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Asha McLeod – Nourishing and Styling Black Hair Textures Since 1985

Fact checked by Charmaine Gooden

Running a business is hard enough. Add to that a Black woman running one in Toronto’s prestigious Yorkville neighbourhood.  That’s a whole different story. Home to some of Canada’s most expensive real estate, restaurants, boutique hotels and world-renowned designer labels, Yorkville is known for attracting the “elite” crowd, like Drake, whose favourite restaurant is Sotto Sotto.

And just off Yonge Street, right in the hub of high-end shops, is Jazma Hair Inc., the salon that opened its doors in 1985 and has, from day one, been dedicated to quality hair styling and the nourishment of natural Black hair.

By 1993 they outgrew their original space and moved to 136 Yorkville Avenue, where they more than doubled their capacity and won the Arido design award. It’s also when McLeod, the only woman and person of colour, was inducted into the Guild of Hairdressers, Canada’s exclusive club of top hairstylists.

She’s won many awards, including the Master of the Craft Award and invitations to teach at the Bronner Brothers hair show in Atlanta and the Proud Lady in Chicago, two of the  biggest trade shows for the Black hair industry. She also teaches classes on new technologies in chemical relaxing.

Layered shag hairstyle by Jazma,Model Fleure Presner. (Photo courtesy of Asha McLeod)
Layered Bob hairstyle by Jazma. (Photo courtesy of Asha McLeod)

Early Life and Career

Growing up in Trinidad, McLeod watched her mother using relaxers and cutting and styling hair for clients from all over the Caribbean. At 13 she moved to Canada, working after school giving shampoos in a predominantly white salon, where washing, styling, and cutting was easier than Black hair textures.

After attending Paul Pogue Beauty School in 1972, McLeod received her hairdresser’s license in 1973 and met Frank Angelo. “He introduced me to his boyfriend, Blair James, who owned a salon on Scollard,” she explains, “I was interviewed and had to demonstrate my skills on a model.” They wanted her to start doing shampoos. “But I insisted I could cut and after he saw what I could do, I was hired at the Hair Cutting Place, which was a chain of salons Angelo owned at Simpsons,” says McLeod.

She admits working on white hair was easier and she gained a lot of experience. “I also made big tips and I was only a kid so, I tried to stay in that world for as long as I could,” she adds. “At the same time, I cut Black hair at home for two years.”

Even if she’d wanted to have Black clients at the salon she couldn’t. The products weren’t available, the appointments took too long and, frankly, the other workers made fun of Black hair texture.

Her mother worried she’d stop doing Black hair as she was becoming a top hair cutter at a white salon, so she took her to New York to apprentice. She worked under two top stylists, Felipe Batiste and John Atchison, whose clients included Black celebrities like Beverly Johnson and the Cosby’s. The duo were masters of cutting and styling Black hair, but weren’t technicians, so the specialized hair care which Black hair needs remained a concern.

UpDo hairstyle by Jazma, Model Tasha, Photo courtesy of A McLeod
Low chignon hairstyle by Jazma. (Photo courtesy of Asha McLeod)

 

 

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I insisted I could cut and after he saw what I could do, I was hired at the Hair Cutting Place, which was a chain of salons Frank Angelo owned at Simpsons.

Breaking Barriers

In 1979 McLeod returned to Toronto, having spent her time in New York well, becoming known as an exceptional stylist who could work magic with a pair of scissors.

Angelo had, by then, bought Bruce of Crescendo, a chain of high-end salons in downtown Toronto. “I told him I wanted to continue working on Black hair,” she explains. “Frank, who wanted to introduce Black hair into his business, hired me to train the salon managers and stylists.” 

McLeod also trained them in doing photo shoots for marketing. Frank Toskan, Angelo’s boyfriend, was the photographer. During those shoots, Toskan and McLeod would discuss the lack of make up for Black women.  Around that time, McLeod adds,  they met with singer Gladys Knight and launched Knight Hair Care at Simpsons downtown.

The training was challenging. It’s difficult for stylists experienced with white hair to understand the emotions involved with Black women and hair, and not all the stylists were interested. They also had a problem with how much longer it takes for Black hair, and the much higher costs of products. So servicing black and white clients in the salons didn’t work well either.

This motivated McLeod to approach two manufacturers at a show in Buffalo for distribution rights to Elasta and Gentille products, which her husband, Ronald McLeod received. While she did the educating on how to use them, her husband sold them to salons.

The harder she worked, the more convinced she became that she needed to open a salon that catered to Black clients, focusing on health, rather than the beauty standards usually imposed on Black hair. “My brother who’s a chemist, and my husband, Ron, taught me which chemicals and ingredients should and shouldn’t be used on black hair,” explains McLeod.

They’re the brains behind the theories that Black hair is thirsty and needs water, not oil, that relaxers should relax the hair, not straighten it and should never touch the scalp, plus shampoos with salt as an ingredient are a no-no. They are also the co-creators of KeraSoft Products which, along with Wash & Wear Relaxer, were created to enhance natural textures. These principles are the heart and soul of Jazma.

“I knew it was up to me to offer Black people a salon where their hair is properly cared for, where the stylists and technicians are themselves Black, right here in Yorkville where it had never been attempted before,” says McLeod. The chance she took paid off and she became a staple in the neighbourhood, known for her dedication to hair care and her passion for promoting healthy natural hair for Black people in Toronto.

Even if she’d wanted to have Black clients at the salon she couldn’t. The products weren’t available, the appointments took too long and, frankly, the other workers made fun of Black hair texture.

Influence and Legacy

Jazma’s Yorkville location attracted celebrities and they were favoured with visits from Patti Labelle, Alfre Woodard, Kerry Washington, the musician Prince and star athletes like Shaquille O’Neal.

A celebrity in her own right, McLeod’s been featured in Essence Magazine, interviewed for a Vogue Magazine issue on hairstyling techniques, Salon Magazine, Canadian Hairdresser and more.

Staff and clients also sing her praises. “I’ve worked with Asha for over 20 years; and everything I know I learned from her,” says Zak, Jazma’s Creative Director and hairstylist. And Michelle, a client for 20 years says, “in my experience, we see a lot of emphasis on style, but not so much on the health and maintenance of hair. My goal was to find a hairdresser who could help me repair my hair,” she adds.

McLeod is a trailblazer in Toronto’s hair care industry. Her approach to hair care has attracted people from all walks of life to her salon. Her work in schools and for charities, teaching young at risk kids about hair and hair care, has inspired young students to care and love themselves through hair care.

Jazma Salon is located at 8 St. Joseph Street, where McLeod and her team continue to foster a community for Black individuals looking to love and appreciate their hair.

The next generation being trained (Photo courtesy of Asha McLeod)

I knew it was up to me to offer Black people a salon where their hair is properly cared for, where the stylists and technicians are themselves Black, right here in Yorkville where it had never been attempted before.

About the authors:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

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Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

About the author:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

Archive of images at BFC:

She's the globally recognized founder of Kerasoft Hair Care products and co-owner of the prestigious Jazma Hair salon.

She’s recognized globally for Kerasoft Hair Care products and co-owns the prestigious Jazma Hair salon

NameAsha Maharaj McLeodBirthMay 14th 1955BirthplaceSan Fernando, Trinidad and TobagoEthnic OriginTrinidadianOccupationsMaster Hairstylist, Creator of Kerasoft Hair Care Products, Wash & Wear Relaxer System.Websitejazma.comShare

2 Comments

  • Michelle Gosling
    Posted 31 August 2023 at 7:03 pm

    Congratulations Madame Asha! Infinite blessings!

  • Miki Wright
    Posted 1 September 2023 at 10:13 am

    This is a fabulous article Asha! You are such an Icon and Trendsetter in our Industry! Thank you! 🙏🏽❤️✂️😍

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