The Braided Life Preserves and Uplifts the Black Community in Austin
Founder Milly Fotso is creating a welcoming environment for Black Austinites to gather in the East Austin braiding salon
By Meher Qazilbash
Photos by Kayla Davis and Tumi Adeleye
A hair salon can be a life-changing place. You can find confidence, friendships and even therapy when going to get your hair done. Milly Fotso, the founder of The Braided Life, recognizes the power of hair establishments and utilizes it for good.
The Braided Life, also known as The Braided Haus, officially opened in East Austin in November 2021. The braiding salon particularly aims to reclaim and revive the Black hair experience with a focus on Black women, trans and nonbinary people.
Their newly adopted motto is “One Rule: Do You,” emphasizing their mission to reshape the narrative surrounding Black hair by encouraging playfulness. Instead of associating the process of getting your hair done with complexes, shame or stigma, they want hair to be seen as a fun form of self expression. As they create stunning hairstyles, The Braided Life is also bonding Austin’s Black community together and offering a support system.
Fotso discovered the art and power of braiding early in her life. Born in Cameroon to a mother who was a braider by trade, she grew up surrounded by Black beauty and women with hair like hers. Fotso experienced significant change at age five, after a big move to Manhattan, Kansas. After the disappointing revelation that the Manhattan they had moved to was much smaller and less diverse than they’d imagined, Fotso became keenly aware of the differences between her and her peers. When Fotso was seven years old, her mother passed away, intensifying the absence of connections to the Black community. Then, refuge came in the form of braiding salons.
“Really, the only place I could connect with my roots, both my Cameroonian roots and then after my mom passed, with just other Black women, was when I was getting my hair done,” shares Fotso. “That was also the only time when I felt validated in my beauty, growing up in predominantly white spaces.”
Before The Braided Haus, Fotso had always dreamed of creating something for Black women in the beauty industry. She began working in marketing and sales at L’Oreal, and later shifted to a job in technology at Facebook. While she received external validation for being employed at impressive big-name brands, she did not feel a sense of belonging as a Black woman in these industries.
During the pandemic, Fotso returned to her roots and began braiding her hair again. It began a period of deep reflection and overcoming inhibitions. She decided to create her own purpose by making her own project, wanting to help prevent other members of the Black community from experiencing the lack of support that she had felt.
Fotso recognized the ever-sacred bond that exists between hair stylists and their clients and decided to build upon it. Remembering the value of her own experiences with salons, The Braided Life was born as a way to champion other Black people in Austin. It was especially important to place this destination in the East Side, where the Black community used to reside in greater numbers. She wanted to build on what once was, and keep members of her community together.
“The vision was to create this home, a home base for the Black community in this centralized space where people can feel like they belong and this is a safe space for them in Austin,” says Fotso. “This is my little piece in hopefully keeping more Black people in Austin.”
Building confidence and internal acceptance is the first step at The Braided Life. There is no discouragement. It’s a “yes” space, where boldness is favored over conformity. Colorful hair, whimsical accessories and unconventional styles are all common there.
“Hair is a way for us to rebel and say we are not conforming to what other people think we should look like. We are doing us and looking the way that we want to look,” shares Fotso. “I think that’s a very powerful form of resistance.”
Mental health is supported using tools that go beyond haircare. Relaunching in March is the Salon Sundays series, which encourages education, self-care and play through different event programming. Taking place every Sunday, events will include visits with Black therapists, yoga sessions, crafting sessions, cinema clubs and more. Salon Sundays are also opened up to partnerships with other Black-owned businesses to hold their own events.
“In the Black community, salons are often the central gathering place and the place you can go to be with your community,” explains Fotso. “We reimagined the salon experience to center those community aspects of things without requiring you to come and get your hair done.”
Honoring places of historical significance to the Black community in Austin is also deeply important to The Braided Life team. One spot in particular that they want to show love and appreciation for is their neighbor, Johnnie’s Antiques and Collectibles.
After reaching out to owner Dorothy Singleton McPhaul and her family, Fotso was deeply moved by her journey. Johnnie’s has been open since 1918 but is now struggling to keep its doors open in the face of the rapid gentrification of the East Side. In an effort to lend a helping hand and honor the exceptional shop, the team held a photoshoot in Johnnie’s that captures its story and envisions a bright future. These images now adorn the walls of The Braided Haus, serving as “a reminder of where we came from and where we’re going.”
The Braided Life will host a small gallery event on Feb. 25, where Fotso and photographer Tumi Adele will tell the story of their vision with the photoshoot and invite the owners of Johnnie’s Antiques to tell their stories as well.
Guests are invited to join them and celebrate Black History Month by recognizing the beauty that the Black community has brought to Austin.