Jamaicans everywhere are celebrating their country’s 50th independence anniversary this year. And among them is Kemeel Azan, who is also marking a significant milestone of his own.
In 1962, when Jamaica severed ties with Britain, he took a major leap, opening a hair dressing salon here in Toronto.
Fifty years later, Azan’s Beauty Salon is an established landmark in the community and one of the very few Black businesses to have withstood the test of time.
The pioneer in Canada’s Black cosmetic industry recently celebrated the golden anniversary with his family, staff and customers.
“I was looking for a hairstylist back in 1973 when a co-worker at Bell Canada where I worked at the time mentioned Azan and said I should try this salon,” said Joan Pierre, who attended the celebration. “For the past 38 years, I have been washing, conditioning and cutting my hair at Azan’s and the entire process takes just an hour.
“What I like about the salon is that the staff is very professional and the proprietor is warm and extremely approachable. He makes you feel as if you are a family member and not a client.”
With merchandising skills he inherited from his father, Azan arrived in Canada from Jamaica in 1957 at age 19 and worked briefly as a gravedigger and 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 said. “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,” said Azan, who has been married to his wife, Madge, for more than 50 years. “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 Avenue. 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 Road.
With 43 employees, Azan was enjoying immense success when he closed the establishment. It would be another five years before he reopened in 1993.
“I was burnt out at the time 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. Nineteen 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 parentage 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.”
Khalil Azan says he’s extremely proud of his father’s accomplishments.
“I plan to continue the legacy of hair care that my dad began and I look forward to continuing to serve Black women in Toronto for years to come,” he said.
Actress Tonya Lee Williams has been a client of the salon for the past 38 years.
“Mr. Azan has been the single most instrumental individual to change the face of the beauty salon world in Canada,” she said. “I trust my hair to no one else.”
Azan said he has relished every step of the journey in a career that he stumbled upon.
“Little did I know then that it would become my passion,” he said. “I was an immigrant boy looking for work when I probably should have gone back to school…What is even more satisfying is that I was told when I started this business that Blacks don’t support their own. Today, I am at a point where I could never have been more supported by a people that are so amazing.”
Historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor said Azan’s is an important cornerstone in the Black community.
“When a Black person said 50 years ago that he was going to start a business, people would have thought he was crazy because our people did not have any capital,” said Taylor. “This business was built from the ground up and it’s something you can take to the bank. It’s unprecedented.”
By RON FANFAIR