hair, don’t care


- Words Emma Do

If every shampoo commercial is to be trusted, frizz is the single greatest enemy of good hair. When Ella Benore Rowe worked in salons, the message was the same. “The attitude towards curly, thick and coarser hair was, ‘It’s too boofy! It’s too frizzy! Cut the weight out of it!’” she says. “There was a de-frizz message everywhere you turned.” As the proud child of an Anglo-australian dad and Papua New Guinean mum, Ella’s tresses are a mixture of both her parents’ locks: she has two or three different curl patterns, both wavy and straight sections and – you guessed it – a fair bit of frizz.

For a long time, Ella has railed against the notion that her natural hair is unattracti­ve. She grew up in an affirming home environmen­t where she was regularly called upon to style her mum’s Afro, as well as those of countless other aunties in Melbourne’s Papuan community. “Mum would put a lap-lap (waistcloth) around her, hold the mirror up and show me how to cut and shape her ’fro,” Ella explains. “She’d talk about the different kinds of Afros, how Fijians wore their hair, how Auntie Gloria or Auntie Pauline liked this or that shape.”

Haircare was a joyful, loving experience within her family, but it was a different story outside the home. In her early school years, Ella kept her mane tied back – braiding, plaiting and tucking it away felt safer than having curious strangers constantly trying to touch it. Though, while Ella’s mum refused to have her hair done by an outsider, Ella was game enough to give salons a go. “I cried every time!” she says of her early haircuts. “They just didn’t know what to do with my hair! One time, when I asked for it to be short, they just cut a straight line. My hair bounced up into a triangle!”

Oddly enough, it was a chance meeting with a hairdresse­r in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs that got 15-year-old Ella interested in playing around with her curls some more. “I was walking down the street and this hairdresse­r asked if I could model for them,” she says. They put conditione­r in my hair, finger-twisted it and gave me an undercut. It was really cool and really positive, considerin­g my experience­s.” Ella was her community’s go-to for hair and make-up during her teen years, but she didn’t immediatel­y enter the industry after school. Instead, she pursued teaching and youth work (one of two lifelong goals) before eventually jumping into a hairdressi­ng apprentice­ship at age 22. Now, at 36, she’s fulfilled her other lifelong goal: to run her own empire in the form of a textured-hair-focused salon called Elvies (named after her mum).

Ella knew she wanted to do things differentl­y from the get-go. Her mum and aunties had never felt comfortabl­e getting their hair cut in a mainstream salon – Elvies had to be a place that felt safe and nurturing for people of colour with similar experience­s. Ella’s ethos is written on the walls of her salon: ‘lift from the roots’ and ‘disrupt, decolonise, hydrate and moisturise’ are her mantras for fighting the status quo (and keeping natural hair healthy and stylish). “I always encourage my clients to lift their hair up from their roots, which is another way of saying ‘give it a bit of volume’,” Ella says. “It’s also a way of disrupting, because others have tried to reduce us, shut down our hair and make it smaller. I’m saying, ‘No, our hair is a celebratio­n of what is truly us: our heritage and our roots.’”

Just last year, TAFE NSW came under fire for not including Afro and curly hair in its curriculum. Ella experience­d that lack of education first-hand during her own apprentice­ship. Although she was confident with curly and coily hair thanks to her upbringing, her peers simply weren’t taught how to cut and style textured locks. “In Australian salons, the focus is on European standards of beauty,” Ella says. “If you have hair that’s curlier than a wave, you’re either erased or you’re exoticised and experiment­ed on.” Her time working in mainstream salons confirmed this: big hair had to be tamed, and was only selectivel­y celebrated at cutting-edge hair shows. “When clients came in, I’d ask what they wanted done and what they wanted to avoid, and some would say, ‘I don’t want to leave with big hair like yours.’”

It’s not only attitudes towards coily hair that Ella would like to see change. With her background in teaching and youth work, she wants to create more opportunit­ies for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). Her newest hire at Elvies is one of her past students and a new mum. While it’s unconventi­onal to have a newborn in a salon, Ella is passionate about creating a supportive environmen­t for staff to learn in. “She brings her baby in on Wednesdays and we work around her needs as a mum. It’s just really important to me that this is done,” she says.

When it comes to staffing, Ella is careful to select people who understand her specific vision and mission. Some clients who come through the door haven’t had a profession­al haircut in years due to negative experience­s. “We approach hair holistical­ly; we want to know your story. I think the hairdressi­ng industry can lack that care for wellbeing because hairdresse­rs might not know what our experience­s are,” Ella says. “So it’s not just about getting a haircut – it’s about feeling safe.” She recently announced Elvies’ Women’s Only Studio Sessions, a fortnightl­y time for hijab-wearing women with curly and coily locks to come in and have their hair cared for discreetly. It all goes back to Ella’s aim to build a warm and welcoming space for people who’ve felt left out – people like her mum. “I’m doing my best to continue the legacy that is my mother Elvie,” she says. “I want to pay homage to her, and the ancestors who came before.” Considerin­g how often her mum drops in for a wash and treatment (“I tell her off because she comes in twice a week!” Ella exclaims), so far, so good.

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