If you think about some of the most innovative, gorgeous hair looks of your favorite celebrities, there’s a solid chance Ursula Stephen’s hands were involved. The star stylist is the talent behind any number of Rihanna’s most iconic and shape-shifting looks, and, in recent years, has helped create the same chameleon-like persona for Zendaya, in addition to a bevy of other celebs.
Stephen, who owns a highly successful eponymous salon in Brooklyn, N.Y., is also a global ambassador for personal care juggernaut Unilever, which invited The Glow Up backstage during Fashion Week to see Stephen’s mastery at work, designing the looks for two black-helmed labels with the help of brand partner Tresemmé.
First up? Maki Oh, where Stephen mixed earthy style with an urban edge, creating a signature look with what she described as “a modern take on a dominatrix-esque theme with the addition of the face-framing finger waves.” Wrapping fabrics from Oh’s line around sleek ponytails, Stephen played with one of our favorite homegrown beauty motifs, meticulously styling models’ baby hair into micro-finger waves.
The effect? Bohemian Bae, the perfect complement to the eclectic array of looks Maki Oh sent down the runway on Monday afternoon.
At Studio 189, the Ghana/America-based label co-founded by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah that promotes African style and artisans, Stephen and her team got playful, teasing out the individuality of each model’s individual texture, as Stephen explained to The Glow Up.
“Typically, when you see shows, people are wearing the same look,” she said. “But one, when I walked into the fitting and I saw that the clothes were so African-inspired, and a lot of color, it would’ve been so easy to just go into the braids. I wanted to elevate the look a little bit more and just take it to another place...[We’re] kind of playing off of what they have—if they have natural hair, we’re just kind of having fun with it and creating amazing shapes. If they have straight hair, we’re making it look very shiny and healthy...we’re just having fun.”
Of one of the most striking looks, a reverse-cornrowed style crowned with a burst of naturally-textured bangs (above right), Stephen explained, “the whole oxymoron on this is still having the cultural take with the braids, but also having the fringe. Who says you can’t have a fringe with natural hair? So, that’s how I wanted to show the elevation of kind of a cultural look.”
And while Tresemmé isn’t a brand most of us readily associate with creating natural styles, Stephen had the entire product line in use during the show, depending most heavily upon the Compressed Micro Mist Hair Spray Hold Level 4: Extend, “because I need everything to hold in place,” she said.
But for curly styles, Stephen surprisingly also recommends mousse. “People always forget about using mousse,” she said. “I think with the whole natural hair movement, people have been going into like, creams and lotions, but mousse is kind of one of the original curl enhancers, and it’s one of my favorites in the line because it dries quickly, it doesn’t weigh you down, and it gives you a good hold without being too crunchy; you can kind of go back and reapply.”
The results of Stephen’s ingenuity with textures was a literal stream of natural hair inspiration on the Studio 189 runway—along with some pretty gorgeous, all-inclusive clothes with major African flavor. (Seriously, though; we want all the things.)
In addition to creating the looks for Maki Oh and Studio 189, Stephen also readied longtime client Zendaya for her Sunday night runway show at the Apollo, as well as styling musician H.E.R.’s already legendary tresses this week. And though Fashion Week is winding down, Stephen’s momentum will undoubtedly continue.
“I don’t want to think about it,” the Unilever global ambassador laughed, speculating about an upcoming annual Unilever event and a booking in Rome following her whirlwind week. “Fashion Week is when you always get booked last minute,” she added.
As for the talent Stephen booked for Fashion Week, it was refreshingly a predominantly black team, of which the celebrity stylist said plainly:
“I’m a person that doesn’t really look at color—I see hair as texture, not as color—but I also want to have a team behind me that knows what they’re doing and how to execute it,” she said. “A lot of times when I’ve done shows in the past, it’s been hard to get people who know how to braid—culturally, that’s really kind of our thing. I wanted to make sure that everybody that I had on my team was able to execute what we needed because you work double-time if you don’t have that. So, it’s just mission accomplished for me to really get a strong team.
“We have to know [how to do all types of hair],” she added. “We don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do that texture.’ If we don’t, we’re out the door, you know? That’s our only chance, so...we in here.”