Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Cut Above

Turning onto Sydney Street from Kings Road, passersby wouldn’t even know she’s there. Nevertheless, Corinne, a hair stylist from URBAN RITES Hair and Skin Care, waits in the salon each day to keep her clients looking and feeling their best. The slender woman, with her brunet curls and black summer dress, guarantees her customers’ satisfaction, frequently asking for reactions with every few snips of the scissors or slices of the razor. 

Sitting in the fire-engine-red chairs and waiting to have my hair cut, I witness her styling her current client’s face-framing, chin-length wisps of hair four times. “No, no. Like this,” the woman explains, vaguely gesturing a corkscrew motion with her right index finger. Corinne continues until the placement and degree of each artificial curl gains the woman’s approval. The client’s raven hair cascades down her back and, thanks to Corinne, bounces with each step, just like she wanted.

Located in the Chelsea Courtyard, the salon is difficult to spot. Next to the Chelsea Farmers’ Market, the courtyard houses a flower stand at the top of the steps and, downstairs, a Thai food stand right outside URBAN RITES’ door. The salon has a clean, streamlined — almost industrial — feel to it, with stark off-white walls and sleek silver track lighting. The bottom half of the walls are covered by platinum-colored metal sheets accented by markings similar to tiny, raised tire treads.

The only bright color in the room is red: the three red styling chairs in front of the white sinks and the two red waiting chairs tucked into the corner. The only warmth in the room that compares to the sunny, 70-degree weather outside is the hospitality of the stylists.

Corinne is joined by two other stylists in the front room of the salon, reserved for hair care. They acknowledge each other as they begin their shifts with a hearty greeting and offer the same to any patron who walks in. The two other stylists exchange banter with their clients, talking about their friends, pets and plans. One of them, when asked about London nightlife, replies, “I’m too old for clubbing now,” but then mentions some of the more low-key places she likes to frequent. The other engages her older male client in a conversation about how she’s friends with her ex-boyfriend on Facebook.

Corinne is more reserved — she’s still friendly and personable, but she’d rather talk to me about my trip to London than herself. She asks what I’ve been up to, and I give her my list of the mainstay tourist destinations that I’ve seen — the Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and so on. She then suggests that I check out some of the markets, since that is something she enjoys doing in her free time.

All the while, snippets of my hair fall to the gray floor and onto my black hair-cutting cape. Intermixed with the personal ramblings, Corinne offers hair care tips, from shampoos to hair mask treatments to finishing lotion that won’t weigh down my incredibly thick hair. Apparently, my principal hair characteristic is that I have perhaps the heaviest hair she has ever seen.

Originally hailing from Paris, Corinne began her rendezvous with London about a decade ago. After coming to London to spend years learning and gaining experience in hairstyling, she briefly returned home to Paris. She apparently could not resist the charms of this metropolis, however, and arrived back in London for good three years ago. The Parisian accent is still strong in her voice, but it is obvious that London has tweaked it over time.

She says she came to London originally to express herself. She felt Paris was too stuffy and conformist at the time, and she wanted a place where she had the freedom to experiment with her styling skills and to be true to herself. Thus, it was the atmosphere of London that attracted her. You can be anyone you want more so than in other places, she says. It’s that mentality that she says makes her love London most.

Sometimes it’s hard for tourists to keep in mind that London isn’t all about them. There’s Corinne and her fellow stylists, for instance, who work literally out of sight — and typically out of mind — of those at street level. They’re not part of the normal tourist experience. Most tourists don’t come to London for a haircut.

However, people — regular people — choose to come and remain in London for reasons that don’t include Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. They live their lives in the background of the commotion of the streaming lines of tourists who congest walkways and Underground train cars. Yet, they are essential to the London that we experience, even if we rarely realize it.

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