In the early 60s, the natural was unnatural to most of us. In fact Miriam Makeba became somewhat of a target of amusement for those who thought she was crazy to wear her hair naturally. Thus, the afro was not simply an inherited trait, it became a statement —a militant statement. The natural grew into a huge fro, synonymous with the clenched fists and cries of Black Power that ushered in the turbulent civil rights era.
Makeba’s pioneering natural was first styled in 1960 by Camello Frenchie Casimir, who’s been in people’s hair for 45 years. Makeba’s designer John Pratt, brought the African singer into Frenchie’s shop and said he didn’t want her to look like everybody else, Frenchie recalls while handing me an old issue of Life picturing him with the afro crowned Makeba. “Since she came from Africa, it dawned on me to leave the hair like that. I cut the hair and left it in an afro.” That was the first time the afro was really pushed. Then Abbey Lincoln took on the afro. Later, in 1964, Cicely Tyson had one in the play called The Blacks.
Fashion magazines rest upon the living room table of Frenchie’s apartment. A huge grandfather clock chimes occasionally, interrupting the flow of our conversation. Frenchie wears his 63 years quite well. He is handsome and spry, looking at me through crimson shaded lenses. Frenchie’s life story could fill four volumes, so we decided to start, quite naturally, from the beginning.
“When I was 17, I lived in a small town in Haiti called Gonaives,” Frenchie recollects. “I went to see girlfriend. One sister was pressing other sister’s hair. That’s the first time I saw hair pressing. I was really fascinated by that. I said, that’s pretty. I feel like I can do it.” He went home and immediately learned how to press hair and decided to practice on the live in domestic. “I had her wash her hair and then I pressed it. The hair came out so pretty.”
“I did my cousin’s hair and then my sister wanted me to do hers. Then my cousin’s friend and my sister’s friend wanted me to do theirs. Soon I started to get too many people.” Frenchie was at tending college at the time, and began doing hair after school and sometimes on Saturdays. “When I saw that I was doing very well,” I quit school.
Shortly thereafter, Frenchie accepted an offer from a client to set up shop in Port Au Prince. After World War II, Frenchie became fascinated with the idea of moving to New York. “New York is the place where Madam C.J. Walker invented the hot comb and everything new for hair is there,” he thought.
He wrote to his cousin in New York and informed him that he was on his way. In June 1946, with only $30 in his pocket, he arrived in Manhattan. He worked as a dishwasher at Pennsylvania Station and a few months later, enrolled in Apex, a black school on Seventh Avenue. After graduation, he applied for a job at Rose Morgan’s salon, which, he had been told, was the best. He was employed there for about a year and then moved to Paris where he took advanced classes in hairstyling.
It was on the banks of the Seine that Frenchie made, what was for him a startling discovery. I saw that fashion began in Paris. I never saw the French people coming to the United States, but Americans went over there to learn new styles,’
To get the latest styles, Frenchie Would go to Carita. You would pay a set fee of 500 francs for five days. They would give you all the information on what was coming up for the new Season. He then discovered Jacques Dessange, who set up one-day seminars every six months.
With a suitcase full of new ideas, Frenchie returned to New York. He had his eyes set on the fashionable and chic Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, where the Kennedys stayed when they came to town. “At the time,” Frenchie recalls, “segregation was very prominent in US. society,” and Frenchie knew that if the management discovered he was black, he’d never be able to rent the space. So he chose to phone the hotel, figuring his French accent would camouflage his skin color. When the hotel management urged him to come and look at the place first, he calmly told them that he was very familiar with the hotel. “They sent me a contract to fill out, and I did a beautiful show.”
In 1952, Frenchie decided that he wanted to be his own boss, teamed up with two women and opened up the salon Casdulan. Cas from Casimir, du from McDuffy, and lan from his partner Delancy, who died one year after the shop opened. McDuffy sold her part to Frenchie one year later. While running the shop, Frenchie continued to go to Paris twice a year to attend school.
Over the next few years, Frenchie added to his clientele many noted celebrities, including high fashion model Naomi Sims, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Leslie Uggams, and Lena Horne.
“It’s nice to work on celebrities. They give you a name,” Frenchie muses.
“The real money,” he is quick to explain, “comes from the working woman. A celebrity you see one day, will have to go somewhere else the next time. For six months you may not see them. The working woman, you see every week, all through the year. Even if they are going on vacation, they’ll tell you. You can count on them.”
Frenchie sold Casdulan last year, and now spends most of his time working for such magazines as Vogue, Bazaar, and Essence.
Reflecting on his long career, Frenchie leans back and concludes, “Working with Naomi Sims was really exciting because every two weeks, I had to find new styles for her. She was a model and had to change her face all the time. It was a way to push my work. When people saw the styles, they would ask, Who did that?”
Frenchie speaks of hair care with great authority. His answer to what to do with my hair, is simple. One thing all black women have to realize is that their hair is the most fragile; regardless of what you do to the hair, you have to be careful. Everybody’s hair needs a rest.
“The best way to rest your hair,” he suggests, “is to change it to braids—any kind of braids. Every time you comb your hair, you have to pull. Anything you pull too often, is going to break. But when you braid your hair, you don’t have to comb it.” Frenchie disagrees with those dermatologists who claim that hair braided too long will fall out. “In order for hair to fall out, it has to be pulled from the root,” he explains. Frenchie goes on to emphasize the importance of braiding for those who wear the afro. It’s going to get tangled. That’s why Africans braid their hair.
Frenchie advises, that whatever you do, just be careful not to overdo it.
All the praise from the famous and not-so-famous have made Frenchie’s career worthwhile. However, that he is now being showered with praise from his peers, is the icing on the cake. But someone whose motivation is to make black women beautiful by enhancing the beauty that is already there, deserves it.