I don’t know if you have noticed recently, but the women of Belfast are getting curls.
GHD hair straightening, a devoutly practised morning ritual, is fast succumbing to a tidal wave of vintage licks — the iconic Hollywood era has hit our hearts as well as our hair-dos, and a share of it has to be down to Clare Afshar.
Clare, who has set up the only vintage hair parlour, Vintage Rocks, in Northern Ireland had no doubt in her mind where she wanted to open it. She says: “I definitely wanted to open my shop here in Newtownbreda and not in town.
“When I first moved to Belfast when I was 17, I instantly fell in love with south Belfast and the feel of the area, and soon made it my home.
“There is so much stuff to do here, and a variety of places to visit without having to go directly into the city — there are great shops and parks. I felt that as I grew, the place grew with me. I really wouldn’t like to live anywhere else.”
In what some would describe as a ‘kooky’ business venture, Clare opened her lovingly 1950s decorated hair parlour earlier this year, across the street from a fishing tackle shop.
Hardly Hollywood Boulevard in her teenage homeland of LA, but no matter — her business has sparkled its way through the credit crunch and defied any business model currently studied at the University of Ulster.
Clare was born in London in 1979 to an Iranian bingo caller and Ballynahinch barmaid. She grew up visiting Portabello Road and Camden markets every weekend and when she turned nine years old, her family relocated to Los Angeles.
Clare’s first job as an early teen was working at her aunt’s hair dressing parlour. Her early memories of being a shampoo girl are reminiscent of the fictional place Frenchy, ‘beauty school drop out’ from the movie Grease, worked.
Clare says: “I loved the whole atmosphere of her parlour, and it has always stayed with me. My other aunt was a hairdresser over there too, so it was all around me. I used to race home from school to go to help in her parlour.
“In the States you actually need a licence to cut hair, it’s not like here in the UK. You have to study cosmotology at high school and you can only pass when you are 17. I found the course fascinating, and because of my connections in the trade I was lucky, I got my licence when I was 16.
“I had a great teacher too, he was meticulous about curls of the Hollywood bygone era, and a huge drama queen. He inspired me greatly to develop the style and keep it alive.”
Her father was quick to notice Clare’s talent and often voiced his hope that she would someday open her own shop.
The family crossed the Atlantic again to settle just outside Ballynahinch when Clare was 16, but when her father took seriously ill they brought him back to LA for treatment.
Clare said: “ He took cancer and had to have an operation. The doctors told us the result of the operation would mean he would never walk again. He was very sick, and we just all felt the UCLA hospital in LA would be a better place for him to get better.
“We are a very close family. I would go over to visit six months at a time — work during the day to help pay for his medical bills and insurance, then most nights I would stay with him in the hospital as he was so unwell.
“There was a small hair parlour in the hospital and I would pass it every day. I started to chat to them and in time they started offering me a little bit of work.
“A lot of the work involved working with people’s scalps to encourage re-growth after cancer treatment.
“Jackie, who managed the shop, made the most extraordinary wigs. It was an honour to work there, the work they did in helping to give confidence back to those going through the most horrendous treatment was amazing.”
Sadly, a few years later, Clare’s transatlantic trips to be at her father’s bedside abruptly ended, when he lost his long battle with cancer.
Clare continued her life in south Belfast, met her husband and settled in Four Winds, working in a number of salons in the city.
It wasn’t until she had her little girl Leila, that Clare started to think about creating her own parlour.
“When I had Leila I was off work, but my clients still wanted their hair done by me, so I would take home visits.
“I thought, one day I would love to do this, have my own place, the idea was shaping in my head.
“I also made my own hair accessories that I would sell to customers and they proved really popular too.
“When I returned to work after maternity leave my hours were cut |because of the effects of the credit crunch.
“I had a mortgage to pay and wanted to provide security for my little girl so I decided to transform our conservatory into a mini hair parlour.
“I did it and couldn’t believe how busy it was.
“And it was really personal, everyone loved it.
“It reminded me of when I first worked for my auntie back in LA.
“And everyone was taking to the vintage styles really well. I had also started doing a lot of fashion shows, and events for free around the city.
“I set up a little market and made £300 in four hours doing vintage hair-dos and selling vintage hair pieces that I had hand-made.
“At that time I was passing an empty little shop on the Newtownbreda Road every day.
“I kept looking at it, and eventually enquired to see who owned it. To my delight, the owners were happy to rent it out.
“When I was first shown around it I thought this was my baby. I just knew Belfast was ready for an alternative hair parlour.
“I knew it being first of its kind was a risk — some of my family were very worried about it. But the reaction I was getting from people from their styles I was doing, I just knew it was time.
“I gave my brother the call that he had been waiting for — like my father he had always wanted me to open my own parlour.
“The money he gave me was from my father’s will, and my husband and father-in-law started building work immediately and transformed the place. Within six weeks of getting the keys, I was working in the parlour four days a week.
“I was soon booked up a week in advance, and then took on my first employee in April this year.
“When I first approached my accountant with what I was doing he said, ‘You’re doing what? That’s in the middle of nowhere!’”
She chuckles: “He can’t believe my books now! The whole vintage look has taken off really well, but at the same time I didn’t want to fall into the niche.
“People have come into my shop who have never worn vintage — never knew they could have their hair like that.
“We do twists on the style and era, and do many contemporary takes on it.
“There is definitely a lot of glamour in Newtownbreda — in all ages. We have a lot of young customers and are extremely busy with doing hair for young brides. But at the same time, I have lots of older customers in my clientele.
“There is a local lady called Shirley who is our regular and in her 70s. She is our pin up girl and comes in every week. She is still very much in love with her husband and he would often come to collect her. When she was young she looked very much like Betty Davis, and she is still a starlet.
“She would tell us of the times when they had to draw on their tights with tea and eye liner when they went to meet their boyfriends. I could listen to these tales all day.
“We work opposite a nursery so we would get a lot of new mothers who look very tired, wanting to have a bit of glamour.”
Clare’s unconventional approach to business has even attracted the head of the advertising and marketing department at the University of Ulster. Clare explains: “I have been used as a case study. The lecturer at Jordanstown heard about my business eight times and all in non-conventional ways. When she interviewed me she told me I have created my own brand. She also asked me to do her hair for her wedding. So I guess word of mouth really works!”
The BBC also came recently knocking on her parlour’s door and filmed Clare at work for a new BBC educational programme called ‘Happening Here’.
But despite her busy schedule, Clare keeps to a four day week and devotes the other three to her three year old daughter. “I started all this for my little girl, so I could see her more and provide security for her future. I know I am so very lucky that it’s worked out so well — someone must be looking down on me.”