Runway strands: how to create catwalk-ready styles for curly and afro-textured hair

Rumbie Mutsiwa believes in the transformational power of hair. As a hairdresser specialising in curly, wavy and afro hair, she has seen many defeated-looking clients enter her Sydney salon, Rumbie & Co. When they leave, she says: “Their eyes have been opened and they see themselves and feel good about their hair for the first time.”

Her knowledge of curly and afro hair has seen her take on an educational role backstage at Australian fashion week, where expertise is sometimes lacking. “What has my heart burning is when models [with curly hair] come into set and their hair is barely touched,” she says. “So they’re not feeling confident when walking on the runway.”

Hairdresser Rumbie Mutsiwa wields a hairdryer with a diffuser attachment. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

In recognition of her work in the industry, Zimbabwean-born Mutsiwa was last week named one of Australian fashion week’s 2024 “changemakers” alongside the Indigenous model Elaine George, Outland Denim’s founder, James Bartle, and the fashion archivist Kim Russell.

Here Mutsiwa explains how to prep four runway looks for curly and afro hair.

Preparation: hydration is key

“By nature, curly hair requires moisture,” Mutsiwa says. This means applying hydrating products such as a leave-in conditioner to clean, dry or semi-dry hair. She says to apply a conditioning spray for fine or looser textures and a cream for thicker and curlier textures. Frizz is an indication your hair is dehydrated and needs products with more intense hydration. “Once you do that you’ll find you can actually go out into the elements and the style is going to last,” she says.

‘Curly hair requires moisture’ … model Emma Stapleton has her hair styled at Rumbie & Co. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

1. Going au naturel

The key to a natural afro is ensuring it has definition , Mutsiwa says. “So whether those curls are as tight and small as the tip of a pen or as thick as your pinkie finger, we’re still going to be seeing that definition.”

The first step to achieving this is wetting the hair so it is slightly damp, then working a hydrating gel or cream through it with your hands. Then apply a holding gel over the top to lock in the moisture. Dry the hair with a hairdryer that has a diffuser attachment; place it on low-to-medium speed and remove about 70% of the moisture.

If you want to exaggerate the texture, work your hands through the hair to separate the curls and create more volume. “But the hair essentially is going to defy gravity anyway,” she says.

A model in the PE Nation show at Australian fashion week. Photograph: Wendell Teodoro/Getty Images for AFW

2. Styling braids

“Often people struggle with braids because they overthink it,” Mutsiwa says. The key is to keep it simple, so she suggests styling braids by pulling them back off the face and securing them at the base of the neck, either by pinning them in place or using a hair tie to create a low ponytail.

If you’re using bobby pins, she advises twisting the hair on the sides of the head away from the face and pulling it back to where you want to secure it in place. When sliding the bobby pins into place, be careful not to snag the hair as this can be particularly painful.

When creating a low ponytail with a hair elastic, Mutsiwa threads two bobby pins on to either end of the elastic – so if she’s pinching the two strands of the elastic in the middle, the bobby pins are dangling on either side. Then she uses one of the bobby pins as an anchor beneath the ponytail and wraps or winds the elastic band around the hair. To fasten it, she slides the second bobby pin along the first, from the opposite direction. To cover the elastic, she’ll take one braid and wrap it over the top, and tuck it into the bobby pins beneath the ponytail.

Once the hair is styled, Mutsiwa says to work around the edges of the face with strong-hold gel or hairspray to catch any baby hairs and make them look neat by securing them to the hairline. Then run the diffuser over the edges to make sure they’re dry.

Finish with some shine spray, “to get that healthy, beautiful, shiny look”, she says.

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‘Often people struggle with braids because they overthink it’: A model backstage before the Beare Park show. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for AFW

3. Half back, half out

This look is like a ponytail where the hair is pulled back off the face but is in an afro at the back. Mutsiwa says to start by defining the curls as you would in step one – styling a natural afro. When the hair is dry, take a wide elastic and wrap it around the hair to sweep it off the face so the elastic band is sitting just past the crown of the head.

“If the hair is shorter make sure that you pack on a lot of stronghold gel through the top section so that it lays flat,” she says. “Otherwise the hair will actually spring back up due to the power of the curl.”

For extra shine, work a serum through the back of the ponytail. Photograph: Thurtell/Getty Images

Once the gel is on, it’s important to ensure the hair is completely dry. To do this, she says, take a fine, lightweight scarf and tie it over the front part of the head and, using a hairdryer with a diffuser on high heat and high speed, blow-dry over the top of it. Once the hair is very dry, remove the scarf by pulling it from the front to the back. Sometimes Mutsiwa will work a serum through the back of the ponytail to give it some shine.

4. The tight bun

“The beautiful thing about curly hair and afro hair is that it’s quite malleable,” Mutsiwa says. To pull curly hair back into a tight bun Mutsiwa says to start by flattening it with a blow dryer. Make sure the hair is a little bit moist and apply some leave-in conditioner cream and an anti-humidity spray or an oil. Then use a paddle brush and a hairdryer to stretch the hair out straight.

“I’m obsessed with using a paddle brush; you take a lot more hair and you can actually get better tension,” she says. “Work the hair from the ends and work up.”

Mutsiwa says it’s not necessary to straighten all the hair, just enough to achieve the look you’re after. Start from the hairline around the face and work back to where you plan to part it. Once this is done, use a comb to create definition in the part and pull the hair back away from the face to where the bun will sit.

A paddle brush and a hairdryer are the essential tools for a tight bun. Photograph: CoffeeAndMilk/Getty Images

To set the hair into a bun, use the same technique as styling braids, with a hair elastic and two bobby pins threaded to either end to create a ponytail. If someone has very thick hair, this might require two people to assist and to divide the hair into two parts, first tying the lower ponytail so the second part of the hair can be secured to it. She says it’s important to make sure the model is comfortable because it can be painful if it’s too tight.

The final stage is deciding what the bun needs to look like, for example, “If we are going to twist the bun loosely or tightly into a really beautiful, possibly low bun or a top knot.”

“Then fasten the ends of the hair with a bobby pin and then that’s pretty much it,” Mutsiwa says. Finish the look with a strong-hold hairspray followed by a shine spray.


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