Beauty Industry Showcase: Charlotte Mensah
Charlotte Mensah is a multi-award-winning Afro and curly hair specialist, and the owner of London hair salon Hair Lounge. Charlotte is an in-demand hair educator and session stylist, and is currently developing her own line of hair products. Here, we find out about her career journey, her drive to succeed, and her approach to customer service.
Direct Line for Business: How did your passion for hairdressing start?
Charlotte Mensah (CM): I started doing my three-year-old sister’s hair after our mum passed away when I was 13. Like many teenagers, my sister and I were always interested in fashion and visuals, so I started looking at magazines for styles to practice. When a careers officer visited my school, I realised that I wanted to pursue hairdressing as a professional career and they recommended a work-based training course.
Direct Line for Business: Tell us about your training and your first experiences of the hair and beauty industry:
CM: I studied hairdressing through the Youth Training Scheme, which was newly launched at the time, and was similar to an Apprenticeship. I studied European and Afro-Caribbean hairdressing at the London College of Fashion for one day a week, and spent the rest of the working week at Splinters, an Afro-Caribbean hair salon.
The owner, Winston Isaacs, was a great person. He could be strict, but was a kind, genuine character who would happily sit you down to mentor you personally and professionally. I’d lived with various relatives around London after my mum died, and working at the salon made me feel part of a family.
The salon was in London’s West End and the bright lights of the city made it an exciting place to work. I came into contact with many successful women who I admired and aspired to be like. The experience was extremely beneficial for my character building.
Direct Line for Business: How did you use your professional skills after your training?
CM: I spent three years at Splinters, and at 19 I decided to broaden my experience and learn some new skills. I trained in hair extensions and also worked for Terry Jacques, a member of the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame.
I became a mum at 23, and moved my hairdressing work to my home until 1996, when my son was four. I was keen to return to salon work but wanted to continue being my own boss, so I rented a chair in a European salon in Notting Hill that was keen to start offering Afro-Caribbean hair services. My reputation grew to the point where I had clients outside of the UK and I would regularly fly to see them in Europe.
A few years later, the salon’s rent shot up and I couldn’t justify paying the increase. So, I returned to working from home as a temporary measure and opened my first salon around four months later.
Direct Line for Business: How did you go from working at home to opening your own salon?
CM: I was on my way home from one of my Europe trips when I spotted a business centre on Kilburn Park Road. Something told me that I should go in and I discovered an industrial hub with all sorts of different businesses. There were some units available and despite the fact they didn’t have a traditional shop front, it felt like the place I needed to be. I’d essentially run a micro business when I rented a salon chair, so opening my own salon felt like a natural progression.
I wrote a business plan and, with a grant from The Prince’s Trust (which I’m now a mentor for), opened my first salon on 3 June 1999, aged 28. My clients were loyal and my reputation continued to grow. The 50 I started with grew to 300 in two years!
Direct Line for Business: How did you balance the rising demand for your services with a growing family?
CM: I realised that I’d outgrown the area my salon was in and had to find somewhere bigger. I’d lived on Portobello Road since I was 23 and felt like it had never been home to a prominent Afro-Caribbean salon, so I really wanted to open one. I knew that I had a viable business and I opened Hair Lounge in 2003.
I had my second child around the same time and though it was challenging, it was a good balance. I was able to have my kids at the salon when I needed to and juggle hairdressing with feeding. I wanted to make it work and I knew I could, as life presents many challenges that you just have to push through.
Direct Line for Business: Tell us about some of the awards you've won and some of your best moments.
CM: I’ve been writing for Black Hair Magazine since 2005 and in 2008 I won a Black Women in Business award that was sponsored in the UK by Gordon Brown. My hairdressing awards include ‘Afro Hairdresser of The Year’ in 2013 and 2014 at the British Hairdressing Awards.
The Hair Lounge team has also won a number of awards. We were even inducted to the Black Beauty/Sensationnel Hair Awards Hall of Fame in 2016 after winning ‘Styling Team of the Year’ three times.
In October 2016, Refinery29 interviewed me, and AJ+ filmed an interview during Ghana Fashion & Design Week, where I was the lead hairstylist. The video racked up millions of views and caught the attention of Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), who featured me on her blog.
[The same year] I was featured on the cover of Hairdressers Journal. That was amazing and my Dad shed a tear when he saw it. In the midst of all that excitement, I launched my own range of hair products. I was thrilled when, only a few months later, it was named ‘Best Product for Afro Hair’ at the 2017 Marie Claire Hair Awards.
Direct Line for Business: What inspired you to launch your hair care range?
CM: Whilst there are lots of products for Afro-Caribbean hair, they are overwhelmingly cosmetic, synthetic or have tacky packaging. It’s also a struggle to find retailers with the knowledge to effectively advise and recommend.
Chemical straightening is also a common choice for black hair, but can really take its toll, so I wanted to create products for natural hair care. I aimed to create a range that looked good and had actually been endorsed by a hairdresser.
I stumbled on the active ingredient in 2010 when I was working at a wedding in the Serengeti, East Africa. I had an amazing head massage which also left my hair looking and feeling great, so I spent six years experimenting and developing my range.
Direct Line for Business: In such a big industry, how do you set yourself apart?
CM: I’ve always been self-motivated and believe that you should aim to set the bar high if you want to succeed. After decades in the industry, I still make time for training and education and I support my team to do the same.
I take a holistic approach to hairdressing. Maintaining the appearance of my salon is important to me, so if that means repainting every year then so be it! Without the clients, there’s no business, so I make sure they have a good experience. I called my salon Hair Lounge because I wanted to create a relaxed vibe where women could make friends and share stories.
We cater for all types of curly hair, so not all of our customers are Afro-Caribbean, and they travel from all over the world. We’ll have days where we won’t have a single customer from London! We’re a high-end salon with a warm environment with no snooty attitudes. Life can be hard and I want my customers to see us as a sanctuary. If people are coming back and supporting your business, it’s important to make them feel like VIPs.
Direct Line for Business: Talking of VIPs, which well-known people have enjoyed your hairstyling?
CM: I’m really fortunate that many years in the hair industry has meant people have heard about me and so want to visit the salon. Winning awards has also helped raise our profile.
We’ve had visits from Lorraine Pascale, Mica Paris, and the American rapper, Eve. I’ve done a lot of work with Beverly Knight, styled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for a Boots advert, travelled with Janelle Monae for The World Cup, and also worked with Naomi Campbell. But like I said before, every customer is a VIP to me.
Direct Line for Business: What’s your advice for anyone who’s considering a career in hair and beauty?
CM: These days there is plenty of information online, especially on YouTube. But you can’t learn everything that way and you really do need a proper educational foundation if you want to succeed in this industry. It’s all very well building a large digital following, though that won’t guarantee that you’ll make a living, regular paying customers will.
Surround yourself with the right people and keep learning. No matter what level you are, you can never ever know enough. People ask me whether I get tired of it, but the hair and beauty industry is forever evolving and filled with versatile careers — it’s brilliant!
If you want to follow Charlotte’s lead and run your own salon or become a self-employed session stylist, you’ll need business skills and knowledge of matters like tax and insurance. Click here for information on Hair and Beauty Insurance.
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