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Afro Envy 

One Burlington hair salon spreads the dreads

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Davey Ashcroft wants his straight, blonde, shoulder-length hair magically transformed into dreadlocks. “It looks cool,” suggests the 15-year-old from St. Albans. His mother, Frances, called eight salons around the state before finding a place in Burlington that could approximate the long, au naturel locks first introduced in this country by reggae stars such as Bob Marley.

When she phoned last week to make an appointment with James McMillan, owner of Diversity hair galon on Pearl Street, he assured her that Davey’s head would be in good hands.

“It’s a challenge,” the stylist acknowledges. “He might not require a perm. Perhaps we can do it by weaving in threads from Africa that eventually dissolve and with creams that help [the strands] stick together. Dreads are really popular. Now people have a place to get it done right.”

At 25, McMillan looks like a kid himself, but he was savvy enough to open a business five months ago that fills a particular void in Vermont: a salon for the growing African-American community, and anyone else interested in cutting-edge cuts that eventually migrate from urban to rural areas. A promotional tag line on one of Diversity’s radio spots advises, “When your hair says small town, get your hair looking downtown.”

McMillan’s personal geography began at a housing project in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, where his parents battled “dependencies” and his childhood provided many hurdles to growing up as a solid citizen. “One day when I was about 12 or 13, my mother gave me money to buy a winter coat,” he recalls in a soft-spoken voice that betrays no emotion. “I decided to get a less expensive one and spend $15 on a hair clipper with attachments. I figured it would be a legal way to earn some cash by giving my friends haircuts for $5, instead of $10 at barbershops where there was a one- or two-hour wait.”

His first client was a pal named Phillip, who wanted a “p” carved into his hairdo. Before long, McMillan had designed a basketball player doing a slam-dunk, and could replicate a Yankees logo for baseball fans. “I was experimenting,” he says. “That’s where it gets creative and separates you from the next guy.”

Meanwhile, as an eighth grader with 12th-grade reading abilities, McMillan was attending a school for gifted children. “I was trying to stay out of trouble, but my friends and I were the misfits there,” he says.

Thanks to a summer session in which he studied religion, the teen started thinking about his choices in life. “It was a turning point,” he explains while trimming the bearded jaw line of a regular customer.

After some rough false starts, he wound up at school where nobody knew him as a troublemaker. “It was a terrible place, with 1978 textbooks, metal detectors and body searches,” he says. “But I started paying attention in class. Then I realized the work was what I’d already learned in the gifted school.”

McMillan was 15 when a guidance counselor recommended a place that coaches students for the exam leading to a high-school equivalency degree — a test he aced without any help from the program. That allowed him, at age 17, to attend the State University of New York in Binghamton, where he majored in business.

But McMillan’s financial aid could not cover all his costs and, by then, he had a daughter to support. Among other gigs, he was hired by a barber, and later offered haircuts from his own home. “There was no place else in Binghamton people could get these types of styles,” he says.

McMillan spent three years in Florida working at a salon. There, a friend who had lived in Vermont encouraged him to visit Burlington. “I came for a week and liked it. It’s a college town like Binghamton, but there are more hippies and a better view.”

Wanting to open a full-service salon of his own, McMillan put together a business plan, found an investor and tapped his own savings — largely earned by selling long-distance calling plans for Excel Communications. For $20,000, he bought a defunct beauty parlor on the corner of Pearl and George streets, and renamed it Diversity.

McMillan has plans to renovate the rectangular shop with its old-fashioned wooden floors and exposed brick wall. Clients from as far away as Brattleboro and Plattsburgh frequent the waiting room. A Vermont vanity license plate hanging over a mirror reads, “DABARBA.”

On a busy Saturday afternoon in late March, Yohanna Briscoe has trekked from Jeffersonville for a row of tight braids that extend about a third of the way back from her forehead. “We went for years with no place to go,” says the 14-year-old girl’s father, Mike. “We’d have to travel to other states or make do at home.”

One of Diversity’s three part-time stylists, Jamaica-born Sandra Forskin of South Hero, works on Yohanna for an hour to achieve the effect. “Braids are coming back big-time,” she observes. “School-age kids like it partial. The natural look — Afros — is also popular again.”

Ditto for “fades,” the almost-nothing-in-back, hardly-anything-on-top variation on the crew cut favored by males of all ages and ethnicities these days. McMillan prides himself on being able to make the line of demarcation disappear between the almost-nothing and the hardly-anything. Kent Bonds, who comes in every two weeks for this tonsorial abracadabra, praises the technique: “He does me a great job,” says the Essex resident.

Another regular, Bosnian immigrant Madija Gubic thinks McMillan’s fades are the real McCoy. “Nobody else around here knows how to do it,” he asserts.

Susan Holton, a trained cosmetologist who’s been working at Diversity for four months, suggests that most other salons are imaginative. “Schools just teach you the basics,” she suggests, “and then throw you out there.”

Diversity, which also offers massage by appointment, has grown enough to warrant expansion. McMillan, whose intense brown eyes appear to miss little, wants to hire another stylist as well as a nail technician.

McMillan considers his master-barber abilities among the skills recommending him for greater success in life. He’s something of a renaissance man — a Golden Gloves boxing champion, a shotokan karate teacher, a songwriter, an occasional model and actor, and the father of two young children. He’s also trying to establish a not-for-profit youth center in Burlington.

He hopes to keep evolving as an entrepreneur as well. In McMillan’s future, there might be a Diversity Spa that he can oversee with fewer hands-on responsibilities, while exploring other business ventures. “I’m a really simple guy,” he demurs. “I’m not materialistic, but you can do more for other people when you have something.” Until that happens, McMillan remains a wizard with clippers.

“You the guy that does the dreadlocks grooming we heard about on the radio?” asks Adam Hineman, explaining he’s a walk-in willing to take a chance on the place. “My girlfriend has dreads.”

When Hineman indicates he’s open to anything, McMillan seems to intuit what the customer really wants and immediately starts working on a fade. How did he know?

“I have to be diplomatic,” he says. “I had an older man with straight, brown hair come in and ask for something extreme. That’s a relative statement, of course. I ended up giving him all sorts of designs — funky lines and a star in the back — and coloring it an auburn-red. He was happy.”

McMillan jokes that he’d be willing to include the words “I love you” in the fade to please Hineman’s dreadlocked girlfriend. He finishes the haircut by advising to never brush against the grain of a cowlick — Hineman has several — because that only makes it more unruly. “You can’t fight it,” McMillan says with a dimpled smile. “Become one with the cowlick.”

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