Shani Crowe on the Art of Creating Showstopping Braids

Beauty


From Braids: Fingerwave Saint, based on halos in Renaissance paintings.

Courtesy of Crowe

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Forget Pinterest inspiration boards—there are some hairstyles that are so inventive, the Louvre would be lucky to have them. Exhibit A: the intricate, braid-centric masterpieces crafted by fine artist Shani Crowe. After receiving a grant from Chicago-based nonprofit 3Arts, Crowe launched Braids, a series of photographs capturing real women adorned with her elaborate hairstyles. Though she’s been commissioned by celebrities such as Solange to create custom works (you might have seen one on SNL), Crowe happily considers new models—who don’t pay for the service.

You’re trained in film, photography, painting, and pottery. Why choose braids as your medium?

I’m a very tactile person—I’m good with my hands. And I’ve been thinking of doing a project like this since I was a kid. I come from a large family, and we often did each other’s hair. I always saw having my hair braided as a privilege, and I wanted to share that.

From Above All.

Courtesy of Crowe

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The pieces you make are so ornate.

Oh, man. They take hours and hours and hours. The crown I made for Solange took me fiftysomething because of all the individual Swarovski crystal beads and armature—and that’s just for the separate hairpiece attached to her braids. Usually, my looks average five or six hours. You really get to know someone.

How long do people wear them?

Typically, the styles are taken down right after I shoot, because they’re not really wearable. People have to go to work. But if you want a style to last, you should tie a satin scarf flat to your hair at night to keep the braids lying down, or wear a silk bonnet—it helps. Avoid cotton, because it takes moisture away from your hair.

Crowe and Solange backstage at SNL.

Courtesy of Crowe

How do you keep styles sharp and eliminate frizz?

I like braids to be very crisp and neat; it’s about the finish for me. You’ve got to pay special attention to the part. If your scalp is dry and an oil isn’t working, try witch hazel on a cotton pad, and gently rub—that’ll help with flakes without drying out the hair.

What’s your view on nonblack women wearing cornrows or dreadlocks?

American culture, in general, doesn’t do a good job of honoring indigenous art. There’s never a moment where it’s like, These braids are from.… People will just do it and say it’s just a hairstyle. Personally, I’m not here to tell people what they can and cannot do. I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to continue to create.

The Essentials

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To prep dry hair for styling, Crowe spritzes Vernon François Pure~Fro Moisture Spray (2) before a blow-dry: “It makes hair feel very soft, and it’s a way to help hair receive product a little better.” Harry Josh Pro Tools Pro Styling Clips (1) keep hair in controlled sections for manipulation over long periods of time. To create a perfect design with razor-sharp lines, Crowe saturates hair with Ampro Pro Styl Shine ’n Jam Conditioning Gel (4) before parting it with a heatproof Fromm Diane Ionic Anti-Static Comb (3). “This holds hair together on one side of the part, making it easier to keep flyaways in their position because they’re gelled down.”

1. Harry Josh® Pro Tools Pro Styling Clips, $17; amazon.com SHOP

2. Vernon François Pure~Fro Moisture Spray, $26; sephora.com SHOP

3. Fromm Diane Ionic Anti-Static Comb, $3; ulta.com SHOP

4. Ampro Shine ‘N Jam Conditioning Gel, $8; amazon.com SHOP

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This article originally appears in the February 2018 issue of ELLE.

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