Freddie Harrel: 'Hair Is Where You Get To Be Loud'

Freddie Harrel
·5-min read
Photo credit: RadSwan
Photo credit: RadSwan

If there's something I'm glad disappeared with age, it's the constant imprisoning feeling of being ridiculously awkward. I guess I still have that at times, but that sensation of living in a 'freak cage for one' has gone.

Growing up I hated not fitting in. It didn't help that from the age of 10 until I graduated with my Masters, I was one of the only Black girls in my year. It wasn't as if I fitted in much more more in Black spaces, so being Black in places where most children weren't didn't bother me too much. In fact, it had its perks. Although I wanted to feel like everyone else, I was standing out. It wasn't my doing, but rather my design - I had an excuse for being different.

There also was my hair. I couldn't keep up with my schoolmates' wallets when it came to jumping into the latest fashion trends, but I could reinvent myself, my silhouette and my whole presence every month when I'd take out my braids and switch hairstyles. I loved that my hair intrigued everyone - they had all sorts of questions - and I had all the imagination to feed their preconceived narrative that people like me were aliens living alien lives outside of school.

When they would rock the latest trainers or puffer jacket, you would catch me with different braids or cornrows every month - a different length, a different colour, a different volume. That's what we'd do. We were made of this current, in constant motion, a fluidity you couldn't contain despite a common ambition we had, as immigrants, to keep a low profile, while still having a crack at the ladder. Hair is where you get to be loud, where you can express your multiplicity. I don't think I'd know so much about myself if it wasn't for this outlet I was given very early on.

Photo credit: RadSwan
Photo credit: RadSwan

RadSwan started from that, and from my inability to do hair. I'm a shapeshifter but I have fairly poor hair skills. When I stopped chemically straightening my hair, I fell in love with the ringlets from my childhood I was being reacquainted with. It was so much more me and it made so much more sense than what I had been (safely) playing with as a new banking graduate trying to fit in. I left the bank and wanted to rock my afro hair bigger, as if to parade my newfound identity and freedom loud and clear.

But, the Black hair market, despite serving the highest beauty spender and being worth billions, is a constant source of frustration for most of us. I wanted hair that would mimic my afro, hair that I could put in myself without having to watch hours of tutorials or go to the salon to achieve, hair that I could easily take out so I could look after my own, instead of having it sewn-on for weeks. Hair that I wouldn't have to care for or spend too much money on but reserve for my homegrown beautiful hair. I also no longer wanted human hair extensions as I felt grossed out by the reports I'd hear about women being abused in the sourcing process. But I didn't want to compromise with cheap synthetic options I'd have to buy from sticky-shelved shops where I was stared at and followed around either.

Photo credit: RadSwan
Photo credit: RadSwan

I couldn't find this hair - my dream shapeshifting kit - but I found a woman online, a hair supplier. I sent her photos of me, explained what I was after and together we custom created these clip-ins and wigs. I didn't know then that most of us had poor hair skills, nor did I know that a lot of us had always felt like the awkward Black girl, the odd one out no matter the space. Rocking my newly designed hair extensions online as a fashion blogger opened my world to my tribe and to what I can only now describe as my life purpose: RadSwan.

Big Hair No Care was born in 2017, as a side hustle at first, after people kept asking me about my hair. A few pop-ups later, in London, Paris and New York, I realised that hair was just the rallying point, that we were this huge collective of misfits, shapeshifters, and avid self-explorers compelled to find ways to hone, express and celebrate their boundless fluidity. We were a community first, multiple people wrapped into single individuals, with heads full of aspirations and untold stories to explore. We had to reclaim our narrative around shapeshifting, which was what we'd all been doing all of our lives but something that our own community and others would often see as inauthenticity, or insecurities. The poor experience attached to the multi-billion-dollar Black hair market didn't help, and it was about time we upgraded and dignified it - building it with the input of its audience, and the care of our planet in mind.

Eventually, Big Hair No Care became RadSwan - a fully-fledged revolution finally launching this month. Phew.

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