Hairbrained Up-Close: NAHA Nominee Chelsea James

Chelsea James, Owner and Stylist at Forma + Collective Salon, has a broad skillset, and the spirit of an artist. On any given day you might find her taking clients behind the chair, educating at various locations around the country, or avidly engaged in trend-forecasting, plus collection creation – and she takes a thoughtful approach to all of these endeavors, tapping into what she sees as a ‘collective consciousness’. “I believe as hairdressers we have the real finger on the pulse of what’s happening inside of the community, and on a deeper level, what’s happening inside of our clients,” says Chelsea. “I like to look at the overall consciousness, and create something out of that.”

And Chelsea’s multitasking has paid off – because for her – it’s been a great year. Nominated for a NAHA, an HVA award-winner, and a two-time ‘Teach-In’ educator, Chelsea’s accolades are stacking up, fast. Read on to find out why she considers herself lucky to be a craft hairdresser – and learn about how she hopes to change the face of beauty, through self-awareness.

Q. Why hairdressing?

A. Hairdressing is one of the highest honors: I’m in the business of building self-confidence. I work really hard to create trust, and an open safe space for my clients and models. I want them to be able to be honest about the things that they don’t like about themselves.I think every single person has something so beautiful about him or her – and I’m lucky – because I get to be the person to highlight that beauty. I get to be emotionally connected to my clients. Vulnerability is really important to creating a safe space. If hairdressers can do that, then they’ll be really successful.

Q. As an educator, what’s your specific ‘flavor?’

A. When teaching, Chelsea likes to think back to her own time as a student. “It was a struggle for me,” she confesses, “when people would tell me: that’s wrong.” So as an educator, she strays away from absolutes. Instead, she focuses on theory, in a broader sense. “For me, it’s all about the why,” she confirms.

Q. Your winning HVA submission was unexpected – and impactful. What was the inspiration behind it? 

A. “We’re so lucky, as hairdressers,” says Chelsea, “to be invited into someone’s conception of themselves, and the way that they present themselves to the world. But something that I really struggle with,” she adds, “is the way that the media portrays beauty, because that portrayal leads to a lot of insecurities. I want to create a greater transparency around what we (as hairdressers) get to do – some of the deeper insights that we have, and that we get to see.”

“The video itself was about human identity. I was hoping to make a statement about something broader than hairdressing – but also – I wanted to honor those who are willing to be vulnerable and transparent. I think that people have similar thoughts. We’re not separate.”

“I think it’s amazing that Hairbrained gives hairdressers a platform to put this kind of work out there.”

Q. You attended Parsons, Art and Design School. How did that experience influence your NAHA submission?

A. Her experience at Parsons, Chelsea says, played a big part in her successful NAHA submission. “Parsons taught me about having an artistic process – no matter what you’re trying to make. I remember taking a class called process and skills; we had to create a ‘fake brand.’ It was all about mood boarding, concepts and themes. I got to experience many different ways of creating a collection or making a brand.”

“My NAHA collection was really about exploring my obsession with avant-garde. I’ve always loved anything avant-garde: fashion, hair, art music and dance – all of it. It’s such a cool thing. But it’s a very intimidating category, and I’d never entered NAHA before. The process was really about understanding myself, and who I am as a hairdresser, today.”

Q. And who are you, today?

A. Through this process, Chelsea says she’s realized that she doesn’t let fear dictate her actions in life. “The most beautiful part about it, as far as creating my own identity, is that I didn’t let fear stop me. I ran into a million brick walls when I was creating my collection, and I just kept trying. That gave me a really healthy identity around self-confidence.”

“I like weird things: a mix of hard and soft, shapes, things that create emotion. The process gave me confidence to trust in my own aesthetic.”

Q. Hairdressing: Is it an art, or a craft.

A. “I love the debate that’s surrounding this topic right now. It’s really intense, and there are a lot of people out there with a ton passion for it. For me – it’s both an art and craft. From a craft standpoint, there are the foundations and fundamentals; you can’t build a house without a solid foundation. The craft is about that, and I’ve explored tons of different methodologies inside of that. From an artistic standpoint, there are other things, such as NAHA, which was a very artistic process. I created something that’s never been created before – and that’s where the art comes in: my personal aesthetic and what I’m attracted to. No matter what methodology you come from, it’s both. I’m not good at putting it into one box or the other.”

Q. Name three people who you would love to learn from.

A. “Oh, it’s so hard to pick just three! Sharon Blain, Vivienne Mackinder and Jay Mahmood.

Jay Mahmood gave m a cape when I did ‘Teach-In,’ and I was mortified, because I left my cape in the prep room. But he was so loving and kind! He’s an amazing and epic human being.

Q. What’s your advice for someone looking to take his or her career to the next level?

A. “I would say create relationships with artists who you aspire to be like. That was huge for me. You have to beat down the fear of rejection – the feeling that you aren’t good enough. I think people that you admire can often have really great methods of doing that. Learn how you can add value to these people’s lives; this will take you a long, long way in your career.”

Find Chelsea James at Hb’s next ‘Teach-In’ event, held on July 10 (the morning after NAHA) in Las Vegas.