Thursday, March 22, 2012

By Her (Couture) Hair You Shall Know Her

Andrzej Liguz for The New York Times

Hadiiya Barbel.
It wasn’t your typical sample sale. On a recent lunch hour, a stream of well-coiffed professional women descended upon a salon in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. They weren’t tearing through boxes of designer shoes or ripping through racks of clothing. These women came looking for something more personal: wigs.

These were no ordinary wigs, however. These were custom creations by Hadiiya Barbel, a stylist and wig maker to the stars. And as Ms. Barbel zipped about the salon in a black jumpsuit and leopard flats, she made it abundantly clear that she’d prefer her customers not use the W-word. 

“I don’t call them wigs, I call them crowns,” she declared with a flourish. “A wig is something you take out of a bag and put on your head. It’s standard. It has no personality. It’s ready-to-wear. A crown is couture.”
In her two-decade career, Ms. Barbel has established herself as a master wig, ahem, crown designer. She has worked with supermodels like Iman, actresses like Angela Bassett and a host of music artists like Ashanti and Mya. Kim Zolciak, the resident Barbie of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” is a huge fan. And Star Jones credits Ms. Barbel for her looks on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” last season. 

“People are still talking about the fierce side bun she created,” Ms. Jones said. “I defy you to see where the wig begins and my real hair blends in.” 

Ms. Barbel’s biggest calling card to date, however, has been the talk show host Wendy Williams, a walking exclamation point and devout wig fanatic — or “wiggie” as she proudly calls herself. Landing the gig as Ms. Williams’s hairstylist sent Ms. Barbel’s career into overdrive and won her a daytime Emmy for hairstyling in 2010. 

“Wendy talked about me on TV all the time,” she said. “People were asking all about her hair.”
Ms. Barbel and Ms. Williams have since parted ways (Ms. Williams declined an interview request). But other high-profile clients remain loyal, and continue to pay anywhere from $400 to several thousand dollars for her crowns. 

While most of her clients are motivated by vanity, some deal with deeper issues. There are religious reasons (she counts many Orthodox Jews as clients), while others cite health (including chemotherapy patients and alopecia sufferers). Still others are looking for the cure for a broken heart. 

“Girls come in all the time for a breakover,” Ms. Barbel said. “That’s the makeover you get after a breakup.” 

For one blond woman at the sample sale last winter, her thin hair was so humiliating she seldom left the house without a hat. 

“I would talk to someone and see their eyes going to the top of my head and just feel so awkward and insecure,” said the woman, who requested anonymity because she did not want people to know she wears a wig. She credited Ms. Barbel’s wigs with giving her confidence. “Hadiiya brought me back to life,” she said.
Because she often sees women at their most vulnerable, Ms. Barbel, a bubbly, irrepressible character who is given to new-age spiritual speak, will not work if she’s not feeling “centered,” she said. 

“The head is a sacred place, and the hands that touch your hair have to have positive energy,” she said. “If I’m not feeling well, I’ll call out sick. I don’t want negative energy transferred to my clients.” 

While weaves and hair extensions have become fashion staples, there is still some stigma attached to wigs, Ms. Barbel acknowledged. 

“People think about a fishhook snatching somebody’s hair or someone driving in a convertible and their hair flying off,” she said, laughing. “But the Supremes wore wigs, Cher wore wigs, the Egyptians wore wigs in ceremonial practices and it wasn’t a joke at all.” 

Born and raised in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Ms. Barbel said she was a “tall and awkward child.” Her eyesight was poor — she’s legally blind in her right eye — and she wore embarrassingly thick glasses. Neighborhood children called her “bifocals” and would regularly steal her spectacles for sport. 

“I still feel the pain of that,” she said quietly. “It was very traumatizing. I guess that’s part of the reason I’m drawn to making people look good, because I had such low self-esteem growing up.” 

She traded the glasses for contacts when she was a student at the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea, and blossomed. Dressing in quirky, look-at-me clothing — “the more colorful the better” — and an ever-changing array of hairstyles won her a “fan club,” Ms. Barbel said. 

She was 17 when she landed her first job at a salon in Harlem. She lasted there a week. 

“The owner was cheating on his wife,” she said, “and when she asked me what was going on, I told her the truth.” 

Longer stints followed at salons in SoHo, the West Village and Brooklyn. Ms. Barbel’s weaves were particularly popular and landed her editorial work for magazines like Essence. 

She transitioned to custom wigs when one of her clients, an aspiring actress, had to constantly change her look for auditions. Her business took off after that. 

Ms. Barbel’s newest celebrity client is the rapper-actress Eve, who came to her looking for “more of a bohemian hipster look, which is right up my alley because that’s my vibe,” she said. She is also in talks to start a hair-extension line with Ms. Zolciak, writing a book about the evolution of the wig and working on a lower-priced faux hair line. Her dream is to take her crowns to the masses. 

“Like Versace for H & M,” she said. “I want to do that for the crown.” 

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