A year ago, business partners and old friends Ama Quashie and Latoyah Lovatt received the keys to what was a shell of exposed brick, their vision was to open a new cleaner nail salon in the heart of Brixton, we meet Ama, name sake of the salon.
“Originally, I wanted to open a nail salon in Ghana, where my dad is from, but I did not think it would be feasible at the moment with me living in England full time.” It was quickly decided that if the salon were to open in London it had to be in Brixton where they both grew up, “Brixton has our hearts”.
Considering how much Brixton has changed since that point opening the salon in Brixton was an act of “coming home, reclaiming a little bit and creating a space that is inclusive to all.”
340 Coldharbour Lane is the first space that they saw, “I wanted to create a space very community orientated, Brixton is extremely gentrified, it’s changed a lot since we were in our school uniforms running up and down the main road, but we wanted to create a space that is as welcoming to new Brixton as it is to old Brixton.” They took this ethos into their branding, décor and art work “it is not a salon for one type of person, it is for everyone.”
“Everyone is welcome and most importantly everyone is treated equally, you can come with old friends or you can make new ones. There are moments when I am here, and people don’t even know each other, and everyone is getting on and laughing. I still do session work, now the salon is fully staffed I can step away and when I step back into the salon I can find out within minutes what is going on politically, socially and what everyone is watching on tv (at the moment its unsurprisingly Love Island ha) because everyone is talking about it. It can be an aunty from the estate across the road, having a chat with a fashion editor next to someone else and that is what I love.”
A distinct feature in the salon is the art wall, a gallery of prints and photographs, “it is about female empowerment and Brixton”, you could say a representation of the two women who have brought the Ama salon to life.
A gold frame houses a large print of Nelson Mandela when he visited Brixton in 1996 “I was one of the welcoming children in the rec who held up squares that made the South African flag, so we wanted that picture up there; we wanted to keep it as local as possible so there is a Windrush Couple from the sixties and the Ritzy with a quote on the day Prince died.” Other images are of Ama’s session work from fashion shoots, this wall, it feels, is a homage to the experiences that have made this project possible.
“There is nothing like Brixton in London, as much as it has changed, I still love it, it is multifaceted, multicultural, mixed class wise… It’s nice to come back to a place you grew up in.”
Setting up a salon in London seemed like a non-starter, but once they had chosen to open in Brixton, they realised there was a demand for a cleaner, more natural alternative, “There is mainly one type of nail salon in Brixton. My personally beauty regime in the last 7 years is full of cleaner products, without parabens, and in my fashion work I am known for amplifying the natural nail, so it made sense to continue that. I wouldn’t want to offer the public treatments or products that I wouldn’t want on me or my family.”
If you book a free-from treatment the team use Kure Bazaar nail polish which is 10-free (the highest free from polish produced), “We wanted the products to be as clean as possible.” They also offer a gel brand that is seven-free, vegan and cruelty-free.
The conscious choices do not stop there, the basic polishes are 3-free, and all the scrubs, balms and oils come from a UK based organic brand Pinks Boutique. “Most people comment on how fresh it smells compared to a normal salon because they are used to pungent smells related to monomer products, I think I’m nose blind now because I don’t notice! However, it’s always lovely to hear. It’s about choice and offering the customer another option.”
Every detail has been carefully considered and the finishes are kept as natural as possible; the table is custom made to get the perfect length and width constructed from metal and marble; the walls are treated plaster that naturally changes tone seasonally; the floor is real wood; comfortable leather chairs for staff and clients; custom made pedicure stations with dark green seats and gold taps. The earthy tones create a warmth in the space. “We wanted it to feel like a really nice curated living room, that your friend also does nails in.”
The response has exceeded expectation, their first weekend was fully booked within two days of announcing the opening. “The response has been amazing, other businesses have been so welcoming. During the building works the old guys across the road would ask questions about what we were doing, and I’d say we are opening a nail salon and they would wish us luck! Even when there are times where you think London has changed, Brixton has changed, there are these touching moments.”
“We’ve had such a mix of people – I love it! We have young girls who have found us through Instagram, who are looking for cleaner, more organic products and search us out; we have local people; a lot of men, different types of men, the ‘typical’ nail salon is seen as a very feminine space, but maybe because we looks like a front room, they don’t feel intimidated.”
Having had to negotiate the untethered categorisation of nail salon leases without the huge team of a big corporation there is a feeling that more could be done to help entrepreneurs in the area, “After our experience of setting this space up I feel that the council could be more supportive to first time businesses.”
On Mondays Ama is closed to the public, this time has been set aside for community focused activities. Once a month there is a podiatry clinic where sessions are run one-to-one at a reasonable price, with discounts for over 60s.
On other Mondays there are plans for more outreach work “For International Women’s Day we did a partnership with women’s prison services Stockwell and provided a nail bar for them. We want to reach out to St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Tulse Hill (where Ama and Latoyah met) and work with their students. The aim is to empower through the creative community and hopefully open up new opportunities. These are our roots and we wanted to give back.”
It is time for Ama to open, clients to arrive and the playlist, featuring Sade, Destiny’s Child and TLC to play.