By Jaya Arora
Charly Lemassi runs her manicured fingers through the wet hair. Her bright pink nails stand out from the dark brown hair she is in the middle of washing. Her fingers slide through the curly hair, each finger holding its own respective lock and repeats this motion six times. Lemassi asks the young girl sitting on the booster stool if the water temperature is warm enough, she responds with a head nod and tilts her head further back into the sink. The second Lemassi’s hand glides all the way through, the previously extended curly locks bounce right back up to their former position. Lemassi adds more product, sweeps her own dark hair out of her face, turns on the water and starts again.
Being from Cameroon, Lemassi’s hair was different from everyone around her. Whenever Lemassi travels or plants roots somewhere new, she struggles with finding a salon that can do her hair properly and the way she likes it. While living at Bayview and Sheppard, Lemassi tried getting her hair done. “The guy looked at me and said, ‘We don’t do your hair.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said he ‘Wasn’t used to our type of hair’,” she says, shaking her head.
Lemassi got into the hair business a bit by accident over 20 years ago. She used to walk by a quiet empty salon every day until one day she offered to help the owner with her marketing. Lemassi was determined to raise awareness surrounding the concept of black beauty. She told the owner she was studying business and offered her newly acquired marketing skills to help attract new customers and grow her business. The owner accepted Lemassi’s proposition and Lemassi started her new job immediately.
Lemassi got paid for every new customer that came into the salon through her flyers and website and that was a stream of income she needed. She had moved away from her home in Paris and was studying in England at the time so, being a student, Lemassi had bills to pay and a future to fund, so it was a hustle every day.
Lemassi’s marketing skills were crucial to building the company. She was always interested in pursuing a career in the business world, but when her boss asked if she could do hair – due to the now bustling salon – her interests shifted, as did her occupation.
“I started braiding, and then I was braiding so well and so fast… that’s how I started making more money,” she says, looking up at the ceiling with a smile, picturing her young-self.
When the owner she was marketing and braiding for became too busy, Lemassi had to find an income somewhere else. Lemassi was still a student at the time and was so busy that she decided to start taking clients in her home. She also had her first son, who is now 21 and wanted to be close to her family. Lemassi is the mother of three children, two sons and a daughter.
She clasps her fingers together and places them on the desk in front of her, lets out a sigh and continues: “When I went back to Paris (after school in the U.K.), the way they did my hair, I was not happy. They didn’t know how to relax my hair properly and my hair was too greasy and too sticky when they finished and I was like, why don’t I have hair like everybody else?”
When she was living in Paris and London, it was harder finding someone to do her hair the way she liked. So she took matters into her own hands and started researching. She travelled to North Carolina and Dublin, learning more about hair and cosmetology and brought that information and research back to Paris with her.
After she began testing the products she discovered abroad on herself, she got stopped in the street by people who were in awe at the sight of her perfect, healthy hair. That’s when she and a few friends came together and started on the business plan that became Curl Flippers.
“So my idea was to create a store like this, find a big store that has a lot of chairs, and every stylist has their own chair … We share the front desk, we share the rent together, we share the overhead together … We’re all entrepreneurs, but we have one way of doing hair.”
Lemassi likes to think of her salon as a training centre for natural hair, where she educates customers on the healthiest ways to take care of their curls. Salon chairs line the clean, white and green walls from front to back. She wants Curl Flippers to be a place where people can learn and get trained in how to do natural curls.
Leaning back into her white, wheeled chair, Lemassi brings her right hand up and rests it on her right cheek and her lips purse into a slight smile. Her smile widens as she says that giving people hope again with their hair and seeing their confidence grow back is her favourite part of the job. “Finally they find someone who understands their hair and addresses their concerns. For me, that’s the happiest memory I could have with my clients.”
The time Lemassi spends with the clients in her chair is very personal. The conversations are free-flowing and it’s a safe space to share memories. Her client of four years, Yoline Rodney, hands her phone to Lemassi, showing photos of her friends and discussing their different hair journeys. “The environment is relaxed and fun and you feel like you’re amongst friends… Charly makes me feel like my business matters and she never rushes the process of grooming my hair,” says Rodney.
Lemassi says the future of Curl Flippers is young people. “If we don’t build them up now, we might run into the same issue 10 years down the line when we don’t have a proper stylist that can do natural hair… So for me, if I don’t do it now, no one’s going to do it.”
The most important thing to Lemassi is educating. “Educating people and empowering people, giving people knowledge and giving them all I know. Leaving a legacy and transferring knowledge and skills, that’s my favourite part.”