Sylvie Makela Is on a Mission

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October 27, 2020

Photography by the talented Jagoda Wisniewska.

On the urging of a mutual friend, I reached out to Sylvie Makela this summer. In this line of work, we’re always looking to share stories of local business owners who are bringing something new and innovative to Lausanne, using their talents and time to enrich our common life.

Sylvie, I was told, was someone I absolutely had to meet.

 

Poised and with a presence that punches far above her stature, Sylvie greeted me at the door of Tribus Urbaines, a hair salon with a particular focus on women with curls and frizz that she’d launched two years prior with friend and business partner, Carine Foretia. With a big laugh and sparkling eyes, she exuded confidence and warmth, the sort that puts you at ease instantly. As I settled in with my pen and notebook and started to drill into the questions I’d prepared, she returned each one with a question about my story, who I was, and what I believed about the world.

“I’m here to interview YOU,” I reminded her coyly. What I hadn’t yet realized was how this ability to connect, to lock eyes, and show deep interest is part of her magic.

That standards of beauty in our world are twisted, unrealistic and deeply harmful to women is so widely accepted that it’s nearly cliché. Even women who have made great strides toward confidence in their careers and social opportunities, find themselves perpetually an adolescent girl in front of the mirror. The effort we go to in order to reshape our bodies, give movement to our hair, and adjust our skin tone to just the right shade of “healthy,” requires time and money that keep women away from the activities that make life most fulfilling.

How much more complicated is it then when, for woman of African descent, these standards are literally impossible without toxic chemicals?

What if we could go beyond the cultural critique of beauty standards and replace them entirely? What if we could create a place where women could examine and accept their natural beauty and truest identities in community? Sylvie’s already sparkling eyes glimmered as she painted the visual. And what if it started with hair?

Born in Kinshasa, Congo, Sylvie immigrated with her family to Switzerland at the age of two, where she embraced her Swiss culture, excelling in the school system and following the path that would lead to university, career, marriage, and motherhood.

Like many of us, performing to predefined standards had left her ill equipped to ask the hard questions about whether or not the format truly fits and what was best for her individual flourishing. Or simply what it meant to be a black woman in famously homogeneous and traditional Switzerland.

By university, she’d already spent years chemically straightening her hair, trying to fit into the mold of what she’d been told was ideal for a woman of African descent living in a European country. But uneasiness had settled in. She started reading Maya Angelou and admiring the audacious style and casual confidence of African American women who fully embraced their identity, allowing their hair to grow on a natural trajectory toward the sky rather than chemically forcing it downward.

It was the start of a process that would gradually lead her to take the leap toward entrepreneurship and evangelization of a sort of radical self-love that Lausanne hadn’t yet seen. Hair was both a tangible example of a personal tension as well as a metaphor for an existential struggle to accept herself and be accepted by the only culture she’d ever known.

After several attempts to stop straightening her hair, her doctor finally gave her the last nudge she needed to go all the way. Pregnant with her second child, she urged her to consider how the chemicals used in the straightening products could be toxic for her baby. Motherhood has a way of forcing a reexamination of our reflexes and giving meaning to our choices, Sylvie explained.

But even her healthy choice was met with resistance. On the one hand, her African community thought she was “letting herself go” and reminded her that straight hair was more feminine. Traditional African salons in Lausanne only offered chemical treatments, weaves, and braids. Going natural would mean living in tension with the community that looked most like her. On the other hand, non-African salons had no idea how to style her kinky hair and didn’t offer any of the products that would help her achieve a look that would give her confidence.

To this day, the CFC training offered by the Swiss hairdressing schools is always on straight, “normal” hair. There’s no course offered for curly or kinky textures.

Like all the best stories of entrepreneurship, this one originates with a problem that only passion and superhuman determination can solve. And in the case of Sylvie, Carine, and Tribus Urbaines, it starts with hair. But it doesn’t end there.

The ultimate vision is to be a place where women can come together in community to work out those delicate, philosophical questions of identity, beauty, and acceptance – a sort of “salon” in the 18th century French conception of the term. To that end, at Tribus Urbaines you can also find literature by women that tackles these themes, as well as clothing, home goods, and self-care products by small brands that share the ethos of its founders.

As we finished, I shifted uncomfortably to a question that had been growing in my mind over the course of our conversation. 

I may be white (even too fair by current beauty standards), but my own wavy mop of a mane had long been a source of discomfort for me, ending most of its days in a ponytail of defeat. “It’s wavy in some places and straight in others,” I explained, exasperated. “The problem is all this volume, volume, volume!”

In short: “can I come?”

Her eyes sparkled – “YES. This is a place for everyone.”

And I will go. Because at 36 with young children, a young business, friends, community and a LIFE that I want to invest in, I simply don’t have the time to offer that inner adolescent girl the satisfaction of self-critique.

I know from my own experience, that if you talk to any truly confident woman – or man, for that matter – you’re likely to hear a story of painful, fiery, refinement where the lies we’re told burned away and only the essential, true self remains. It’s a worthwhile process, but lord have mercy, it can hurt.

And what is more beautiful than confidence? Confidence can’t be bought; it can’t be injected; it can’t be lacquered on or stretch taunt across our faces. It’s the daily work of choosing to live in light of what is true. It’s a trained, thickened skin. An intentional, fashioned nonchalance.

And for women, it’s very often politically subversive.

With her life and her vision, Sylvie is inviting Lausannoises of all colors to reject the standard ideas of “normality,” to celebrate their natural beauty, and ultimately, to join a revolution.

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