“I’m very blessed to have two passions. One of them is fitness and one of them is Dreadsock.”
Talking with other naturals out there, I always find it interesting (and surprising) how hair can lead us to connect to one another on much deeper levels. This past week I was fortunate enough to carve out some time to chat with Julian Burke, founder of Dreadsock, to discuss the development of his company and his journey to growing and accepting his hair. He shared with me the process of founding his own company and how locking his hair helped me reconnect with his roots and to a deeper connection to his heritage and spirituality. We had a chance to touch on the whole “good hair” vs. “bad hair” debate and really connected on growing up in racially mixed households and largely White school environments.
MANE MAN: Hi Julian, I’m glad we were able to sit down and talk! When I initially heard about Dreadsock I was very curious about what made you get started. It’s not common for a guy to be spearheading a hair related product, so I was very curious about what got you there.
Julian Burke: Well, it was never about anything more than my dreads. I always wanted to grow locs for years and I never did. I put it off. When you decide to lock you hair up, that’s it. You either have to shave it. Or that’s it. I kept putting it off, it just wasn’t the right time and there was this lady who actually helped me get started, I told her that I don’t ever want to lose a job because of my locks. I wanted to make sure that I kept them clean and I knew from the locks I had seen, there were some people who had bed lint in their locks or it was matted and I didn’t want that. I really wanted to keep them clean and I never wanted to have to change careers or professions because of my hair. So when she started them, she was from Jamaica via England, staying in my home town in West Virginia, and she said, “I can help you get them started.” So she got me started and Dreadsock was never meant to be anything other than something I could wear at night to cover up my locks without getting bed lint or any other debris in my hair. It was a simple concept and I always try to keep it simple. After a few years, people figured out ways to use it for more than just sleeping and I think that’s great.
MM: Yeah, I was thinking about your work as a personal trainer and just wondering if Dreadsock has been something that you’ve incorporated in your workouts and that sort of thing?
JB: Well, it has gone from just a covering to now where we have bandanas, headbands and stuff like that. People have also begun to wear it as a fashion statement, or a more fashionable product as opposed to just a sleep cover. The sock in and of itself isn’t the most beautiful thing to wear out, but that’s OK because it was designed to wear to sleep so it doesn’t have to look great. But the design of it and the material are amazing. I worked for years to find just the right material so that it wasn’t sliding off at night. There were versions that I tried that would slide off at night or leave that terrible ring on your forehead and I wanted it to be easy. I didn’t want to have to wrap it or tie it, so it really took years for me to really come up with or research the perfect product. Like I’ve always said, the simpler the concept, the more effective it is. Now, I’ve got so many ideas and now we’re going to make it a line of apparel. Whether that be knitted hats or Winter caps or baseball hats, I’ve got a lot of sketches and I lot of ideas of prototypes that we can get to the market.
MM: Very nice! And before you said, you first started locking in the late 90s, right? What was that like for you? Because I assume you always had short hair (before), is that right?
JB: Well I always had it short…my background is very diverse. My Dad is African American and my mother is Native American. She’s probably 95% Native American and a little European and has African American in her background as well. The thing was, I always had “nappy hair”, like I had kinky, coarse nappy hair and in high school I had a high top fade, then I had a real close shave cut and I wore a little tiny afro here and there, but I always knew that I wanted to lock my hair up. It wasn’t until like late high school or college when I started to listening to Bob Marley and I loved his words and his teachings and his spirituality and it kind of hit me. It put me more in contact with my ethnic, African American roots. You know, the hairstyle really goes way back. It’s different from what we know of locks, you know the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica…it’s more than that. Shamans of old cultures, (even) way back in biblical times and the wise men of tribes… they all locked their hair. It was more about getting in touch with a sense of spirituality and it just felt right. It just felt right for me. But, I had every style until I started to lock up. You know, I’m from a small state and the population isn’t very diverse and I’m from a very rural area. And locks, back in the day like the early 90s, you just didn’t see them. It took until like the NFL and entertainers and people like Bob Marley…the insurgance of NFL players wearing their hair or locks out of their helmet…I mean that was huge! Ricky Williams was the first one way back in the day. You know, I actually remember my parents saying, “You’re not growing locks in our house.”
JB: Yeah, and you’re also talking about an African American family, or a very diverse family, saying that I can’t wear a hairstyle because of the connotation…that negative connotation. So that became a fear of it. Once you start going through those transition phases where it doesn’t look right or if they (locks) don’t fall back or even if they don’t lock up at first it’s hard, but now it’s become more of a science. Now, salons and shops all over are locking hair…
MM: Right. But how did you stay with it given that you had that feedback around you? Even though you had that desire and inspiration, I think it can be hard for anyone to maintain when you get feedback like that.
JB: Absolutely, and that’s why it took me so long. Years before I actually took the steps or started the journey, I kept putting it off and putting it off. Like it wasn’t the right time…you know, I don’t know exactly what it was exactly Jor-El but something just hit me one time. It was a year in college when I was like, you know what? Now is the time to do it. I took some time off after my freshman year of college and came back and did some work around my home town and transferred back into a small school and I was like, you know what, I’m gonna jump into school full-time and I’m gonna get a job. I worked in a kitchen in a local bar and then I was in the kitchen making bar food. I put my hair under a hat and just let it grow. Later, I came home one weekend and that’s when I bumped into the lady who got me started. She was like, “You need my help!” [Both laugh] I was like, “Yes, I do need your help!” So I remember, for a long time, I would go home every weekend to get my hair corn rowed. Have you ever had your hair corn rowed?
MM: No, never have. [laughs]
JB: Well I know for me, and a lot of people, when you cornrow it (your hair) it makes it grow that much faster.
MM: That’s what I’ve heard!
JB: Yeah. I mean, the pressure on the root just makes your hair grow. And I mean, my hair started growing faster than it ever had. Then I got to this nice, full afro so I was like alright let’s do it! So she started them. She sectioned them off. She put them in double twists, twisted them together and then put rubber bands at the ends and the root and after a month of washing my hair…you see what happens is a lot of people use beeswax and all kinds of stuff to actually make their hair lock…[Right] she told me, “Just wash your hair…wash it, but don’t condition it.”
JB: Yeah, see what happens is, the shampoo is really hard on the hair and makes it really dry, so it will just knot up anyway. So if you put conditioner in it, it’s just going to soften it. [Right] So, I remember it took me like a month and I would cover them in hats and my hair just locked. Then from that point, I realized I needed something to cover them with and my Mom made my first one…yeah, she’s really good on a sewing machine.
MM: Aww, nice!
JB: We went to Joanne’s Fabrics, the local fabric shop and we made it. I designed it and she made it for me. And that was about 1998, I think, when she made the first one for me.
MM: Wow, that’s pretty cool!
JB: It is cool. Then I’d say, I need another one, I need another one and she would say, “You need to go ahead and just have a bunch of them made.” This is what’s interesting…Dreadsock started with me sitting down with a guy in the fitness profession and he wanted me to do some fitness videos and we needed a quick way to get some capital to get started. I was like, “Well I’ve got this idea, this concept that I think could probably get to market.” So I told him about it. And this is a White guy, he had no idea. He was just this typical 50-year-old White man who wanted to help me. So I helped him with his fitness goals and he helped me with the business. So when I told him (about Dreadsock), he was like, “That is an amazing idea!” And we ran with it. We got an S-corporation form and he helped me put a video together on the first website and from there it just grew. More and more people started growing locks and right around that time, in the early 2000s, NFL players were wearing dreads on the field. More entertainers were wearing them and more in the 2000s it started to become more a mainstream hairstyle and now it is. You see people all over wearing them.
MM: Yeah, for sure.
JB: I know a dentist who has locks. If you take care of them and keep them neat, and I don’t know if you have had the chance to look at the website or not, but the main thing was (we were) also trying to dispel the myth that the hairstyle is dirty and matted and that people don’t wash it. That kind of stuff. Then, it just took off from there. We started making money and I did it all by myself after this one guy did some work and I took it from there. You know, like the trademark stuff and getting the protection on the name and setting up our merchant account and selling in our online store. I was pretty much just paying for it with my personal training money. Then I met this one guy, and we got to the point where we needed more capital to take it to the next level, and this guy said, “I can get you some money.” So we got an investor and she has helped me now take it to the level where it is now. We’re going international, we’re selling thousands of units a month and it’s great.
MM: That’s really great. I think Dreadsock has really been successful in branding dreads as a very modern, and a stylish way to express yourself. I definitely think that is something you have accomplished and the website is great for that reason. One of the other things I was curious about, and I talk about this from time to time on MANE MAN, is how when I started growing out my hair a couple of years ago I was going through some changes. I was in a grad program for counseling and learning a lot about myself so I was going through that and being challenged and I made the decision to let my hair grow and I found that it really fit me. So it was something that I didn’t initially think I was going to have a deep connection to, but once it (my hair) started to grow, it felt like something special was happening.
JB: Isn’t that amazing?
MM: Yeah, and it sounds like you had a similar experience.
JB: Oh absolutely. Exactly. Once you get to the point where it’s growing out and you get past the awkward stage of any kind of hair style when you’re growing your hair out…there’s this energy to it. There’s like this energy that it brings along with you. Like, it’s amazing what it did for me spiritually. It put me on a path…you know, I know who I am and what I’m about and what I stand for. I don’t necessarily say that my hair defines me, but it’s more of who I am now. It’s part of my brand. It’s part of my personal brand. Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. It’s amazing how growing your hair out, especially being African American. You know my thing, especially with African American women, is the whole idea of pushing natural hair. You know, this product is good for women who want to get away from relaxers and all the chemicals whether that be to wear locks or just a natural hairstyle it’s good for that as well. That’s what we push a lot, because it’s very freeing. I mean, once you don’t conform to what the standard of what beautiful hair is, which is like straight and flowing or whatever, basically not African American, it’s freeing. And my background is very diverse, but now I take a lot of pride in the natural texture of my hair. It just seemed that locks were the perfect thing for me so that was the way to go.
MM: So I know we’ve talked a little bit about heritage and I’ll talk briefly about mine. I actually come from a biracial background as well. My mother is Black and my father is Puerto Rican, so I know that for me there were challenges growing up. I had a lot of comments about my hair which I don’t know if that was because of my background or what, but people would say that they thought I had “good hair” which I personally found annoying because I didn’t understand what made my hair “different” than my peers, for example. So I always found that to be pretty uncomfortable. Were there comments about your hair texture in and outside of your family as you were growing up?
JB: Oh God yes. My younger brother would be considered to have “good hair”. People see my mother with straight hair…like if you look at her, she’d probably pass for a White woman. I mean she has olive-colored skin and people think she’s Puerto Rican too. She tells me that a lot of people just start speaking Spanish to her when she comes down here and people think she’s “something”. But she has straight hair. Her Dad was straight Cherokee Indian who had this thick, black, straight hair but my hair is kinky and coarse so I never had what people describe as “good hair”. I mean, that was the thing. It was thick and kinky and it wasn’t until I got older that I really came to appreciate the texture of my hair. I went to school with a bunch of White kids and my two closest friends were African American. They always kept their hair really short and I just grew mine so yeah it was definitely an issue. My whole family is very diverse so we run the gamut of skin complexions to hair textures and everything in between. But yeah I had “bad hair”.
MM: Yeah and I think the more and more I talk to people in this realm of natural hair, everyone has a story about having “good hair” versus “bad hair” or whatever hair. It seems like everyone has been touched by that and I find that so interesting.
JB: Absolutely and I say that’s one of the best things about going to this (Natural Hair) show in Atlanta. We get to talk to people and we get to hear their stories not just about their hair, but also how the product has helped them maintain it so we love that.
Be sure to check out Julian and Dreadsock at the Atlanta Natural Hair Show coming up later this month. For more information on Dreadsock visit their website (http://dreadsockonline.com/) and follow them on Twitter at @Dreadsock.