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If you grew up in a predominantly black area of London, you’ll probably know that there’s something special about the black salon or barbershop. Unlike many other cultures, it’s not a place that you’d stop in to for just for a service. It’s truly a community center at the heart of the culture. A hair salon open well past midnight, blaring Afrobeats whilst staff and customers dance, chill and converse, is a fairly normal occurrence. As such, it’s hardly surprising that there was a backlash from the announcement that many salons in south-east London’s Peckham, the place to be for all things black hair, will be relocated. Plans to regenerate the area, in order to attract affluent homebuyers, will mean that it’s out with the old and in with the new. However, there is one lady who is working hard alongside Southwark Council to ensure that the black salon remains a staple part of Peckham, improving and thriving each day. That person is Monique Tomlinson, Managing Director of Peckham Palms.
Starting the Journey
Monique, 42, is of Caribbean descent. She grew up in Brixton, south London, a melting pot of cultures and with residents of varying income levels. At that time, dozens of black hair salons lined the busy high streets and Monique wanted to be a part of it. She fell in love with the beauty transformations that take place in these small, buzzing stores. Her younger years were spent tirelessly researching the industry, with a particular interest in the business side of things – how these salons really made their money. Another passion of Monique’s was giving back to the community so, right out of school she joined Lambeth Council in a role which involved helping those who had been out of employment for several years to get back into work. Whilst in this role, she heard of the ‘Peckham Palms’ project, an initiative that the council had been asked to work on alongside architecture company Something & Son. They were tasked with developing a new complex to house the stylists and salon owners who were displaced from the popular Blenheim Grove, under Peckham Rye Station.
Although, when the project began, it was the council and residents who required persuading, the truly challenging task was convincing the disgruntled hairstylists to get on board with the venture. Many of them had owned their businesses for years and did not want to relocate. Additionally, the residents who had formed the genuine, diverse culture that makes Peckham unique and distinctive were fearful of the same gentrification that had transformed areas such as Shoreditch in London or Brooklyn in New York. They were (rightly) concerned about the prospect of being slowly outpriced and uprooted from their own neighborhoods. Monique, however, saw the changes as an opportunity to improve the way black salons do business. Even though the atmosphere in these salons is irresistibly animated, the physical infrastructure is often in poor condition, the customer service is overly informal and, sometimes, the incidental tension in the air is difficult to diffuse (when customers and hairstylists occasionally clashed). Monique knew that, in order to survive the ever-increasing rental costs, Peckham Palms needed to be a financial success and the stylists in The Palms had to become more business savvy. Monique set up base in Blenheim Grove, prior to the refurbishment of the station. She connected with the stylists, listening to their problems and understanding how their businesses worked. The next 2 to 3 years of forming meaningful relationships with these stylists would prove invaluable in winning over the beauty community.
Really Getting to Know The Market
During this period, Monique familiarised herself with the many issues existing in the industry. Due to the highly competitive market, stylists were undercharging or heavily discounting their prices, the rented premises were inadequately maintained and there was general disorder within the salon; it wasn’t uncommon to see children in the salons after school, so that the mothers could keep an eye on their kids. Many of the hairstylists were young, first-generation immigrants who were struggling to balance family life with a hands-on job (where it wasn’t uncommon to work until the early hours in the morning for less than minimum wage). Monique wanted to use Peckham Palms as a way to work with these women and help them to run their businesses better and generate more income. She wanted to show them how to strategize, innovate and problem solve. As she puts it, “the mission is to support and grow business ventures, led by black women, to create more diversity and equality within the hair and beauty sector given we spend 5-6 times any other demographic”.
The Grand Opening
After some delay, construction work is finally complete at Peckham Palms. Today, the complex can serve over 40 hair and beauty stylists and has rentable nail bars, makeup counters, health, and wellbeing treatment stations and even an event space – all for local businesses to use. “It’s very important we don’t lose the community feel that existed” Monique reiterates, which is why they have chosen an open format with many services offered. They opted not to make the environment too formal, rather they’ve created a space where customers can get their hair done, get a massage or nails treatment then grab some food after enjoying a full beauty experience in one place.
Creating Sustainability for Stylists
The stylists are receiving comprehensive training on several key areas – including finance, customer service and tech – to equip them with the tools to maximize their business potential and build their confidence. Best of all, Peckham Palms works with local nurseries and after-school clubs to provide day-care for the children, so that the stylists who are parents can focus on their beautiful craft. Walking in on a Saturday afternoon, you can’t miss the distinguishable, electric atmosphere and it really has become a go-to destination for anyone who wants to benefit from generations of talent in the art of braiding, weaving, cornrows, Bantu knots, Afro puffs, sew-ins, and plaits – to name a few. All of the food, furniture, and services provided are run by local Peckham-based businesses and the directorship of the Palms is majority black women – something that Southwark Council, Something & Sons and Monique felt would be important for the project to succeed. This has truly become a perfect storm for Monique and seems to be her calling; a way to combine the passion for hair and beauty that she’s had from a young age, whilst helping to develop south London, an area close to her heart and core to the black community.
In this series so far, I have tried to keep my commentary to a minimum so that the amazing stories of the entrepreneurs come through, however, as someone in the hair & beauty space, I cannot emphasize how much this is needed. If you’d like to support Peckham Palms, it’s definitely worth a visit for hairstyling, beauty treatments or even a Rum punch in Mae J’s bar.
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February 13, 2019 at 05:30AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs