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“I spend a lot of time thinking about my hair, so I’m especially tuned in to fresh looks on the street, on patios, in line at Starbucks. But I’m on a break from social media at the moment so I’m wondering if I missed the early warning signs that chunky highlights are back? I had them 20 years ago and I’m liking the look once again. Do I go for it?” — S. from Toronto
Great job on the street-style trendspotting, S.! Yup, “chunky” highlights — the hair look that reached its zenith at the turn of this century on the likes of Kelly Clarkson circa “American Idol” and Christina Aguilera, with her era-defining jet black undercarriage peeking out between thick platinum streaks — are back with a bang.
You may have noticed that the look du jour is not an exact recreation of that hair moment. There are a couple of interpretations of this broad-strokes highlight pattern going on right now, from a big, blond swath swooping across the forehead to bold chunks of bright colour to all-over panels of heavier-than-usual highlights adding depth and contrast.
To get at why this is happening and how to do it tastefully, I called my own treasured hair-colour maestro, Jed Puznak, co-owner of Alcorn Hair in Toronto’s Summerhill. I knew he would be up for some pop culture forensics to get to the root of it.
“It is a peacock moment,” says Puznak. “People are stepping it up a notch.” He says it used to be a hard sell to get someone to “make the leap to a look-at-me look, especially in Toronto, where we tend not to be too ‘threatening’ with our image.” It’s true, we want to be noticed — with our clothes, our nails and our hair, we want to go bolder and brighter. “When you return to the salon, you want it to be special, you want to make your hair look different.” Puznak points to Cruella de Vil as a “power reference” for this look. And we could all use a power move right now.
Puznak doesn’t love the word “chunky” to refer to the bold highlights trend — like most hair artists who lived and dyed through its first incarnation, the word now has negative connotations. He prefers the term “high contrast” to describe the effect. The other phrase you will find on the internet to describe a big, bold, bleached or wildly coloured front section is “money piece,” but that is an expression I am deciding to unilaterally veto.
Overall, Puznak says, the look is very different this time around. Colour formulas, techniques and hair care products are much improved 20 years later and styling is key. “Modern hair has texture in the cut with layers and movement in the styling,” he explained, compared to the pin-straight, flat-ironed styles of yore.
The comeback of the look came about as early as last fall, when we saw face-framing chunks appear on Kylie Jenner who, unlike us, was never without a glam squad during the pandemic. Since most of us, especially north of the border, were stuck at home with no access to professional colourists, the trend revival had an unusual trajectory: we were influenced by at-home takes on the trend. I won’t go too deep into the internet weeds for our reader taking a social media detox, but Puznak points to the influence of a TikTok trend involving people making videos of themselves bleaching and colouring their own hair wild shades. Companies such as Bleach London — co-owned by Georgia May Jagger, daughter of Mick — with its at-home hot pink or cool violet highlight kits, saw a burst in popularity during the pandemic.
It was all very neo-punk and, in fact, the punk DIY sensibility of the ’70s and ’80s is the cultural wellspring of the chunky highlights trend. After that, more than a few ’90s hair icons went for the high-contrast look. Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls was rocking those highlights back in 1994, sort of the “girl power” era’s pastel-pink answer to punk goddesses like Debbie Harry. “There was Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, circa 1997, a power look if there ever was one,” Puznak says. “Also in ’97 there was also the great Mira Sorvino as Romy White,” in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” (This is hands-down my favourite film and I watch it with my daughter every single year, so I’m thrilled to include Romy in a list of beauty influencers.)
Next came the aforementioned early 2000s, which were awash in thick stripes of highlight. And as for the best (pro) versions around right now, Puznak points to FKA Twigs and Ciara, with a nod to the red-orange version that Bella Hadid has been wearing lately.
This is a look that takes confidence, Puznak says, but it also gives you confidence. And yes, it does work in the real world. “You can get a dimensional look from a professional colourist that will work on anyone, at any age,” Puznak says. “In fact, the clients who are doing the boldest looks right now, including bright strips of bold colour, are in their 70s.”
One detail to note is that application of the bleach generally begins lower on the hair, further away from the root, which involves more colour skill and artistry. The message: if you want to look like a grown-up don’t try this at home, kids.
I took my own steps toward the trend on my last salon visit, when Puznak added some “baby” highlights to my somewhat muddy and orangey hair. (I’m a committed lifelong blond and had been doing some maintenance work at home during lockdown.) I can’t tell you how much this small thing has cheered me up. I didn’t go the full Romy and Michele, and I’m unlikely to, but it does feel like a step in a bolder direction. “Again, it’s about contrast,” says Puznak. “Adding in contrast attracts attention and it creates some shimmer. We need a little shimmer right now.”
Shop the Advice
Now is the time to invest in some great products to keep your hair healthy and get that modern texture. You’ll only use a bit and it lasts a long time, plus it saves your hair from the harsh effects of the highlighting process.
Olaplex Hair Perfector No. 3, $38, sephora.com
This patented formula re-links the bonds in your hair that are damaged by bleach and hot styling tools, and it works for all hair types. Worth it.
K18 Biomimetic Hair Mask, $89, eskincarestore.com
A leave-in mask beloved by celebrities. Puznak calls it a game changer, in that it means colourists can push further when bleaching hair because this will keep it soft and healthy.
Bleach London The Big Pink Supercool Colour, $11, lookfantastic.ca
If you are in a go-for-it mood, this is the brand that has been a big hit over the pandemic for just such a moment.
Kérastase Blond Absolu Anti-Brass Purple Mask, $72, sephora.com
This softening, neutralizing mask lasts a looong time, I can personally attest. It also keeps blond hair from going yellow.
Christophe Robin Shade Variation Mask in Ash Brown, $17, lookfantastic.ca
This formula helps save highlights on brunettes from going orangey; the green undertone tempers the bleached areas perfectly.
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