Tour America’s Biggest Celebration of Black Hair

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First of all, it smelled like hair. Lots of it.

The Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show, the country’s largest professional beauty event geared toward women of color, took place in Atlanta over the weekend. Sponsored by the 68-year-old beauty-product brand Bronner Bros., the show attracts several thousand mostly black and mostly female hairstylists, makeup professionals, and beauty entrepreneurs who pay $20 to $150 to attend each year. 

The swirl of seminars and presentations is designed to offer them career development and networking opportunities while tapping into the reported $500 billion buying potential of the black-hair-care industry. "I come every year, twice a year," says stylist Ashley Anderson. "It helps you stay ahead of the game." And the contests, which range from wild hair sculptures to intricate nail art, give beauty artists a chance to show off their skills.

The world of cosmetology looks quite different now than it did in 1947, when Nathaniel Bronner Sr. realized that the beauty products in his sister Emma’s shop were selling faster than copies of the newspaper. Nathaniel and his brother Arthur Bronner Sr. started teaching classes at an Atlanta YMCA, and the trade show evolved naturally from there. The first incarnation hosted 300 attendees — no small feat for a pair of African-American men in the Jim Crow South. Today, the biannual shows see upwards of 22,000 visitors from as far away as China, Japan, and Holland.

“We want every show to be better than the last one,” James Bronner says. “I analyze everything." He has to, because the trends are always changing. These days, rising consumer interest in natural hair has resulted in lower sales for salons dedicated to extensions (weaves) and chemically treated hair (perms).

While previous events were open to the public — viewers of Chris Rock’s doc Good Hair might recall scenes from one show — attendees have recently pushed for a more industry-centric vibe. Now only licensed cosmetologists and related vendors can purchase tickets, and much of the day is focused on education. Classes above the main exhibit hall cover everything from the business of importing hair to fast cut techniques.

Back down on the main floor, energy is high. Exhibitors pass out samples; every free hand gets a flyer pressed into it. And all around, you see weaves of all colors, fades of impressive heights, twists and 'locs, fros, and perms. Welcome to the world of Bronner Bros. hair.

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