For someone who stumbled into the profession five decades ago, it’s to his credit that Kemeel Azan continues to excel.
Considered a pioneer in Canada’s Black cosmetic industry, the founder of Azan’s Beauty Salon credits his success and longevity in the business to a simple philosophy.
“Never be selfish and always be willing to train and motivate young people because the industry is bigger than you are.”
And this is the advice he constantly gives other industry professionals.
“Being a good craftsman doesn’t mean you have to hold on to what you have without sharing it.”
Azan was one of three veteran hair stylists recognized with Master of the Craft Awards at the inaugural Multicultural Beauty Group’s (MBG) dinner and beauty show last weekend in Toronto.
With just some merchandising skills he acquired from his father, Azan arrived in Canada from Jamaica in 1957 at age 19 and worked briefly as a railway porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway even though he was under age for the job.
His arrival coincided with Canada’s demand for cheap unskilled labour and the introduction of the West Indian Domestic Scheme which allowed 100 Caribbean women to enter Canada annually. He saw this as an opportunity.
“I figured that these women that were coming in would have children,” he recalled. “I remember taking a woman to a salon where she had to wait in a line because there were 15 women ahead of her and they paid $4 each to get their hair done. At the time, that was more money than I wanted to make.”
Azan enrolled in Marvel Beauty School and, before graduating, was plucked by celebrity hairstylist Gus Caruso who died in 1982 at age 55.
“Gus dealt with the upper crust of wealthy women in Toronto and he thought I had tremendous talent,” Azan says. “But when I told him I wanted to do Black women hair, he tried to discourage me saying they are domestics and they don’t have money to support the industry. I, however, followed my dream and went to Perdue Beauty School in New York.”
With newly acquired skills and confidence, Azan returned to Toronto in 1962 and opened his first salon at 175 Spadina Ave. Two years later, he moved to 81 Bloor St. E. which was just a few blocks away from Caruso whose clients included Lady Mountbatten. In 1968, Azan bought a building on Davenport Ave.
At the peak of his career, Azan’s employed 43 stylists and the establishment was booming. However, in the late 80s he felt that he had enough and closed the business. It would be another five years before he reopened – in 1993.
“I was burnt out and didn’t have the skills to understand that I could manage my business,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that I was on the threshold of a dynasty and an amazing empire.”
When his son, Khalil, expressed an interest in learning how to style hair, he jumped at the opportunity because he always advocated that those in the business should willingly pass on their knowledge and skills.
“I have four sons and only two of them are in the business,” the one-time financial adviser to former world sprint champion Ben Johnson said. “I wanted all my children to be hairstylists because it’s a career that provides an opportunity for self-employment where you could be your own boss and it also allows for creativity. I have a great ability to teach and I fell in love with my passion again. Eighteen years later, we are running one of the finest operations in the world.
“We have a staff of 18 and the women who come to our salon are professional women, many of them born in Canada and the children of the same domestics that came through my door when we first opened. These are the most empowering women with high disposable income and they seek professional service.
“When you look at the industry today, the children of mixed parenting is a market that was not there when I first started. It’s a sector that’s very vibrant but I am concerned that Black hairstylists could lose it.”
Actress Tonya Lee Williams, a longtime client of Azan’s, presented him with the award.
It was a bitter-sweet night for hairstylist Asha McLeod who was also honoured. One of her five brothers passed away earlier in the day.
Recognized as a global expert in the care and styling of Black and super curly hair, McLeod migrated to Canada from Trinidad & Tobago at age 13. She spent several years in the late 1970s perfecting her craft in New York before returning here to establish Jazma Hair Inc. in 1983 and its Advanced Training Academy that offers master classes to stylists from around the world.
Shirley Wu of Beauty Concepts was the other award winner.
MBG’s chief executive officer Gloria McLeod said the recipients fully deserve the recognition.
“When you look at someone like Mr. Azan, he’s a trailblazer and someone who has given so much to this industry,” said McLeod. “They have all made significant contributions in our business.”