On a warm Tuesday two weeks before Christmas, Adrienne Hughes Montgomery was booked solid. In two hours, she saw five women, including Sharonda, who wanted her thick curls relaxed; Tracey, who needed a new style before her company took headshots; and Dannitria, whose dyed red curls would soon be braided tight, replaced by a wig’s sleek, shiny locks.
As Hughes, 43, hustled between clients, a TV in the corner of the salon played Netflix movies. The salon was relatively quiet that day, she said. But quiet still meant the roar of a hair dryer, the laughter and chatter of customers and Sandra Bullock sometimes sobbing on the TV.
Hughes finished trimming Tracey Rouse’s hair after her quick weave.
“That’s pretty!” the client gushed. “I’m pretty!”
Hughes smiled, then showed her how to use a bobby pin to sweep it back off her face for Rouse’s company headshot the following day.
“You see?” she asked.
“Yup,” Rouse said.
“You got it?” Hughes double-checked. Rouse gave her another “yup.”
“Is that perfect?” Hughes asked. Rouse grinned and nodded.
For years, Hughes lived two passions – teaching full time and hair styling on the side – but around a decade ago she decided to allow herself the opportunity to try styling for good. She loved teaching, and she still loves teaching, she says. But she comes from a family of barbers and hair stylists, and in many ways, she’s always been a stylist at heart.
By sixth grade, Hughes was styling hair for friends and family. In college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she was the campus beautician. And during the more than a decade she spent as an elementary and middle school teacher, Hughes continued to style hair on the side.
After four years of cosmetology school in the evening and teaching during the days, she got her license and started her styling business Panache Styles. These days, she rents a booth at Hair Angel Love in Bartlett, a cozy and cheerful salon owned by Angela Caster, where motivational phrases, such as “choose joy” and “be you,” adorn the walls. On a bookshelf, a sign reads “Behind every successful woman is herself.”
“I just wanted a change. I wanted to give myself a chance to do well in hair. I knew I had the ability,” Hughes said.
Bubbly and warm, Hughes (who recently got married but still professionally goes by Hughes) wears her own curly blonde and brown hair in a tapered, natural, short cut. Mondays she dons the blue and white colors of her sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, but every other work day she dresses in all black. On that Tuesday, she wore a black top with gauzy sleeves, black fitted pants, black combat boots and a black face mask, plus a pair of dangly silver scissor earrings.
She flitted between clients – washing curls, trimming a weave, curling a short cut – all while chatting and laughing with the women in the salon.
“My parents always said, ‘Girl you would talk to a stop sign!’”
Her days can be long, stretching into the evening, and the work is hard on her body, reminiscent of days on her feet teaching. She’s got plantars fasciitis in her feet and her back is regularly sore, so she makes sure to get a massage on Mondays, her regular day off.
By 4:30 p.m. that Tuesday, the only thing she’d had to eat or drink all day was one energy drink. Hughes wants to accommodate her clients, some of whom have been seeing her for decades.
Hughes is proud of her business, and has worked hard to structure it so she has health insurance and a retirement account. The nature of her work means long vacations can be tough, since if she’s not styling hair, she’s not making money, but she’s able to take long weekends here and there, and occasionally will vacation for longer.
At Panache, Hughes wants her clients to have healthy hair.
“A lot of times we have issues with our hair due to what’s going on with our body,” she said. Stylists, she noted, can suggest methods for improving scalp health or hair quality. And since her clients see her regularly, usually every week or two, she can tell when something’s not right and can recommend they see a doctor.
In many ways, she sees herself as a counselor, there to solve her clients’ hair problems and also listen to whatever else they’ve got going on.
“I have had clients break down …. I gotta hold them,” she said. “But you have to be there for them. People don’t want to tell all their business to all their friends. So you have to learn how to, you know, keep those good secrets and learn how to communicate with them and to make them feel good inside and out.”
Watching Hughes, it’s easy to see why her clients keep coming back. One woman needed a style to hold her over for just a few days; when Hughes finished curling her short hair, the client smiled. “You worked some magic,” she said.
Her years of teaching instilled in her a strong sense of community service. For the holidays, she’s asking clients to bring in donations for the YWCA, suggesting things like earrings and necklace sets, hair bonnets, throw blankets, gift cards and cash. In the past, she’s collected school supplies for children, and offers free styling to girls in need the day before school starts.
But Hughes isn’t satisfied with styling hair. She’s ambitious. Eventually she’d like to open her own brick and mortar salon. She’s writing a book on hair styling and in the next few months, she plans to get licensed to teach cosmetology. That would allow her to combine her passions and enable her to help other people help themselves, something she cares about deeply.
“I love to see people when they have a goal. I love to push them. I like to work with them, to get their stuff up here,” she said. “I’m going to be like, ‘Who else? Who’s next?’ And people be like, “You girl! You’re next! I need you to stop helping everybody else and help yourself!’ So now it’s going to be that goal for me to move Panache to the next level.”
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