During the 90s, in the midst of Jamaica's dancehall era, Jawara honed in on his craft at his aunt’s salon. Fast forward and he's made a name for himself as a renowned hairstylist working with icons such as Solange, Chloë Sevigny, Cardi B, and for brands ranging from Chanel to Off-White. Now, as a Dazed Beauty contributor, and holding a spot on the BOF 500 list, he spoke with TG about the road in between, and where he hopes to go.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate in New York and Jawara on route to Texas
Editor: Taylor Knox
TVPS: How has your definition of beauty evolved throughout your career?
J: My first vision of beauty was extra... over the top everything. All of the colors that you could think of, metallics in hair, metallics on faces, metallics everywhere.
As a child, I would watch women come in and out of my aunt's salon in Jamaica during the height of the dancehall era in the 90s; it was a lot of people going out to parties, people celebrating. But as I've grown, I've learned how to appreciate things in their natural state as well.
How long did you live in Jamaica for?
I was born in Brooklyn. Sent to Jamaica when I was about 3 months old. Then right before middle school ended I came back to New York, but my family wasn’t living in Brooklyn anymore. They were living in Jamaica, Queens.
So from Jamaica to Jamaica!
Yeah, it was very interesting because I moved at a time when there was a lot of hip-hop music coming out of Jamaica, Queens. My mother and my two aunts are also musicians, so I've been surrounded by music my whole life. I think that has a lot to do with how I view beauty as well. For me, a lot of musicians set the tone for what is beautiful, you know? What they artistically do with their looks definitely has an impact on what’s popular for our generation.
Did your time assisting influence your definition of beauty?
Absolutely, I saw beauty in a different way. It was also elaborate and extravagant like in my aunt’s salon, but there was a bit more of an artistry to it.
So for me, the two worlds came together. The women that I grew up around acted as if they were on the runway every day, it was almost surreal. I realized that a lot of the techniques that I learned as a child were also being used on the runway in fashion, but were being done in a different way.
I also learned time management, like how to do 40 models within a four hour timespan and make each of them feel special before they go on the runway. So it definitely changed the way that I view beauty, but not too much because I always have that same excitement that I did as a child.
I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology and graduated with my Bachelor's in Fashion Merchandising. For a second, I started to think that beauty was amazing, but maybe it was not for me. I was wrong, it didn’t feel natural the minute I stepped away from it. So I dropped everything and I went right back into the assisting world. And it felt right again.
NISAA POUNCEY FOR VOGUE
Photographed by Rémi Lamandé
Stylist Clare Byrne, Makeup Susie Sobol, Hair Jawara
When you were assisting Guido, Sam McKnight, and Luigi Murenu, what did you notice were the key differences for how each artist approached and worked with hair?
Everyone works in a completely different way. It was interesting to watch how each hair stylist manages their team, interacts with the designer, how fast they get the girls done, and the different ways that they achieve each look.
Did that influence the approach that you take now?
Absolutely. As I watched different people do things differently, I would pull certain aspects that felt right to me. I took one way of managing the team from one hairstylist, and I took how to approach a designer from another.
Sam is very good at talking to people, and you want to have him around all of the time. This job gets so intense sometimes, and it's good to see a smiling face around.
What does it mean to be the key hair stylist for a show?
The first thing that I do is have a really in-depth conversation with the designer and the stylist. I usually get along really well with both of them. I like to come in and do a pre-production meeting, where we talk and pull out references. I'm a reference junkie.
I like to talk about where the designer was when they came up with the concepts for the season, and what inspired them. Usually what inspired them will shine a light on the collection as a whole, even if it's not about hair. It’s more just for me to be in the same mindset as him, so I can ask myself, “What would you do if you were in his shoes and how would that look? How do you see the hair flowing with that?” Then we test different hairstyles on the models with the clothes, decide which one goes best with who, and then we take a picture of that hairstyle.
And that's only a couple of days before the show, right?
Usually, maybe two or three days before the show. But, sometimes if the designer sees an elaborate style in their mind from the beginning, like last year I did Telfar’s show and each model had a completely different hairstyle. So those meetings were two weeks before the show, just so I could source things and get certain wigs. Sometimes it’s also contingent on location because fashion week moves. I could be doing a show somewhere in Milan and the Paris show is a couple of days away.
So after we do the test and once the designer feels good about it, I make notes about how to create the looks for whoever’s on my team for that particular show.
When we get to the show, we do a demo on the first model that comes in. I like to put up pictures so that people have references. Then while my team is doing the other models, I'm looking everywhere the whole time, to make sure everything’s okay. Once all of the girls are finished, I check them individually and maybe change or alter the style a bit.
For each show, I’d assume there are at least 10+ assistants, some you’ve never met before, and there’s also not a lot of time. What makes a good teacher in that situation?
I was never really the best public speaker, but recently I've become very good at it. I think it's because I'm doing something that I'm really interested in. I'm speaking with conviction because it’s about something that I love.
I’ll go step by step, give them visual references, and basically put them in the mind of the designer as well. That way they’re not just doing the hair, they’re also in that world. I think what helps more than saying, “Oh, do this ponytail,” is explaining why we’re doing that specific ponytail and what it means. I'm also open to suggestions from the team, as well. Sometimes I’ll take them, sometimes I don’t, depending on if it works.
Our demos are also usually funny, just because I like to make jokes. Usually, backstage it's high energy, and a lot of people come in nervous. There’s been a lot of bad experiences over the years of getting yelled at or being rushed. So I try to create an atmosphere for the team where they can just relax and do the work. It’s not that serious, we're not curing cancer, we’re just doing beauty.
Yeah, well said.
I think when they feel like that, they react differently. The work has some more love in it. It's like, “Oh wow, he’s not screaming and he’s not running around like they used to.”
Since you're an artist I wanted to hear your perspective on this, what are the key traits of an amazing producer?
Someone who thinks of every single thing. Even things that you don't need. Having an amazing producer is all the difference in how the job comes out. Producers are the ones who get people what they need to do the job that they need to do, let them know where they need to be, and what needs to get done. It’s even the small things of making sure that the demo pictures are printed and hanging for the team to see. I think when you pay attention to detail, to the T, that's the best thing a producer could ever do.
By the way, congratulations on Dazed Beauty! That's so exciting.
What intrigues you about what they're doing?
I think it's a cool, weird way of doing beauty. I use the word weird because I'm weird, and I like things to be weird. It’s also still glamorous but in a different way.
It's catching a lot of people’s eyes. We’ve seen the beautiful girls with the big red lips, and now with Dazed Beauty, we’re seeing a lot of anime type things and some weird witchy stuff on there. It’s also mixing technology with beauty because that's where we’re headed. I think it connects to more people than what beauty was doing before. I'm very happy to be a part of it.
You’re a long time collaborator with Solange, and you’ve mentioned that your work with her has pushed you to grow into a bit of a milliner and a sculptor. Can you elaborate on that?
She’s very forward thinking. Her ideas push me to push myself as an artist, and to think outside of the box. For instance, thinking of doing head treatments as opposed to doing hair; which is a whole other world because sometimes it involves hair and sometimes it doesn't. She's also opened my eyes in the sense of making sure that you're standing for something, and not just doing everything to do it.
For last year’s Met Gala, we went back and forth with images and references of saints. At one point, the halo was going to be a hat, but she said, “No, let’s do it with hair.” I was like, “Ok... how are we going to do that?” So I went back to my early days of thinking “Anything is possible with hair, all you need are the right products and the right tools.” I took that mindset, we went back and forth, we grew an idea together that she loved, and we achieved it.
It was more than just a hairstyle, it was a statement. Everything she does means something, I don’t know if I'm the best person to explain it, because she was trying to state many things. But for me, it just showed pride.
What steps could the industry take to make sure that all hair stylists have the ability to work with all hair textures? Because that's really important.
Education. People need to learn how to do hair that is not like their own. I would love to offer that one day, or get some of my colleagues together to teach because it's a disservice to the girl, and it’s a disservice to the brand. If you only know how to do hair or skin like yours then you're in the wrong industry.
You can't rely on the same people to do a certain type of hair just because they know that hair. You need to be able to do that hair as well. I make sure to educate any beauty team that I'm on, or any team of mine so that they know the deal. I also believe that within yourself, if you don’t know something, there is the Internet. You can watch tutorials, you can reach out to different stylists, you can sign up for seminars, etc. I think if you ignore that in this day and age, you're in a bubble and it’s unfortunate.
How can the industry do a better job of supporting emerging talent?
When I was coming up, I emailed my life away trying to get into assisting. I emailed Streeters, I emailed Art Partner, I emailed everybody asking to assist their artists, and I didn't get any answers back. I hope that it’s a bit different now.
Also, when you do get that opportunity it's important to shine, and not just post to social media because I'm seeing a lot of that in the industry at the moment. There are a lot of people who come in to put everything on social media, as opposed to actually doing the job that they’re supposed to do.
Don't get me wrong, if you do something great I think you should share it. But it shouldn’t become solely about your Instagram following. That to me sometimes is a bit like, ugh... you’re missing the girls in line, or you're not doing the hair the right way, because you're too busy Instagramming it.
You're based between New York and London. What are the main differences between the cities in terms of working in the industry?
I love working in both. I’m from New York, so I'm passionately always going to love New York.
But I really love working in London creatively. I love doing editorials in London because people are not afraid to push it all the way if it calls for it. It’s free-thinking, in the sense that everyone throws out ideas, and everyone wants to create a good image. Whereas in New York, it’s often more commerce based thinking like, “wait, we can't do that, because it won’t sell,” you know?
As a hairstylist, your job involves a lot of travel and a demanding schedule. How do you make sure to take care of yourself on top of it all?
I’m traveling today, actually.
Oh, where to?
I'm in New York right now, but I'm headed to the airport to go to Texas to work with Solange. So yes, I travel a lot!
You have to set the tone for yourself. I messed up last year where I got so into my work that I forgot about me, and that is a very dangerous thing to do. So now I meditate, every hotel that I’m staying at I'm in the gym for at least one hour, and I’m also treating myself. I'm always doing a manicure, a pedicure, or a massage. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll wither away. I also try to eat well, and I must say that in fashion right now, the catering is usually healthy, so that's good.
Yeah, tiny improvements.
I just try to take care of myself in little ways. If there’s a day off, I’m with family or friends. It’s very important to balance out life and work, because you can get wrapped up in this industry very fast. It's not good for you. Don’t forget about yourself.
What was one of your biggest learning experiences?
Overall, I've learned to work really hard for what you want and to also be clear about what you want. I’ve learned that from the hair stylists that I’ve assisted under. I’ve learned it from my aunt in her salon, too. She would always say, “If this is what you want to do, do it really well, and be the best at it.”
I have also learned not to look left or right, or worry about what other people are doing. I can't compare myself to anyone else other than me, because I'm the only one that’s doing what I do. Since I started looking at things like that, it has been amazing for me mentally, physically, and career-wise. Working in fashion can be very, “Oh my God, this person’s doing this!” I don’t do that at all.
It does take a second to get to that point, no?
Absolutely, I just got here recently.
Is there anything that has helped get you there?
Self-care. I also have to pat myself on the back and say, “Wow, you have stayed true to your style and haven’t tried to do anything else.” I just reiterate that to myself in affirmations all the time, and it's been getting me there.
What's the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
When someone messages me on social media and says that something that I've done has made them believe in something that they didn't even know was possible.
Is there an impact that you would like to have on the industry?
I would like the industry to realize that there's another way of looking at life. My background is quite unique. A lot of the people that do what I do are not where I’m from or look like me. So it’s really good to see that there are now even more hairstylists from similar backgrounds, who are moving things around in fashion. It feels great.
And what’s next for you?
I want to do a film, a book, and a small product line. I would also like to open up a studio salon in New York City, at some point.
What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?
Don’t stop, keep trying, because at some points I wanted to.
I consider myself a late bloomer. I’m 34 years old and I do remember times when I felt like I was not being seen. It wasn't until certain people showed me love and appreciation, and reassured me that it was going to be fine.
So don't let anything deter you from what you really want. It's very rewarding when you cross the threshold of getting there. So just keep going, literally, just keep going.