Photo: Courtesy of RadSwan
We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what’s “you”? These are some of the questions we’re putting to prominent figures in our column “How I Shop.”
Freddie Harrel’s smiley, bright approach to fashion made her blog beloved by many. Over the past few years, though, she’s stepped away from content-creating full-time in order to focus on something bigger: RadSwan (formerly known as Big Hair No Care), a direct-to-consumer synthetic hair brand that centers the Black experience and community.
To the French blogger-turned-entrepreneur, this corner of the hair care industry was interesting because it’s highly profitable, but its biggest customers — Black women — historically haven’t had a stake or say in it. She set out to create a premium product that elevates the overall experience of buying hair, because, as she says, “everyone has stories” about it: “The whole industry needs to be upgraded and also dignified. We can bring that.”
RadSwan specializes in premium synthetic hair, selling three different wig styles it calls Radshapes. “Black women, wherever we’re from, something we have in common is that we always change our hairstyle,” Harrel explains. “This is something that’s part of the fluidity, that’s part of our expression and that’s also how sisterhood is rooted into us, having spent so much time doing each other’s hair.”
Beyond offering better product (that its customers actually co-create with the brand), RadSwan wants to break the stigma that often follows conversations around artificial hair within the Black community. “We can revisit the conversation and really see ourselves for what we are: We’re shapeshifters,” Harrel argues. “We’ve always done that. I’m really excited about bringing better products and a much better product experience that has product education at the heart of it… that you don’t need to go to a hair salon [to use.]” It also wants to build, foster and cultivate “a community where hair is what brings us together,” through lifestyle and wellness-focused content, hosted on its platform. “There’s so much innovation that needs to be brought,” she adds.
Ahead, we talk to Harrel about the shift from dressing for the ‘gram to dressing for the office, the way her moves (first to London, then to New York) have shaped her style and more.
Photo: Courtesy of RadSwan
“I used to describe my style as a fashion burrito — a mix of everything: colors, shapes and patterns, wrapped into one. It’s quite eclectic. If you look at my style when I first moved to England, ten years ago, I used to wear rings and leather shorts, and that really felt like my style. I had a phase where I was wearing more loose-fitting things, like suits, that really felt good. It’s always been [that way], ever since I was young. Same with hair: You always have to change your hair every month. The way that you would plan your outfit, you’re also thinking about hair. It’s always been fluid.
“It’s just a natural way of self-expression. I went to a private school [when I was young] and I was one of the only Black girls. You’re always kind of like an alien because you have different hair every month. I had a lot less money than everyone else, too. In France, you have official sales twice a year — it’s not like in the U.S. where you have them all the time — in January and in the summer. At some point, we stopped having Christmas presents but knew that in January, we could go to the sales and my mom would be like,’Okay, take whatever you want, as long as it’s on sale.’ Then in July, for my birthday, I would go to the sales. My mom is a real bargain hunter. It has to be a good discount. That forced me to… be really creative. Then, I grew up with my cousins and sisters [and we’d] always be exchanging and mixing. But I think for me, it was [a way to] reinvent or explore myself every day, and I just kept that… I had so much fun. That really shapes a lot of my mood, the stories I tell myself.
“Right now, it’s whatever fits — dungarees and stuff. [Editor’s note: Harrel is pregnant.] But this time last year, it was high-waisted mom jeans. You can’t go wrong. They’re a nice fit, they’re not too long, they’re the perfect length. I don’t have long legs, so when I was younger it was always harder to find them. But now you can fold the hem… Yeah, a good pair of high-waisted jeans, a tucked-in shirt, brogues or loafers and a blazer. Those are definitely the things I love the most.
“The best jeans I’ve found are from Weekday. They’re not even expensive, but I find that they have the perfect color and they fit well. Gap does good ones, too. I like jeans from Sézane, the French brand. For shirts, Sézane all the way — my God, they have the best shirts and the best knitwear. For shoes, I have a pair of loafers from Finery that I love. It’s a UK brand. I don’t know if Finery does a lot of brogues, but those ones are out of this world. I’m only wearing trainers these days. I want to dress up.
“I have a lot of shoes and I really like shoes, but I haven’t bought shoes in ages because I feel like I can’t justify it. I have a lot that are still in boxes, since I moved again. I’m not loyal [to specific sneaker companies,] but it’s always the same brands because the style — more retro. So I love Adidas, Nike, Saucony and Puma. The pairs of heels that I have, I really love them, even if I don’t wear them. Designer shoes, I think one day, I will have more money and I will definitely start getting into them, but that’s more if I can afford it — I don’t like them so much that I’m going to put my savings into that.
“In terms of bags, I have a lot, but I would say it’s mostly because of the brand stuff that I’ve done. I love my bags from Sézane, they’re really simple. I’m really not a luxury person. I don’t own any designer bags, apart from some Kate Spade ones. I’ve never [gotten] the appeal, because I’m really bad with my stuff… Inside, it would just be ruined. It would be a waste of money.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve discovered much recently because I haven’t been shopping. Honestly, I’m quite simple. I really like Zara. From the Zara group, there’s this brand I really love called Uterqüe. There’s actually a couple of small designer French brands that I’ve liked recently, like Sézane and Modetrotter. One shop I really like is & Other Stories. I have so much & Other Stories… Honestly, I’ve really grown to like more simple stuff: the shirts that I own, the jeans, the blazers. I don’t have ‘it’ items. I’m happy with the things that I have, the curation that I’ve gathered.
“I can’t remember the last time I went into a shop. But even before, I really liked online [shopping], because then it comes to yours and you can just try it and return. But this time last year, I was living in New York, before lockdown, in Bushwick, and I really loved the thrift stores. For that, I love to go into shops — otherwise, [it’s] Zara, Asos, all of them.
“[When shopping vintage,] I like to look at coats. I’m still very much my mom’s daughter — I like to look for the good value. I got this big green fur coat from Beacon’s Closet for like $30. So good. I got a few vintage Adidas tracksuits; they’re so cheap but so cool. That, and shirts. Mostly tops. I don’t really try [to find] trousers because it’s really hard, you have to be lucky. I look for dresses, because I’m a massive ’70s fan, as well.
“When I arrived in New York, we actually had an office in Bushwick for a bit, and I really liked dressing up to go to in every day. Before that, as a full-time content creator, you wear things to take the photos and then you’re not often going anywhere. My style didn’t change [when I started working on RadSwan full-time] — I was probably overdressed, but not so, so overdressed… I would just wear my colorful stuff, my dresses, my shorts.
“I wasn’t in New York long enough [for it to have an impact on my style] to be honest. I would say moving to London, compared to Paris, is such a big difference. I’ve been here like ten years almost now. Paris, I don’t know — every time we talk about ‘Parisian style,’ it’s just so overrated, in a way. I feel like France really benefits from their old houses: Dior, Louis Vuitton, all of them. But when you think about what modern, high-street brands do they have? England has Topshop, Asos… I find that the style in Paris is a lot more restricted, because people are so judgmental and negative. London is just so crazy. You can just do what you want. My style really changed when I arrived here, like, ‘Okay, there’s a lot more that I can do. Now I can really explore and change.’ For me, in New York, I didn’t feel like I had to tone it down or change anything.
“I would say actually [I use] more Pinterest than Instagram [for inspiration]. At one point, I was doing Instagram collaborations full-time, then I transitioned more into RadSwan. But even before, when I was building the brand, I took myself away from social media. I felt like, because you do a lot of brand collaborations [on Instagram], you don’t necessarily go out to look for things [on there] — you’re kind of like, ‘I’m doing something with this brand and I like them, so let me find…’ My behavior on social media has changed. I found that Instagram can be really unhealthy. I love scrolling, so I just go on Pinterest a lot. I have a lot of boards. I think it’s better for inspiration because you just get a feel for something that you like but you don’t know where it’s from, but it’s better than wanting this from this latest trend or this latest hot product that everyone has.
“[My wardrobe is] kind of sorted by [category] — the shirts, the long stuff hanging, the dresses, the suits. I used to have a separate rail where I’d do an edit of the moment, but also the new ‘ins’ that you want [to wear], where sometimes I’d go through my wardrobe on the weekends and pull stuff out. You have so much and you forget, so you put them on the rail to incorporate them.
“I like how fashion has been going more borderless. For me, what I really like about dressing up — and also what I like to go on Pinterest to see — is more how you can change your body shape, have more broad shoulders, elongate your legs… Then with whatever hair, I love this crafting and how you can really own that I find exciting. Also, what I see in fashion now that’s exciting is the small designers emerging, like how we see brands getting really popular on Instagram. And then, I don’t know if it’s linked to Gen Z, but the appeal for branding [is changing] — they’re not into ‘blanding,’ the brands for them are more colorful and scrappier. I love how fashion is getting scrappier… It’s making it way less pompous. Finally, you feel like it’s more accessible to people who have the interest. That’s how it should be. I never really understood [how] fashion week was so much pressure. I never really got fully into it because then it’s just room for frustration, for stuff I can’t even afford anyway.”
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