The first thing I notice when I meet Maeva Heim is her healthy mane. I’m immediately envious. She’s styled her hair in a simple yet chic semi up-do, with a few curls framing her face – like an afro hair version of a messy bun. It’s a flawlessly imperfect look that I’ve tried to recreate with my own afro textured hair in the past, with little luck. She’ll later describe it as “lazy girl hair”.
These words have not always been synonymous with Black hair, generally because of how much time it takes to style. “I’m all about doing as little as possible,” she tells me. “To embrace this lazy girl hair lifestyle, you can’t ascribe to that ideal; that super glossy, perfectly curled curl.”
I can see the appeal of lazy girl hair for Heim. Having just launched her hair care line – Bread – in Australia, she’s busier than ever. Though Heim lives in Melbourne, Bread was first made available in the United States, at more than 100 Sephora stores. That was in mid-2020. Since then the brand has won several awards, and can now be found in the UK and other parts of Europe too.
That success, she tells me, didn’t come easy. Heim knew the US would have to be her focus market, because she wanted scale and investment. She says raising capital for a female beauty start-up is easier in the US than at home. “I didn’t want to come out of the gate as a brand that didn’t have investment and therefore had to make decisions based on money that would impact the brand,” she says.
Following a successful international launch, Heim has set her sights closer to home. Bread is the first range of its kind in Australia, and she hopes Australian women with natural afro and curly hair textures will benefit from products made specifically for their hair.
I confess to Heim that being able to access products made by women with hair like mine might help minimise the laborious and time-consuming process of hair braiding.
Braiding is the economical option for many people with afro textured curly hair in Australia, eliminating the need for expensive weekly styling treatments. Even for those who can afford regular maintenance, it is difficult to locate hairdressers that know how to style afro hair, although that is slowly starting to change.
It is a change Sydney-based hair stylist Chrissy Zemura is helping to drive. She launched a petition last year calling for more specific training in afro and curly hair to be added to hairdressing education curriculums, after spending years counselling clients who had been treated poorly by other salons. “I was getting a lot of people with PTSD of the hair salon experience,” she says. “Everyone has had a terrible hair salon experience in Australia at some point.”
Though training in afro-textured hair has been formally included in the NSW Tafe curriculum since 2016, when training other hairdressers Zemura often found she was “wasting time on the most basic things that should have been taught at Tafe”. Many stylists weren’t familiar with practices as simple as shampooing. “Exactly how the hair behaves when it’s wet. Even how to detangle [the hair], before we could get onto cutting it.”
Growing up, Heim was spared some of the traumatic experiences Zemura’s clients encountered, because of her mother’s profession. “She had an African hair braiding salon in Perth in the 90s,” Heim says. Here, her mother would style braids, cornrows and dreadlocks for clients. The salon was the first of its kind in Perth, she says. “It was literally like a garage connected to the back of a restaurant that she kitted out into a salon.”
On weekends and school holidays, Heim would take appointments and sweep the floors, recalling people sometimes struggled to understand her Ivorian mother’s accent over the phone. As she grew older, Heim began braiding hair too.
But by the turn of the millennium, her mother was forced to shut down her salon after, according to Heim, the area began to gentrify. “They basically kicked her out of her shop and pushed her out of her lease and that whole strip became very modern,” she says.
Even when the salon was open, Heim’s relationship with her own naturally curly hair was not easy. As a child she remembers “feeling like I needed to fit in with that western standard of beauty … All my friends had straight hair, of course I had to have straight hair.” At the salon, her mother “would relax hair … for clients, and for myself”.
Relaxers use harsh chemicals to break down the curly pattern in afro hair and “relax” it, resulting in permanently straight (and often damaged) hair.
The fact is, when it comes to Black hair, it is political. Black people are often discriminated against for wearing their hair in their natural textures, including in schools around Australia. In one incident in 2017, 16-year-old twins, Tahbisa and Grace, were asked to unbraid their hair. The girls, who are of South Sudanese heritage, said the school was attacking their African identity and refused to remove the braids. Initially the school argued that the decision was a colour-blind enforcement of uniform policy, before granting the pair an exception.
Since then, there have been several similar episodes. In 2020, this prompted a petition by musician James Emmanuel urging private schools to change their uniform policies, which garnered close to 25,000 signatures.
As she grew up and began a successful career in marketing, Heim continued to relax her hair. In her mid-20s, demonstrating the same entrepreneurial spirit as her mother, she decided to create a beauty brand for women like her – Black women and women of colour who are often overlooked by mainstream brands.
She dabbled with makeup briefly, but gave up on it after Rihanna’s Fenty line hit the market. Then a fateful visit to the US changed the trajectory of her career. “I never considered hair as the industry I would end up in,” she says. But on that trip she had a chemical relaxer in her suitcase; when she arrived in Colorado, she says, “the relaxer had exploded over all of my stuff”.
Heim had been treating her hair with chemicals from a very young age, but at that moment she began questioning why. “Does it matter? Maybe I should stop doing this. I’d done it my entire life; my mum started relaxing my hair when I was six or seven, and then it’s every year, three to four times a year … 20 plus years.”
Heim decided to embrace her natural curls, but after taking a trip to a department store in the US, she noticed that products for Black hair were “dated”. It felt as though “no one had paid any attention to it”.
Around this time, Black women were moving away from relaxers and embracing their afro textured curls. That movement, which began with overtly political aims, has in recent years gone mainstream, and has often been appropriated by white-owned brands and influencers.
It was then that the idea to create a hair care line specifically for Black women and women of colour, was born. Bread, Heim says, is about making hair care easy and accessible with essential (hence the name Bread) products that cater to “wash day” – a weekly routine many Black women undergo (generally on Sundays) to treat, care for and style their hair.
While Bread makes home hair care more accessible, in salons, Zemura’s work is also having an impact. Jaye Edwards, who runs EdwardsAndCo, a chain of salons around the country, says his stylists have benefitted from training and advocacy spearheaded by Zemura.
After being called out online for “not being inclusive and diverse”, Edwards says he made rapid changes that included consulting Zemura and another hairstylist specialising in afro hair, Rumbie Mutsiwa. “As hairstylists, we need to start having respect and know-how to … service all clients regardless of their texture,” Edwards says.
While centuries of racism and discrimination won’t be erased overnight by products or training, Heim at least hopes that Bread gives young Australian girls of colour the visibility she wished she’d had growing up.
“Young girls go into Sephora and hopefully see themselves reflected on our shelf, versus anywhere else in the store,” she says. “I would have wanted that to exist when I was growing up here as a teen, just to kind of feel validated.”