The UK hair industry is booming, with £5.25 billion annual spend and, according to a 2014 Cosmopolitan study, Black British women account for 80 percent of total hair sales. But Black women often have to put up with haircare products with harmful ingredients and poor customer service. It’s difficult finding mainstream brands and high street shops that cater to us—that’s where Peckham Palms comes into the picture.
The one-stop shopping arcade just off Rye Lane in south London opened in January with over 30 professional hair and beauty stylists—all Peckham locals—and lifestyle businesses. There’s a cafe and a bar—Mae J’s Cafe, named after Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space—and a multi-use event venue. Unlike the majority of hair shops in the UK, which are not Black-owned and are often staffed by non-Black employees, Peckham Palms is led by Black women. On its website, it states its mission to “support and grow business ventures, led by black women, to create more diversity and equality within the Hair and Beauty sector.”
Director and general manager Monique Tomlinson says that the Palms is, more simply, about “connecting the dots.” She adds, “We want people to come, enjoy, and be educated by their experience. We went them to sit in a salon chair, using the best products, and go home with a regime for how best to look after their hair when they’re not in the salon.”
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Despite pouring billions into the cosmetics industry, Black British women remain underserved and undervalued. As Yomi Adegoke notes on Broadly: “It is widely thought that almost all afro hair shops in the country are owned by South Asian men […] Many of the existing male vendors simply don't know enough about Black female hair because, well, they don't have it.” Even the Black hair and beauty giant Pak’s Cosmetics is owned by an Asian family.
Over the years, Tomlinson became increasingly frustrated with magazines holding up white women and straight hair as symbols of beauty and success—she had to go out of her way to see images of women who looked like her. After three years of speaking to Black hairdressers and business owners on Rye Lane, Tomlinson realized the community’s dependence on shops like Pak’s and products with dangerous chemicals. (In 2016, one environmental non-profit found that one in 12 products marketed towards Black women were deemed “highly hazardous.”)
“I decided that I wanted to do something about this,” Tomlinson says. “I want black women to be more knowledgeable about the products they’re using on their heads. Hairdressing is about the wellbeing—it’s informed business, not just transactional. We’re building a culture where people know what they’re putting in their hair and aren’t simply being directed to best-selling products by people who don’t know your hair type.”
When I arrive at the Palms on a Saturday afternoon, I’m greeted by the sound of customers getting their hair done and the smell of coffee wafting over from Mae J’s. One of the first things I spot are the stylish and welcoming shop fronts of the enclosed arcade, tucked away from the busy main street. That was deliberate, Tomlinson says. “There’s a zoo spectacle that I’ve experienced both in Peckham and Brixton. You get white women peering in as a they walk past, sometimes even taking pictures. We deserve a space where you can feel safe from that behaviour. We want it to be a refuge but also a lifestyle destination space.”
I speak to Ebuni Ajiduah, a trichologist (i.e. a hair and scalp specialist) who previously worked as a home stylist. “Peckham Palms is somewhere nice for black women to get pampered and I always feel proud bringing them here,” she says. “Whenever the initiative gets press, stylists get mentioned as well.”
Her customer Kareen chimes in: “It’s amazing to have an area where it’s all Black-owned businesses because I don’t always feel like we have somewhere to go for a great service for our hair. I’m definitely planning to come back.”
Peckham Palms opened under a 20-year lease when Southwark Council, the government authority for the neighborhood, relocated the stylists and salons that were displaced as part of its redevelopment of the Peckham Rye Rail Station area. But Tomlinson wants the Palms to go beyond hair and beauty services. “It’s a place to learn about your hair and interact with like-minded individuals who look like you,” she says. “I want conversations taking place here that are often difficult to have. I think it’s also important for young women to see that hairdressing and beauty can be a lucrative and viable business, and that it’s possible to make hair and beauty products that are non-harmful.”
She hopes to offer Black women the same opportunities—if not more—as other hairdressers. Stylists operating out of the Palms get help to create a set price list for their services, are provided with healthy organic products, and can attend hairdressing training and receive qualifications and business advice.
“Our business owners can access training for every aspect of their business, including customer service and taking contactless payments rather than cash,” Tomlinson says. “We’re creating an environment where you end up with people who are willing to tip and recommend your services. We also want our businesses owners to have the time and space to work on growing their venture sustainably.”
“My customers like the calm area,” says Muna Williams, a loc technician who moved into the Palms after running her salon by Peckham Rye station for five years. “It’s comfortable for myself and for them. I’ve also found the training helpful and I’m building my skills.”
Nothing quite like the Palms has existed in London, where Afrocentric retail spaces owned by Black people are few and far between. Tomlinson’s excitement for the project and its future is contagious. “I just want people to enjoy it,” she says. “I want to share this with other black people and give every individual a platform for their talents. I want to celebrate us.”