My First Blog As The Style Writer at Huffington Post UK
HuffPost UK typically likes its writers and editors to chip in on the blog platform from time to time. It creates a dual advantage in that readers get to see the media from the personal perspectives of the otherwise carefully neutral journos and the journos get an opportunity to express themselves. This was my first blog as their new style writer. It took a lot out of me (you'll see why) but it was worth it - especially as the team was so supportive.
At the start of the jolly new year, the press and social media worlds went on a finger-pointing rampage.
In many respects, it was totally justified. A hip brand with a cult, gen-Z following called the Braid Bar came under fire for over-indulging in cultural appropriation.
Some would say the concept of the brand alone was offensive: a braid booth in Selfridges offering the kind of hairstyles typically associated with black culture, priced very competitively and aimed at the spawns of the wealthy and famous.
While there had been rumblings from the occasional blog, the brand had generally been adored by celebrities like Cara Delevingne - as well as certain parties of the British press, namely: Stylist, The Telegraph and Vogue. Ahem.
The semblance of tranquility was broken when Radio 1 presenter and influencer Clara Amfo spoke out about being contacted by the Braid Bar.
They'd offered her a free 'do in exchange for a shout out to her considerable following.
Amfo was having none of it and, along with a screenshot of the message as proof, posted a long comment about the cosmic joke of being asked to advertise a brand that does not represent you, but profits from your culture.
"FACT: I have thick unrelaxed...afro textured hair. FACT: When I looked on this account 90% of the images are of white women with European hair. Women like me are NOT represented here."
- Clara Amfo
Then the press had a BOGOF deal when, Kate Moss' daughter modelled for the Braid Bar in May. Predictably, she was also caught up in the cultural appropriation argument.
Soon after all of this drama, we started to see images of women of colour on the Braid Bar's Instagram page and so, in a way, it was not for nothing.
So what do I have to do with all this?
I'm not a professional model, nor an influencer. Nor am I - frankly - anyone of note.
So when the Braid Bar invited me to model part of their summer menu, no-one could have blamed me for having my suspicions. (I am a black woman of a deep brown complexion. Not your typical #BraidBae.)
But the situation wasn't as simple as booking a casting I hadn't attended and I knew that. My problem wasn't that I doubted their motive for wanting to hire me. My problem was the fact that I wanted to be on the summer menu.
Co-founders Sarah Hiscox and Willa Burton took me out to lunch and, along with stylist Bay Garnett, we discussed the entire thing in almost painful candidness. Initially, they wanted my input on content creating to help with re-shaping the brand's image - because that's my background.
I passed. It wasn't 'til later that they asked me to model. I wondered if literally shirking my responsibility as a 'woke black woman' to support a company that (up until recently) had shown no regard for people like me would be a smart thing to do.
I worried about being a sell-out. I worried about being an enabler. If I'm honest, I worried about my professional reputation.
I went back and forth for nearly a week until I decided to just go for it.
Because I also worried about not taking this opportunity to turn the situation around. To be a part of a narrative that opened the conversation rather than slamming it down in anger.
I caught up with Wilcox to get her honest perspective on the whole thing. To be frank, the apology the brand had posted on their website (as on social media) was good - suitably apologetic, polite and humble.
Yet I was curious about whether Hiscox thought Amfo's outrage provided a catalyst for the Braid Bar to make a change.
"Definitely," Hiscox told me. "I'm not sure it was necessary to post it on Instagram, but we were all able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation about representation and from there make positive changes with our brand."
In fact, my meeting with them didn't happen until April, long after the friends met up with Amfo and makeup artist Kay Montano. If I thought my turn had been useful but almost painfully candid, according to Hiscox, Amfo was (rightly) angry and team BB was genuinely embarrassed and sorry for the whole episode.
Amfo, in her strong but eloquently-put protest, had forced them to face facts and in so doing had got the ball rolling. Hiscox admits that she was "really naive about black culture" when she launched the Braid Bar.
"I didn't know how important braids are in black culture," she said. "And I felt so bad because of the way it was portrayed in the media. It was quite upsetting, because I am not a racist but that's how it came across."
In terms of moving forward, Hiscox tells me they're soon relaunching the brand and using this experience as an opportunity to focus on the kind of message they want to portray.
"For example," she said. "We'd previously used the daughters of famous people to model the menus, but this whole experience has made us want to use models who are also passionate about important causes - whether it'd be the environment or representation.
"We're trying to make sure that we are inclusive and properly represent the braids that are inspired by black culture," she continued.
"If you look at our Instagram now, versus before Clara Amfo spoke out, it's a whole other animal. So it was absolutely necessary."
So am I okay with the fact that I'm a #BraidBae? Yes.
But aside from that, I'm happy that something good came out of the hugely awkward and negative drama that transpired at the start of the year.
Thanks to Amfo's honesty, and the Braid Bar's willingness to change, we can make the audience of this on-going conversation that much wider.
It just goes to show, when people speak and start a dialogue with brands, we can see change.
And, irony of ironies, Essence magazine (a publication for, by and about black women) loved the look (one of the editors told me) and featured it in a style story.
This article was originally published in HuffPost UK.