Toronto stylist Jonathan Torch, founder of the Curly Hair Solutions line of products, says he never thought he'd become an expert on cutting curly hair. But he had one curly-headed customer with bulky, unmanageable hair and he made it his mission to find a cut that could help her get the haircut she desired.
What Torch discovered was that he didn't need to cut every strand of hair. He needed to cut the pieces that could reduce the bulk, but cut them in a way that was invisible to the eye. And he needed to be able to cut these same pieces every time she came in
"You have to look at each curl as an individual," Torch says. "I worked on a system I could customize for each person."
So Torch began to study curly hair. He studied the way it looked wet and dry; he worked with tight curls and loose waves. He learned about shrinkage and frizz and curl formation. He learned how to create different layers of ringlets. He learned to play with the hair to see what it wanted to do. And he learned to throw some old ideas out the window — ideas that were the holy grail for cutting straight hair.
"You can't cut curly hair accurately," Torch says. "Learning to break the rules and to cut hair unevenly is foreign to hairdressers. You have to change your whole thought process."
It has happened to all of us curlyheads at least once. We encounter a stylist who swears she can cut curly hair, only to have our hair end up too short, too uneven, too puffy or just altogether an unmanageable mess.
In too many cases, the problem stems from bad training or a lack of training altogether. Most beauty schools don't have the time to teach stylists how to work with curly hair. So many stylists attempt to cut curls just as they would straight hair or wavy hair. And they learn the hard way that it just doesn't work.
"Schools don't teach how to cut curly hair," says Ouidad, the "Queen of Curl," who developed a carve-and-slice technique to cut curly hair.
But a growing number of stylists have developed their own techniques for cutting curls — techniques learned through years of studying and working with hundreds of curlyheads. What they have found is that to cut curly hair well is as much an art as it is a science.
"There's a period of illumination that happens when people realize they can cut curly hair," says Chris Baran, global artistic director for design at Redken International. "They discover the beauty that goes on with it."
Baran says the key to cutting curls is to think of the head of hair as positive and negative space. With positive, you can't see through it. With negative, you can.
"That's what gives the hair the degree of sensuality — that edge that people with straight hair don't have," Baran he says. "The trick is figuring out how to cut it to put it in."
Austin stylist David Moreno, who has developed a large and loyal following of curlyheaded clients, says he likes to cut curly hair dry because wet hair can be deceiving. As he cuts, he creates an imaginary shape, cutting the hair outside of that shape, creating invisible layers. He likes to cut the hair on an angle to encourage the curl to wrap around itself. He's a firm believer that every hair doesn't need to be cut every time — a philosophy he calls his "Bonsai Theory."
"What we're trying to do is get texture," Moreno says.
Stylists well versed in ringlets have learned about shrinkage and have developed their own techniques to adjust for it.
John Blaine, a stylist at Yutaka Salon in West Hollywood, says likes to start cutting with the hair wet, but finishes with it dry. He only cuts half as much as he would with straight hair.
"You can really see how much shrinkage there is with the hair," he says.
Some techniques absolutely don't work with curls. Layers may turn into ledges. A texturizing razor may create a dreadful headful of frizz if used on tight curls. Without the right shape, a head of curls can look like a pyramid.
"You can't cut curly hair blunt," Ouidad says. "You have to cut it in angles."
Not every stylist is well suited to cutting curls, Torch says.
"They become frustrated by tangles, by the dryness, by the unpredictability," he says. "With straight hair, they can get that one bang to fall into that same position every single day. But that curly hair may never go into that position again. For people with curly hair, control is never going to happen."
"I can't train a stylist until they develop a passion for curly hair," Torch says.
Younger hairdressers, he says, seem more eager and less fearful of working with curls. They have also grown up at a time when curls are more prevalent in Hollywood and on the fashion runways. They see them as something to play up rather than something to fight, he says.
"The next generation of hairdressers may not be afraid of curly hair," he says.
Kelli McClain, a stylist with INNU in Austin, has developed just such a passion for curly hair.
"In school we learned the bare minimum," McClain says. "The mannequins in school all have straight hair."
So the curlyhead has taught herself how to work with curls.
"It's like sculpting — like trimming shrubbery," McClain says. "You have to cut it and see where it falls. You have to cut the right hairs and look at it from all different angles."
Even those considered the best at cutting curls say they are continually learning new things.
"The past 10 years, I've learned how to control the bulk and create a perfect canvas," Torch says. "The next few years, I want to start playing around with design to come up with fresh styles for curly hair."