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The Branch sisters show off their curl style

Tara A. Trower
Miss Jessie's hair products owners Titi and Miko Branch know the ways of curly locks. american-statesman

Five salon chairs. Four women. Eight stylists.

The team led by Miko and Titi Branch, sisters, co-salon owners and creators of their own hair product line, is bustling on Saturday at Avenue Five Institute on Burnet Road. Curly hair with varying degrees of kinkiness is being twisted, coiled and styled — sometimes with three stylists working on one woman at a time.

The Branch sisters and their salon team flew in from New York to prep for their Austin exhibition this past Sunday as part of the Natural Hair Celebration put on by NaturallyCurly.com. Their Miss Jessie's product line has gotten plenty of buzz with mentions in Allure, Marie Claire and Glamour magazines. Celebrity fans include Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Halle Berry, Keri Hilson, Rihanna and Randy Jackson.

They've done similar traveling shows in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago. Usually they bring their own models, but for Austin, they worked on five local women.

Saturday was their practice day, so I came to watch and do an interview but quickly found myself in the one empty chair.

"Sit down; let me look at your hair," says Miko Branch.

Miko immediately starts tugging and pulling at my super dense, shoulder-length-when-wet curls. "You know you could finger-style your hair, or even shingle it. Want to get your hair done today?"

Only if I can do the interview at the same time, I say.

So, after a 10-minute water break with the sisters, I settle back in the chair. Miko Branch simultaneously starts work on my hair, discusses details for the next day's event with Titi, directs the other stylists in the room and answers my questions.

The hair business comes naturally to the sisters, who have a Japanese mother and an African American father. Finding products that worked for their hair while growing up in Queens, N.Y., was a challenge. Their grandmother (the original Miss Jessie) would shop and find ingredients to mix into hair products during their visits..

Miko, 39, and Titi, 40, opened their Brooklyn salon, known then as Curve Salon, in 1997. The salon mostly offered traditional hair services for black and multiracial women: relaxers, blowouts, roller sets, etc. Miko was the stylist; Titi took care of the day-to-day operations.

"We were the place to go if you needed a relaxer," Miko Branch said. But then she had her son in 2000 and suddenly the time to make sure her own hair was perfectly straight every day evaporated.

The day Miko came down the stairs of their brownstone salon with a mass of blond curls was the day Titi panicked.

"I saw all those curls and thought 'What is she doing to us? This is our business, and this is not what our clients expect from us," Titi said. But in the end, Titi wound up wearing her hair curly as well (although she does use a Silkener chemical treatment to make it easier to manage), and in 2004 they launched their own styling products to fill what was then a vacuum in the market.

The products, most notably their Curly Pudding, took off through word of mouth and online sales. In the past two years they've released six more products, which were recently picked up by select Target stores (the closest to Austin is in Harker Heights. The products are available on Austin-based Naturallycurly.com.). They have taken some heat from purists for the use of chemicals, including the Silkener (which uses lye), and some ingredients in their products, such as mineral oil.

The sisters say the products work for any type of textured hair: Indian, Caucasian, Latino, African American, Mediterranean, Asian.

Today the women work two days a week in their salon, now named Miss Jessie's, and four days a week on the other part of their business. They live together, work together, travel together.

Is it always harmonious?

No. In fact, a few years ago, the duo had a rather public breakup with Miko opening her own salon in Washington, D.C. They reunited in 2008; Miko says the split, while painful, was one of the best things that could have happened."We've been through some amazing things together," Miko said. "But our breakup made me realize that we are better together."

Sunday's Austin exhibition drew about 450 women , to see the sisters apply their products. After all, the naturally curly revolution is as much about technique as it is about good products.

Most of the styles are time-intensive, which is why the Branch sisters use teams of people to style one person's hair. Do a search on "Miss Jessie's" on YouTube and you'll get pages and page of videos showing how to apply the products.

In my case, I left Avenue Five with a head full of two-strand twists — a style that can air dry and then be taken out the next day to look like tiny spiral curls. At home, the twists can take me more than a hour and don't look nearly as neat. Miko Branch and her crew had me twisted and under a dryer in less than 20 minutes. I left with my hair still damp, but my results the next day have me thinking I need to work on my technique.

For a lot of women with the tightest of curls wash and go hair is not an option.

"Most women do not want to go to work with an Afro; it's just not practical," Miko Branch said. "We want to give women options."

And when they see someone on the street with their hair in full curly glory?

"We know that they get it," Titi said. "You can have natural hair and be beautiful."

ttrower@statesman.com; 445-3623