By Wenbo Bai '16
What would you like?
I am headed to the Black Diamond Royal Library, but when I see a lighted booth in the middle of the usually grey and empty Nytorv plaza, I feel the irresistible, gravitational pull of curiosity. The booth looks more like a fancy trailer home—a strange, anachronistic structure among the cobblestones, complete with lights and a billboard that reads “Få en gratis hårstyling.”
I know one word and can deduce the other: gratis, which is free, and hårstyling, which I assume has to do something with the styling of hair. This, I think, must be too good to be true, even for Denmark. Free education, free healthcare, and free hairstyling during Copenhagen Fashion Week? I walk up to the queue outside, which consists of a few people whose faces are buried in their scarves, seeking protection against the late January weather; it has just begun to hail.
“Free?” I wonder aloud. “Anything?”
“Anything you’d like,” says a worker who has just emerged from inside—a volunteer, perhaps. She has thick eyelashes and wears a black Fashion Week t-shirt. “Just no cuts or dyes.”
Who’s paying for this? I want to ask, but the question dies at the back of my throat as she hands me a paper bag with a full size hair spray inside. Perhaps I’ve already paid enough taxes during my first two weeks here (mainly through Danish pastries) to fund the entirety of this hair styling. My interest in seeing the Royal Library is replaced by anticipation as I run through all possible hairstyle combinations in my head. The queue moves up; Eyelashes ushers me inside and tells me I’m number twenty.
Inside is a warm refuge, and it doesn’t seem at all like a booth set up in the middle of a plaza. The whole place is the size of a comfortable apartment, and is designed like a typical beauty salon. Eight stylists stand behind eight heads of hair with brushes, hairspray, and bobby pins in their hands, fingers flying, intensely concentrating. They all wear black, each with immaculate hairstyles of their own, and are surrounded by ambient lighting from the mirrors and the ceiling. Near the wall, runway scenes from Copenhagen Fashion Week play on a television and a cool, hip beat radiates from two DJs at a sound mixer, blending nicely with the hum of the blow dryers. Hair products leave a sweet, almost cloying smell hanging in the air, and plastic chaise chairs draped with fake furs litter the waiting area. Fashionably hygge, a Danish word that describes a feeling of warmth on a cold day. This is by far the nicest and most organized salon I’ve ever been to, I think as I sit down. The only thing that’s out of place is an abandoned paper cup of tea on the floor next to my chair, remnants of a previous client.
Eyelashes is at my service again. “What would you like? Water? Tea? Coffee?”
I am both flattered and bewildered. Do I deserve a free beverage? But I think of the cold cup of tea on the floor, discarded and forgotten, and I shake my head. She retreats to usher in more people from outside, where the wind has picked up considerably.
My initial giddiness fades as I realize free doesn’t come cheap—I wait for over an hour in the chaise chair. To pass the time, I watch the other people getting their hair done. Styles range from braided twists to bunches of tight ringlets. One man emerges from a chair in just ten minutes; his hair looks exactly the same as it did before. On the other side of the room, a woman has huge, elaborate curls piled on the top of her head. The hairstylists take their sweet time—one lady in the corner has been pampered for at least half an hour. But, I assure myself, that means I am also allowed to stay for however long I want.
The fashion week runway reel loops twice before they call my number and I stand up, finally. Eyelashes ushers me over to a backdrop for a “before” photo, and I try not to smile too indulgently. A tall woman with straight red hair, striking red lipstick, and killer bangs is my stylist. She introduces herself as Ida before draping me with a long apron.
“What would you like?” Her English is tinted with a Danish accent.
With the apron around my neck and the bright mirror lights in my eyes, I feel as if I’m about to order a lobster bake at a family restaurant. I tell Ida my ideas for my hair haltingly, waiting for her to correct me, giving her the chance to suggest something else—something better—but she doesn’t, so I am committed to my own idea.
Ida goes straight to work, deftly twisting sections of my hair with her fingers and clipping them to the side of my head. We chat lightly about the weather and Danes swimming in the canals during the winter. (“I’ve only done it once,” Ida admits as she takes a curling iron to my hair. “I’m not that hardcore.”) I also learn that Ida is a freelance hair stylist, and that she’s enjoying her current gig for Fashion Week because she can work amongst her colleagues—she typically works alone.
I feel a chilly breeze on my face and a photographer walks in, a comically large camera hanging from his neck. I keep him in the corner of my eye as he navigates through the styling area, the loud snapping of the lens momentarily drowning out the music. He stops by Ida, and I feel the camera pointing at the back of my head, which is currently a mass of curls and pins. Then the camera’s pointing directly at the mirror, straight into my eyes, and I don’t know how to arrange my face. Should I make eye contact and smile? Look away and appear haughtily indifferent? I settle for a half-grimace as he snaps away. Maybe this will be my big break into a hair modeling career.
I glance at the numerous brushing instruments on the table and notice clumps of blonde and brown hair tangled in the brushes, and I wonder vaguely about the cleanliness of Ida’s previous clients. But at the moment, I don’t care. My future hair, and this conversation with Ida, I decide, will be worth the risks.
My hair’s almost done. Ida unclips all the pins and tousles the curls. “One more thing.” She motions for me to flip my hair forward. I flip my head upside down and hear a muffled spraying sound as she spritzes the back of my head.
“Just a few more seconds,” Ida says calmly.
“No problem,” I reply, just as the fumes start burning my nostrils.
I flip my hair back and look at the mirror. I feel unrecognizable—my head is surrounded by a mane of flowing waves. I half expect them to fall into my lap and slink onto the floor. I earnestly thank Ida, constantly expressing my delight at my new image. She smiles at me before going back to greet the next person in the queue.
Eyelashes girl is back again. “Would you like to take a picture?”
“Stunning,” she sighs, and snaps another picture against the backdrop.
As I slowly make my way to the exit, I am very aware of my hair, of its volume, the sheer space it occupies. It acts as a soft, warm scarf around my neck. The artificial fluorescents above—the only source of brightness on this grey day—artfully throw bits of light in my dark hair. I am positively cozy. Fashionably hygge. I pause and look pensively out into the street for a moment, watching as passersby peer curiously into the booth. I wonder if they can see me. With my embellished hair, I feel like the poster child of this styling event, and I half expect the photographer to pop up and start snapping photos again. I have a strange sense of power and elatedness, yet I feel oddly grounded. I want to stand in the booth forever, looking out haughtily into the square. But I’m also eager to walk out and turn some Danish heads, garner fervent whispers: Is she part of fashion week? I walk out purposefully, pretending that all eyes are on me as I open the door.
I step outside and am instantly pummeled by gusts of wind that whip my newfound curls around my face and force dormant pockets of the saccharine hair spray into the air. A sweetness scattered to the winds. Bit by bit, my curls are lost to the air, and I wonder if even the photographer would have recognized me. My transformation will have only existed in that fleeting moment in a booth, nowhere else. By the time I struggle up to the doors of the Royal Library twenty minutes later, my hair is completely flat again, as if I had never met Ida, as if Fashion Week didn’t exist, as if I had never stopped in Nytorv.
From October 2015 Issue