Written by Ariel Felton. Photography by Maggie Harney.
The first time I stepped inside Divine Allure Salon, a Savannah hair salon that specializes in naturally textured African-American hair, it was New Year’s Eve morning, 2014. I pushed through the door, hiding the worst hair day under a grey beanie and noticed the sign on the wall: Excuse our progress. We’re growing.
The shop was still in the midst of opening and the floor was covered in half unpacked boxes, and paintings waiting to be hung on the wall. But Alia Freeman, the owner, had agreed to come in despite the construction zone. With just a few hours, a chair and a handheld mirror, she tamed my hair, and my day, in time for the night’s festivities.
Almost two years later, I still trust Alia to get my hair right.
“Handing the client the mirror and seeing their expression open up is my favorite part,” Alia says as we sit in her salon, after I remind her how grateful I was for her that day. “In the end, that’s what it’s all for—to see the confidence on a person’s face.”
Today’s Divine Allure boasts royal purple walls, sleek black sinks and furniture, and colorful paintings of women sporting green and gold afros. There’s always music playing, usually fun R&B classics and sometimes a touch of Gospel, and the magazines and portfolio books are full of women wearing earrings shaped like afro picks. The stylists are young and they talk easily with one another as they walk back and forth, unsnapping capes or squeezing products into heads of thick hair. And Alia is stationed in the same corner booth I met her in two years ago, still relishing the moment she gets to turn her client to the mirror.
The Naturalista Movement
In the rise of the natural hair movement, which encourages African American men and women to keep their natural afro-textured hair, Alia has also been a crusader, teaching people how to embrace and celebrate who they are, and self-proclaiming herself as a “naturalista.” She offers styling, private consultations and educational classes focused on hair care basics in addition to volunteering her salon services to those in need, such as the women and children at the Safe Shelter of Savannah.
“The healthy state of natural hair is a big benefit—how it grows, how long and thick it can get,” Alia says. “But it also feels great to just step into a room and command attention in your natural state. I want people to realize how versatile natural hair is, and how much boldness and confidence comes with it.”
When I first met Alia, she was wearing her hair in shoulder-grazing locs, but today she rocks a short buzzed cut. It might seem strange for a hair stylist to do away with her hair, a living portfolio of her skills, but Alia’s new do is actually a testament to the movement and what it means.
“The best compliment I’ve received about my hair is, ‘You look so free,’” Alia says. “And it’s true. As soon as I cut it off, I thought, I can do anything. You can’t be afraid to switch it up. Good things take time.”
Alia has taken her passion for natural hair and beauty outside of the salon and created Savannah’s Natural Hair Extravaganza, an all-day celebration of natural hair and culture complete with hair care vendors, tutorials, live audience discussions, model walks and performances. With its 6th annual celebration this past September, it was a glorified block party at the Robert Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum where guests were rocking locs, dreads, afros and sleek braids, while Alia and her crew of stylists demonstrated everything from simple everyday looks to chic bridal up-dos.
“The festival is always changing and getting bigger,” Alia says. “I’ve noticed a lot of men and women coming into the salon that are bored and thinking about going back to chemically straightening their hair. This year the festival was about getting back to the importance of natural hair and introducing a bigger variety of styles.”
Care & Keeping
Outside of the hair festival, Alia offers up her biggest piece of natural care advice: Don’t try to be your own natural hair care specialist.
“If you like styling your twist-outs every once in a while, that’s fine,” she says. “But it’s almost like not going to the doctor anymore because you cured your own cold one time with over-the-counter medicine. You need a specialist that can recognize problems before they become major.”
As Divine Allure continues to expand, Alia plans to offer more educational hair care classes and community service opportunities, and to expand the selection of hair care products for purchase in the front of the shop. Looking forward to the next festival and the future of the salon, Alia likens the process to a good hair style.
“Everything in society today has to be quick, low maintenance,” she says. “I’m trying to get people to realize, if you don’t put in the work, is it really worth it?”