Big hair, strong brows, deep tans, long talons; more is more when it comes to beauty on Roman Road.
Less is more, as the saying goes. But not on The Roman.
Long before celebrities, from the global brand that is the Kardashians to the UK’s Katie Price, sported thick eyebrows, sky-high eyelashes, long talons, and overt designer gear, the East End crowd was already rocking this look. It could be said that the Kardashian style is the global spin on the Cockney flair.
Such a look creates an unapologetic air, a ‘take me or leave me’ attitude that has endured for decades in the East End; it encapsulates the fiercely independent Cockney spirit. This unabashed confidence leads to a desire for bigger, brighter, and bolder looks, and Roman Road, with its enduring East End culture and centuries-old fashion market, is at the heart of this style.
So, how would a Roman Road beautician describe the area’s beauty scene? ‘Oh, it’s the bigger the better!’ Sophia Chishty exclaims.
Chishty, 38, is the owner of Glow, on Roman Road Market. She is one of the 26 beauty salons that have settled along the road’s 2.8km stretch, all eager to capitalise on the area’s love for big beauty. There is almost one beauty shop for every 110 metres, and that’s not counting the Roman’s eleven barber shops which seem to be dotted within a moments’ walk of each other.
We are in Chishty’s salon, hairspray mist lingers in the air from her latest client, creating little sparkles of reflection from the delicate early-spring sun. She is sitting cross-legged in a black leather beauty treatment chair. Bow born-and-bred, and with over five years’ experience working in the beauty industry, Chishty understands why beauty is important to those living and working in the area.
Chishty motions to the hum of the market outside and says Roman Road has a ‘connection historically with being glam’. She adds that ‘people would get glammed up just to come to Roman Road. That’s how famous it was.’
Roman Road’s Nuova Beauty Bar owner Francesca Marcantonio, 39, like Chishty, agrees that the market has enabled Roman Road’s beauty scene to remain an important part of its culture, largely because it’s pulled in other businesses: ‘It’s just a place where you can do a bit of everything. You can go shopping at the market, you can get some food, you can go do your beauty stuff, there is pretty much everything around here.’
Famed for its affordable women’s fashion, Roman Road Market was the place to be seen. ‘Going down the Roman’ has been a tradition for generations, and, in the knowledge that you would inevitably bump into someone you know, men, women and children would dress up for the occasion. The aisle between the stalls was the people’s catwalk.
While the heyday of dressing up to go ‘down the Roman’ may no longer be a thing, many, it appears, still want to look their best, especially for market days on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
On a typical market day, there seems to be an unwritten glam competition. Women will glow in jewellery, the sun bouncing off their gold and silverware as they stroll between the stalls, bangles bedecking their forearms, and gold hoop earrings brushing the top of their shoulders. This is often complemented by a caramel tan, and pristine coiffured hair, not a fly-away to be seen.
And, to accompany this, Gucci loafers, Louis Vuitton purses, Christian Dior handbags… whether they were bought from nearby designer store Zee & Co or were cash-in-hand knock-offs, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it makes heads turn.
Marcantonio remarks that ‘East End culture is ‘look at me”. Everyone’s quite “look at me” on this road, aren’t they?’
Like Chishty, Marcantonio says that Roman Road beauty is ‘loud and out there. Brighter, bigger, bolder’.
To achieve this brighter, bigger, bolder look, Chishty notes the most popular beauty requests are Russian eyelashes, which give fullness, length, and curl. Applying these takes concentration and patience: up to five mink lashes can be applied to the base of each individual natural lash with the procedure taking around two hours. Customers leave with a dramatic fan sweeping across their eyelids. For Marcantonio, with resignation, she says ‘there is always someone wanting to do their lashes.’
Another popular treatment is eyebrow threading and sculpting. For this, Chishty uses a centuries-old technique where cotton thread is doubled and then twisted to roll over the skin to remove unwanted hairs. Afterwards, Chishty dyes her clients’ eyebrows with a henna-like paste. It should be taken off within five minutes and leaves the customer with dark, defined brows. But, Chishty says, some ask for the dye to be left on because they like the thick eyebrow look, even if the dye tingles their skin.
Seventy percent of Chishty’s clients are from the East End, with the majority aged between 16 and 35, although she notes the older East End crowd is beginning to ask for eyelash and eyebrow treatments to achieve a younger look.
The remaining 30 percent are local students, young working professionals who’ve moved to the area, and those who come in from further afield who are attracted by the Roman Road’s big beauty look. With pride, Chishty tells me that one client even comes from Spain, sometimes as frequently as ‘once a month’, to get her eyebrows done on Roman Road.
And it is not just women; men are increasingly using their services.
Pre-pandemic, Marcantonio says she had very few male customers, but now around 20 percent of those who walk through her door are men. For Chishty, it’s around a third, up from one in ten pre-Covid. Like women, men are asking for eyebrow shaping and threading which Chishty attributes to the wider rise in male grooming spurred on by the impact of lockdown.
But eyebrows and eyelashes are just part of the package: hair is big business on Roman Road. East-End establishment Tony’s Hair Stylist has been trading on Roman Road for over 60 years. Aysha Iqbal, and her husband Riz, from Mile End, took over Tony’s from its previous owner over a decade ago. Iqbal enjoys a stream of customers who come for her expertise in creating elaborate hair designs.
Iqbal herself models the East End look to perfection. Her voluminous hair is immaculate, held in place by a hand-sized amount of hair mousse and a spritz of hairspray. And, her make-up? Her eyeshadow is bright, her lashes are big, and her eyebrows are bold.
Iqbal says that she can create ‘a look for everyone’, but that old, middle-aged, and young love the big hair look. Her clients are both East End based or come from Kent and Essex. She also receives a lot of custom from the nearby Traveller community in Hackney Marshes.
Iqbal also works closely with local make-up artist Fiona Maughn, who runs La Rosa Mua. Between them, Iqbal and Maughn work with Tony’s clients to bring their big beauty vision to life. Alongside, Iqbal’s expertise in hair styling, Maugh’s work encapsulates the strong East End spirit; dramatic eyebrows frame bold eyeshadow and sweeping eyeliner, enhanced by long lash extensions.
But for Chishty, there is also a deeper reason for the fierce street look that Roman Road is known for; that this outward bravado is, in fact, a form of armour that offers protection from the difficulties faced. Chishty confesses that ‘we do live in an environment which is quite harsh, you know, Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. And so people do like to get up in the mornings, put a bit of slap on, do their hair and look good and feel good about themselves.’
She adds a knowing smile, ‘And sometimes, you know, you have to fake it till you make it.’
If you enjoyed this, then read our piece on barbershops and beauty salons along Roman Road.
Please support local journalism.
As a not-for-profit media organisation using constructive journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or subscription fee as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
We are powered by members. Hundreds of members have already joined. Become a member to donate as little as £3 per month to support constructive journalism and the local community.