By FELICITY DARVILLE
My long time friend and schoolmate Shaneka Neymour has been interested in arts and fashion for as long as I can remember. She has always been creative and different, finding her own way to stand out from the crowd. As a high school comrade, I remember she was inquisitive and fun and, as a woman today, it’s those qualities which have made her a world-renowned designer in hair and beauty.
She is a creative mogul and entrepreneur whose uniqueness has set her apart. Shaneka is the creator of the first pre-styled hairpieces for natural hair called Over The Top Hairpieces, which she launched in 2015. This is a premium brand that supports the natural hair journey with stylish hair pieces like updos and fro-hawks, clip-in extensions for natural afro hair. Her pieces have been featured in leading magazines like Black Beauty; GLAM; Africa: Allure; Beau Monde; Glamour and Viva.
If that wasn’t enough black girl magic, Shaneka pushed herself even further and created a special line of mannequins that are shaking up the beauty industry.
Mannequin head stands and cosmetology training heads lack diversity - a reality Shaneka is beginning to change.
“I’m pleased to witness more cosmetic brands acknowledging and adding make-up for darker skin tones to their product lines and to know that there are more black-owned beauty supply stores on the rise worldwide,” she said.
“We’re in a global shift where people from all walks of life finally pause together and start to listen and act upon the cries of injustice and racism in the world. The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people.”
Initially, she created the mannequin heads for herself: “The first was about five years ago after I launched the brand Over The Top... I wanted mannequins heads with afro hair to display my products at a natural hair event. I ended up buying two, but I wasn’t really happy with them. In my opinion, they didn’t even have afro hair… more like a wet ‘n wavy texture. Their features weren’t that of an ‘African’ woman either, but they did have a brown skin tone. I used them anyway because it’s what I could find at the time… I still have them actually.
“Fast forward to early 2019, something I read reminded me of that experience and I started to do my research into mannequins with afro hair and black mannequins. I was shocked at what I discovered even though I already had some of the evidence. It wasn’t until then I realised that I actually had the power to make a change. I accepted the challenge and made it my mission to create one that we can be proud of. Sometimes it’ll make you wonder why it even took so long. Black consumers, namely women, spend significantly on hair & beauty - nine times more than any other consumer group. Grooming, getting our hair done or buying a new wig are like rituals for us, yet we can hardly recognise ourselves in the retail space both in store and online. Most of the so-called black female mannequins modelling the wigs we mass purchase are Eurocentric with a lick of ashy brown paint. Really? Why have we not tackled this before? Have a good look around the beauty supply store next time… you can’t ignore it now.”
With this in mind, Shaneka developed Melanie the mannequin: “She isn’t modelled after anyone in particular, but there are moments when I do see a hint of myself as well as other people I know. I’m not the only one who notices the familiarities in the faces around us. I especially wanted to put emphasis on the details that we are often rejected and criticised for - like the darker skin tone, having a wider nose and fuller lips. This is exactly what makes us beautiful and unique. I feel like the magic of all our ancestors are in there. You feel me?”
Her roots hold her firm as she flourishes today. She was born and bred in The Bahamas. She has travelled the world but in 2001 she moved to the Netherlands and has called it home ever since. She is proud of her Bahamian roots, and you can see that expressed in all of her creative projects. Her first love in this field is fashion design; she has been designing and sewing clothes most of her life.
“I was born and raised in New Providence but both my parents are Androsian.
“Wherever I am in the world, I walk proudly to the beat of that blood pumping through me like a goatskin drum on Boxing Day. I remember visiting Andros as a child and took my own family there at the beginning of the new year in 2019. I had two sides as a child. One was the creative, quiet mouse whom you might forget was even there, but still did mischievous things like cut up pillowcases to sew doll clothes and play tricks on one of my younger sisters. And then there was the other side - a wild little wannabe Shaolin master who ran around outside barefooted waving wooden swords that my cousins made. I climbed trees, did the slingshot swing from low tamarind tree branches, ventured into bushes to play and pick pigeon plums and adopted many stray dogs and cats. I was fearless and free but there were some adjustments as I got older.
“One thing I knew for sure, that I felt from deep within, even at a young age . . . was that I am creative. At various points, it would break free in the things I was doing - at school or in my hobbies, like sketching at sewing. It was my maternal grandmother (the late Geneva Green) who taught me how to sew by hand at age five or six. When I was 12-years-old, I received my first sewing machine as a Christmas present. That’s a wonderful memory that I sometimes replay in my mind. It was a small, pretty pink and white machine that came with a foot pedal. It was a toy machine but still functional. Two years later, my mother (Angela Neymour, nee Green) and I took sewing classes together. I loved that class! Even though I was the youngest person there, the only child in the group. Back then, if you were to ask whether or not those were the moments I felt the avidity of one day becoming a fashion designer, I would have undoubtedly said yes! I thought it was my lone destiny to be just that, my only purpose. Now, I know that creativity comes in many different forms and while I pursued fashion for a while, and loved it – I have come to recognize that my true passion is actually bringing ideas to life, no matter what it is. I enjoy both the challenge and excitement of transforming concepts to reality. It’s what I do best, and do it naturally.”
Despite this humble description of her start in fashion design, Shaneka became so successful in this field that she has her own fashion label that was spotted on celebrities, the red carpet and on television. She has also developed products for major companies and worked with the costume styling teams of TV show productions.
Her path to learning started at Woodcock Primary School and then Sandiland’s Primary, as her mother, now retired, taught at both schools. We attended St Augustine’s College together and graduated in 1995. After SAC, she applied to the Miami International University of Art & Design, back then it was called International Fine Arts College. She was invited for an interview, a tour and got accepted on the spot. Unfortunately due to family circumstances including the illness and inevitable passing of her father (former police officer Melvin Neymour), she was unable to attend and started working instead. However, Shaneka has gained professional certificates in the areas of Art and Design that interest her most.
As a successful entrepreneur, Shaneka says she gets inspiration from family and friends who keep her grounded when she starts to go all over the place with new ideas. She also gains much inspiration from her husband, who is also a successful entrepreneur.
“The road of life is definitely not a straight nor smooth one, in fact, it has Bahamian sized potholes in them, but I keep moving forward and divert obstruction where I can,” she said. “And now I have something new that I want the world to see.”
Seeing it we are. Melanie the mannequin has opened the door for Shaneka (now Verrmeulen-Neymour) to continue to expand this idea of bringing more black faces to beauty. She has plans to launch new versions of Melanie with Yaki straight and kinky curly hair for cosmetology training. She is also working on two other mannequin sizes. There will be a medium-sized version with décolleté that most beauty supply stores use and then there’s the large size bust with shoulders, which she expects to launch next in the first quarter of 2021, hoping that “the wig masters will go wild for that one”.
Melanie has become more than a mannequin - she’s a symbol of the success of black women in breaking down barriers in industries once out of reach.
“First they see me, a black woman from a tiny island in the Caribbean, being comfortable with myself and initiating something that has the power and potential to reach the whole world,” Shaneka told me.
“Then they see Melanie, she’s like my message in a bottle, my bat signal, my creative clap-back to: how we are often tricked into conforming to a certain standard of beauty and fashion; and to all the negativity around skin colour and African features. She’s a beacon of hope and light that leads the way for others to believe that they can make a difference whether it be great or small and to be reassured that we matter. There is no limit when you have full confidence in who you are and your abilities. Never forget that there is a place for you and your superpowers. Find out what it is and unleash the magic!”
Check out Lady M Mannequins: www.shopladym.com; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find Over The Top Hairpieces at www.shopotthair.com, or email email@example.com.