Features Walthamstow

Inside Europe’s only fetish-themed hair salon

The Walthamstow salon hopes to become a hub for the sex-positive community
By Victoria Munro

Husband and wife Hughie and Gunel (credit: Harness & Mane)
Husband and wife Hughie and Gunel (credit: Harness & Mane)

As far as its owners can tell, Walthamstow’s Harness & Mane is the only fetish-themed hairdresser in Europe – if not the world.

Husband and wife Hughie and Gunel Kelly first opened their business in 2019 with some understated nods to the kink community but, following a refurbishment early last year, have more fully embraced its aesthetic in their Forest Road space.

From an entire wall inspired by shibari – Japanese rope bondage – to padded stocks and a cage in the toilet, their decor, Hughie explains, is meant to be obvious to those “that know the scene” without alienating their more buttoned-up clientele.

The shibari-inspired wall, created by local artist Jon Blake (credit: Harnes & Mane)

Meanwhile, their openness to all life and hairstyles, plus a gender-neutral pricing structure, makes them popular with those on the fringes, whether that’s dancers from Hackney strip clubs or the transgender community.

Hairstylist Gunel, 34, who her husband describes as a “card-carrying goth”, definitely looks the part but Hughie, 44, would not attract a second glance in even the most rural neighbourhoods and admits he “is not really part of any particular subculture”.

The pair met “the traditional way” eleven years ago, in a pub in Stoke Newington, when Hughie spotted her with “purple hair, a black leather jacket down to her ankles” and looking as if she “maybe hadn’t gone home since the night before”.

While he had his own interest, Gunel was his proper introduction into the sex club scene, which the pair have been heavily involved in ever since. Speaking to the Echo on 19th May, they were getting ready to travel to Berlin to attend the annual German Fetish Ball.

Sat outside the shop and occasionally greeted by passing acquaintances, including a mum pushing a pram, Hughie said the salon has yet to receive any complaints about their unusual niche.

“I think society has changed, people are more tolerant and open,” he said, “Even though we bill ourselves as a fetish hair salon, we very much have all types of customers, there’s professional families that have been coming here for years and are perfectly happy with it.

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“That said, definitely a couple of customers I think would thank Gunel for introducing them to the scene. Being a hairstylist is almost like being a counsellor, there’s something anonymous about going to a salon that makes people feel freer to flesh out their curiosities.

“Working here requires the right attitude and an openness to accept people for who they are. We make sure staff are aware of things about gender identity and being respectful, plus our booking system lets people indicate their pronouns if they wish.”

A cage in the toilet (credit: Harness & Mane)

While those less au fait with the scene might imagine a stream of mohawks and other unusual dos, Gunel said most of her alternative clients are “quite length-conscious” because of their work as performers or models.

Instead their self-expression comes in the form of hair dye – “deep, rich colours” in winter and then more “pink, orange and yellow” in summer – and they are certainly in excellent hands, given the salon won Colour Expert at this year’s Hair Magazine Awards.

Otherwise, Gunel’s main innovation is her pricing, based on the length of a customer’s hair rather than their gender. She said: “I had a really tough time when I started because people just couldn’t understand how a man’s haircut could cost as much as a woman’s. But, if it takes me an hour each to do two people’s hair, why should the man pay less?

“It didn’t sit right with me and I decided to challenge that, I know I’m not the first in the industry to do so.”

Regarding their unique branding, she said: “We didn’t want to keep our individual lives almost like a secret, it’s definitely not one. I’ve been on the fetish scene personally for over 15 years.”

The goal, Hughie added, was to have Harness & Mane one day become not just a salon but a “hub for people who feel that they are sex-positive” in the community.

Already they host regular events, including a shibari class planned for later this year, and sell clothing and accessories, a range they hope to expand. Also up for expansion is the space itself, although it remains to be seen whether that will be through moving to a new building or opening a second location.

In the meantime, visit Harness & Mane at 289 Forest Rd, E17 6HD or find out more on their website

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