Lakisha Tompkins has influenced many black women in Philly to go natural.
“I didn’t think natural hair was ugly,” says Ayisha, a twenty-two-year-old African-American woman. “But I liked wearing my hair straight.”
Seated in the lobby of Pierre and Carlo salon, with her long bangs slightly covering her face, Ayisha continues. “I started relaxing my hair as a teenager,” she explains. “I stopped a couple years ago though, because it was damaging my hair; that’s when I started going to Kisha.”
Just as her name is uttered, in walks a very confident Lakisha Tompkins, known to most as Kisha. With 19 years experience as a stylist, the Mount Airy native has set out to eliminate the confusion and frustration many black women have when it comes to their hair, with her line of all-natural products: E’Tae. She quickly joins the conversation, speaking with a frank aura of expertise.
“A lot of black women still struggle with their hair,” Tompkins says. “Our hair can be hard to manage when you’re not using the proper products; this is why so many resort to chemicals or weaves.”
While the term "natural" is usually associated with styles such as locks, afros, twists and braids, Tompkins explains for her, natural hair is simply “hair that is chemical-free.” For black women in Philly who opt to wear a straightened coif without the use of relaxers, like Ayisha, there are plenty of options.
“Philadelphia has a lot of salons that cater to natural hair now,” explains Kisha. “There are a lot of hair schools and stylists, so that’s what makes this city faster when it comes to hair care, styling and moving to the next stage –like wearing your hair natural.”
Tompkins claims some credit for the trend. “Black women have stopped perming their hair for years now, but before [I opened my salon] a lot of African-American salons did not want to give up the money they made from perms and relaxers.”
The camera is rolling and Tompkins is now seated in front of a shelf lined with her products as well as sporting a promotional T-Shirt. Before she demonstrates the latest technique in styling natural hair straight, using Ayisha’s as her example, we conduct a short interview. She makes sure to mention E’Tae in almost every response and follow-up each plug with a smile. Yet deliberate promotions aside, Kisha’s shiny and bouncy tresses speak volumes to her cause.
Tompkins attended Murrell Dobbins Area Vocational High School where she took up cosmetology. She opened her first salon, Hair Extraordinaire, at the age of 21 in 1995. She was inspired to develop her line of products after becoming unsatisfied with the results chemical treatments had on her clientele’s hair, as well as struggling to manage her daughter’s coarse, thick hair.
“The thing natural hair needs the most is moisture,” she states. “So I researched ingredients that contained oils and humectants that made hair strong.”
Tompkins first tested out her homemade mixtures on her daughter’s hair. Pleased with the results, she than began using them on her clients. As word spread throughout the city and demand for her products grew, she formally launched the line of products and opened salon E’Tae in 2004.
“We had clients flying in from different states to get their hair done,” says Kisha as we move to the sink and she begins to wash Ayisha’s hair. Both the salon and the products gained rave reviews on popular black hair forums such as nappturality.com and motowngirl.com, as well as a few YouTube testimonials.
The name E’Tae is a play on the word "eat" and was chosen because many of the ingredients come from edible sources. Tompkins original creation, the Carmel treatment (a nourishing conditioner), consisted of honey, molasses, bananas, olive oil, corn starch, vinegar and wheat germ oil.
Despite its success, Tompkins closed Salon E’Tae in January of 2008. “It kept me inside of a building five days a week,” she says. “I knew that I wouldn’t be to network and build my company.” The ambitious businesswomen currently styles hair at Pierre and Carlo salon by appointment only in order to focus her time on growing her product line.
“I work in a European-owned salon now and I watch the clients,” says Kisha. “They’re in a good mood. They just come in, get cut and colored and they’re out the door. At African-American salons it’s a totally different experience; there’s always a problem or confusion about hair care. My main goal is to educate African-American women on how to take care of their hair and the benefits of natural hair care.”
Now that Ayisha has been washed and conditioned, her previously straight mane is full of thick, curly locks; a testament to her transition from relaxed to natural. “Once I stopped relaxing my hair I found it was much easier to manage when it was wet instead of it being dry and tangled,” Ayisha says as her hair is blow-dried and brushed straight with a paddle brush.
After rubbing a little E’Tae hair gloss through Ayisha’s hair, Kisha runs a ceramic flat iron over small sections until Ayisha is left with a head full of lustrous, flowing tresses. This process, Kisha explains, reduces the amount heat used in older methods like hot combing and leaves hair with more body, shine and bounce.
Two white female clients have already been styled in a neighboring chair and they leave just as quick and satisfied as Kisha described. But, although Ayisha’s experience was longer, once Kisha spins her towards the mirror her eyes light up and she’s genuinely pleased with the results. “Wow it looks great –I love it!” says Ayisha as she playfully swings her hair around. And with that, Kisha lets out a huge smile –this time it’s natural.