Rihanna with a cascading fishtail side braid. Eva Chen, the editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine, on Instagram with her purple locks woven into a slightly tousled crown braid. Allison Williams at an Emmys weekend party in a complicated French braid.
Once relegated to the beer halls of Oktoberfest, the girlish braid has shown surprising staying power since it began to reappear on New York streets (coincidentally or not) soon after the recession began, and it now blooms in ever more complicated iterations on red carpets and runways, commanding premium prices in salons. “Traditionally, women would think of braids as a kind of thoughtless hairstyle,” said hairstylist Ted Gibson. “Now they’ve crossed over to the fashion space.”
In July, Gibson opened a braid bar at the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ($35 for simple styles, $50 for “fashion braids”). And blowout salons like Rachel Zoe’s DreamDry are increasingly adding braided styles to their menu, recognizing that the style holds up better on frizz-prone women for whom smooth locks can be disrupted by a few raindrops.
“It’s understood that Thursday’s braid is sexier and more romantic come Saturday night,” said hairstylist John Barrett, who was in the forefront of the trend, opening a braid bar at Bergdorf Goodman more than two years ago, with styles starting at $50. “There’s a homemade chic element to the messiness. It’s not the blown-out, flatiron perfection that we’re used to. Maybe what we’re seeing is a reaction to that super-controlled look. These braids are very touchable and super feminine.”
Barrett said he had been inspired to open the bar after seeing young women with creatively plaited hair in his neighborhood near New York University. “Everywhere I turned, I saw everyday women with braids that exuded confidence and were full of personality,” he said. “I instantly thought to myself, these women are onto something big.”
Braids have long conjured a laid-back bohemian flair (think Bo Derek or Willie Nelson), but the new ones are as likely to be part of a Frida Kahlo-like up-do, more regal than carefree.
But the whole point of current braids is that there is no one right way to do them.
Over-the-shoulder fishtail braids first appeared on Alexander Wang’s spring 2010 runway, perhaps a reaction to the more artificial Crayola and ombré hairstyles of the moment, and as those have faded somewhat, braids remained. Tory Burch used fishtail pigtails in her Spring 2013 show and Karen Walker in her 2014 resort presentation.
At the fall 2013 Viktor & Rolf show, models sported disheveled crown braids that looked slept-in, feral and sexy. Face-framing wisps of hair blew in the wind as each model stomped toward the photographers. But at the Valentino couture show, the hair looked neat and demure with tightly woven braids and smoothed edges. The effect was restrained and prim.
Inevitably, these styles are messier on civilians’ heads. “I noticed the Viktor & Rolf style really caught on,” said Allen Wood, a stylist and educator at Bumble and bumble. “The trend continued and kind of exploded onto the street and the red carpet. Then our clients came in and wanted a crown of braids.” But women at home and in salons were pulling apart pieces of the two braids that create the crown to make the look even more undone, he said.
Alexa Rudolfo, a makeup and hair stylist who proved that the style had climbed like Rapunzel’s suitor to upper-income brackets by putting plaits in Ivanka Trump’s and Wendi Murdoch’s hair this year, credits its versatility. “It can be done with wet or dry hair,” she said. “The texture can be messy, frizzy or clean and perfect.”
Indeed there was a wide range of braids again at New York Fashion Week last month. Kenneth Cole, Naeem Khan, Rebecca Minkoff, Nicole Miller, Karen Walker, Mara Hoffman and (unsurprisingly) Zoe all featured them. Giles Deacon used them in his show during London Fashion Week as well. At Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, Guido Palau put their new richness at the forefront, creating a soft braided up-do and embellishing it with jeweled headbands and half-dollar-size gold-plated coins.
The romance and nostalgia of braids, whether at the crown or tossed casually into a chignon, also make them popular with brides. Barrett attributes this partly to their homemade, sociable origins. “We’ve had bridal parties, prom queen hopefuls and groups of everyday women come in looking for something fun,” he said.
For those prom queens and junior fashion fans, braids are perhaps the most fun beauty trend since DIY nails.
They are the most searched beauty topic so far this year on Teen Vogue’s website, said Elaine Welteroth, the magazine’s beauty and health director. “Particularly for back-to-school, braids are a great way of showcasing your personal style,” she said. “It doesn’t stop at your clothes; it extends to how you wear your hair. I think braids over all allow you to play with your identity a little bit and just have some fun and show off your creativity.”
Welteroth also pointed out that, when getting ready for school, nothing beats a cool hairstyle that you can do in less than five minutes.
As for more-mature women, Wood suggested that they might want to avoid the pell-mell look, as well as side-swept bangs that can potentially skew too young.
Face shape is just as important, Gibson said, adding that side parts and braids on the top and front, leaving hair out in the back, looked good on almost anyone.
But beware, Heidi hopefuls: “If you have a fuller face, milkmaid braids are not for you,” he said.