Nikki Nelms may be known as a celebrity hairstylist, but the St. Petersburg, Florida native’s work is deeper than a simple bouffant here, a curled coif there. Nelms’s contributions to pop culture through her ornate hairstyles are major, including crafting a number of memorable looks for hair icons like Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe, as well as Yara Shahidi and Zoe Kravitz among many others. Her work has put natural hair in the spotlight in a different way, showing the versatility of it, as well as the creativity it takes to adorn such styles in everything from googly eyes stickers to jewelry.
We talked with Nelms about where she finds inspiration for her structured ‘dos, tips and tricks for trying to recreate those looks at home, and what styles she’s looking forward to seeing everyone, well-known to everyday woman, trying out for spring.
MadameNoire: What are the top three hair trends that you’re starting to see that you’re excited about for spring?
What are the tips you would offer people looking to create the ornate styles you’re known for? You play with a lot of different materials, from beads and safety pins to thread and even earrings.
I would say to just never discount anything. Go with your instincts and look at the total look. Search outside yourself. You just never know what you can use. You can use your earrings, you can repurpose things. I’m into that.
How did you get started doing that? Repurposing different materials in hair that is.
Well I always stick to the beat of my own drum. I guess one day that’s what the hand called for so I went with it. I’m not really a traditionalist when it comes to hair. I go with the moment. I think it started with going with the moment one time and other people saw it, they liked it, and it became a thing.
What are your favorite products to use on your client’s hair?
I love, because I do a lot of sculptural things or soft looks, I need products that provide health and versatility. So I like Sebastian’s Shaper Plus hair spray, which allows me to do something super sculptural as well as do a soft hold look. And I like to keep the hair hydrated with a light shine, not too greasy looking, so I like to use the Dark Oil collection, which is really, really good for that. Both from Sebastian: the Shaper Plus and the Dark Oil.
Who was the first client to be open to you doing some of the more structured pieces on their hair?
I don’t even know because I don’t look at it like it was a thing that I planned to do and it was like this moment I set out to create. I don’t remember. I was doing this kind of stuff from forever so I don’t know when it became a thing. Sometimes you’ll do something on someone and it will never take or get public recognition but that didn’t mean we didn’t do it and it wasn’t a hit for us. So I kind of don’t remember. I don’t know. Really, honestly, because I’ve been doing it since before people made it a thing. Like back in the day in music videos and when I was working and shooting a lot in Miami. But I don’t know who we could attach that too.
But everyone you work with now is like, “Yeah, do your thing!” They trust you to think outside the box with your styles?
Yep! Pretty much. I like to go off of whatever their vibe is and whatever the look is for the day wardrobe-wise. Then I kind of build on that and elevate it or pull back sometimes. You gotta know when to not do something. So they pretty much give me that. They trust my instincts because I kinda don’t like to pre-plan. I like to go with the moment because the moment will tell you what you need to do. So they trust me and I’m thankful [laughs].
Where do you find hair inspiration in the everyday?
Not that I’m looking for it, but when I see it I see it. I can get it from anywhere. I went on a hike the other day and I see a lot of things from nature and trees and shapes or just anything if you’re open to being creative. Anything can cause a thought or make you think, “Hey, this could work.” I believe if you can think about it, all you’ve got to do is figure out a way to turn it into reality. Use anything. You can draw creativity from a conversation you overheard, you know what I mean? You just never know. That’s the cool part about being creative or being open to being creative. It’s limitless.
What well-known Black woman from the past has worn styles that inspired you? I know when I look at the gorgeous braids you did for Solange with all of the beads for the video for “Don’t Touch My Hair,” it makes me think of Patrice Rushen. That may not have been your inspiration, but are there women from the past that you’re like, when I think about this person’s hair, I’m inspired?
I’ll say that I remember the first time I ever saw a Patti LaBelle hairstyle. I was fascinated at the way it could stand up with the stones and all of that. I just didn’t see anyone else doing that, so I’m always impressed with people who don’t mind, you know, doing their thing and taking a chance and not worrying about being like the rest. I’ve always been that way, even as a kid. Even now. When I started doing a lot of the hair jewelry, that was a real like, give me a beach wave moment. You weren’t seeing a lot of natural hairstyles being elevated and presented in a fashionable way a lot. Not that it wasn’t happening, it just wasn’t like the norm. Now it’s like, people who don’t have a certain textured hair are trying to have it because it’s so cool now or whatever. So cool to the world, [but] it’s always been cool to me. I’ve always been into people who can go against the grain. So I would say Patti LaBelle. I remember a freeze in time when I saw her. Even as a kid, I didn’t know I was going to do hair but seeing that I was like, wow! She looks so confident with her hair being so not like everybody else’s.
As somebody who puts so much thought into styles for other people’s hair, how do you provide care to your own hair as a stylist?
Uh…I don’t [laughs]. I don’t. And that’s that. Period. [laughs]. I’m going to work on it. I’m working on it. I just cut it all off the other day and I’m regretting it, but everybody seems to like it. My friends are calling randomly like, “Don’t even try to do anything else! Keep that.” I’m like, “Girl, I’ve been wearing a hat for like five days straight.” My clients, even Janelle is like, “You look so cute like that.” I’m like, oh well, should have taken a picture of it because it don’t look like that now. I look very handsome right now, that’s all I’ll say [laughs].