“I Knew This Room Was Special” — Nikki-Lee Hampton, Kojo&Lee
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
If you turn left onto Devonshire Street at the corner of Trafalgar Street, walk past the chip shop and dry cleaners and turn — yes, again — to your left, you’ll be stood in front of a plain single doorway and a remarkably ordinary intercom. Press your index finger against the button that says 109-111 and then, if you’ve made an appointment (which in this case you have, for narrative’s sake), a voice will greet you and the lock will click.
That ‘click’ is more than a click. It’s a feeling, like coming home to a place you used to know long ago; something like, ‘oh hello, you’ve arrived, come in, come in’; something expectant; something so magical and strange you might expect to open that door and find yourself stood halfway between a wardrobe and a wintry wonderland.
It’s just that sort of ‘click’.
Carefully, you open the door. But instead of snow and the whirling, phantasmic trees you’d see in a painting of a landscape by that vivid Canadian Emily Carr — a landscape two steps into imagination, looking out into the real — you see a dimly-lit, well aged staircase. Which is pretty equivalent on the adventure scale.
Up the stairs ya go! Up towards that glimpse of sunshine at the top, through the floaty rays that cling to the foliage in forests, that make the glass panes of your bedroom window shimmer, the kind that make sparkles out of dust.
Up, up, up. Up into the bright, breathable room that started it all, where Division Street — just a floor away — becomes submerged by an invisible, watery expanse that floods the sounds of the everyday just one floor down. It’s an illusion, but it seems like all you can hear in this room is Kate Bush warbling from a Dansette record player in an eggshell blue cupboard, and the clink of heels on the floorboards. Soon, you hear the soft, assuaging whirr of a hair dryer.
Look around. Next to the eggshell blue cupboard is a dark-mantled, floral-tiled fireplace fixed against the rust ‘n’ earth coloured, crack-stoned walls. A broad-leafed cheese plant — what a name for a plant! — stretches towards the sun, and a bowl of hydrangeas sits on a wooden box next to a full-length mirror.
At the centre of it all — or rather, at the heart of it all — is a chair. The chair. It has rounded arms, and black leather upholstery, and it’s so comfy, or so we’ve been told. With all the magic about the room, we’ll believe it.
“I knew this room was special, from the first time I came in here,” says Nikki-Lee Hampton, legs crossed, tapping her heeled foot against the air. “I was on my own with the letting agent, and immediately, I knew that this was my room. This was where I wanted to work.”
Nikki-Lee is the owner and founder of Kojo&Lee, a hair-styling studio in Sheffield that forgoes the busy, clean-lined glamour of a traditional salon for a personal, curated experience in an intimate and inspired space. Unlike salons with brigades of stylists, row after row of stools and mirrors, scissors stuffed into drawers, hot straighteners, and appointment books piling one, two, three of you into blocks of time arranged in equal measure, Kojo&Lee is an escape, a slowing down. A chair, a mirror, some skilled craftsmanship, and a cheerful, considered conversation about your hair.
“One single chair is all this salon needs,” says Nikki-Lee. “Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on, but ultimately that’s all it needs. Just a place for someone to sit so that the rest can happen.”
It was a chair, in a room, in a Grade II listed building in Sheffield that inspired Nikki-Lee to take a career’s worth of experience in salons and re-imagine what a hair cut could feel like. It’s not hard to imagine Nikki-Lee with a pair of scissors in one hand and a comb in another. There she is — you see it, right? — a twist of hair caught between her two fingers, snipping and clipping and smiling, then pausing, lips pursed in concentration, and then some more snip snip snip with the scissors. Rolling hair into curlers, adjusting a hair pin; rubbing her palms together with product and tousling it through a blowout. In bustling, beautiful salons with The Weeknd or Gaga or Pharrell Williams blasting through speakers but hardly heard over the sound of hair dryers, and chatter, and the phone ringing, ringing, ringing. There’s not a lot of that busy salon up here in this reclaimed, faraway-feeling room above Division Street.
But there’s an echo of it that has followed Nikki-Lee’s heels (“I do love wearing heels,” she laughs) up the stairwell and settled with her under the woodwork. Despite the flower arrangements and Kate Bush records and the original tiles and the vintage books stacked neatly on shelf cupboards, there’s still the clipping and snipping and liveliness of a hair salon at Kojo&Lee.
“I just loved it,” says Nikki-Lee. “I loved the world of Toni&Guy.”
Nikki-Lee was first introduced to Toni&Guy — the international brand and chain — at one of their salons in her hometown of Guildford. At fourteen Nikki-Lee went into the salon hoping for work experience and walked out with a part-time job; her evenings and weekends were spent sweeping hair, washing hair and eventually learning how to cut and style. After completing her A-levels, Nikki moved to London and began her advanced training before requesting a transfer to the academy in Manchester to be closer to her husband in Sheffield. She was later hired as the manager of the chain’s flagship salon in Manchester, and spent the next six years styling, cutting, and training others for Toni&Guy.
“I really loved it, and I was naturally quite good at it,” she says. “I always wanted my own place but I loved managing people, so at the time I was concentrating on that.”
During those years at the salon in Manchester, Nikki-Lee had two daughters. Her family was in Sheffield, the commute felt longer and longer, and soon the excitement of the salon and Toni&Guy — the photoshoots and employees, the glamour of a big-city clientele — began to wane. Nikki-Lee wanted to be closer to home and be part of something new, something different. “So I decided to leave Manchester,” she says.
With a career’s worth of experience at Toni&Guy, Nikki-Lee was quickly hired by an independent hairdressers in Sheffield. But for the first time since she was fourteen, being in a salon didn’t feel right.
“I was searching for what I wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was fitting into anywhere else, but I think that’s because it wasn’t my dream. It was other people’s dreams. I just wanted to do my own thing.
“So finally — gosh, that was five years ago now — I decided it was time to start my own salon. I started by cutting hair in my basement. I began by doing friends’ hair, and then friends of friends, and eventually I got the opportunity to work out of The Gatsby, cutting hair from their upstairs room.
“At the time I didn’t know if anyone was going to want to get their haircut in that room, but they did, and they loved it — and I loved it. I realised it was the way I wanted to work. There was so much more freedom, it was so relaxing, and I thought the one-to-one was special and personal. It seemed like people were so much more comfortable talking about their hair in an inviting environment like this.”
It was barely a year ago that the home of Kojo&Lee still had white-glossed, wood-chipped walls and blue carpets that made it look more like an eighties office than the wonderfully Instagrammable space it is today. Nikki-Lee and her husband, as well as a supportive group of friends and family, spent two months stripping down the interior, returning the building to a more natural state and, in the process, re-enchanting the room with its original features.
“When I found this place it looked completely different to how it does now,” says Nikki-Lee. “I didn’t know that it would end up looking like this.”
Silver-plated basins, ornately-framed mirrors. Cool tones — black leather, monochrome, clean lines, grey stone. That might not fit in here, she had thought, as the real estate agent chattered on about the electricity. It wouldn’t be like Toni&Guy. There would have to be some sacrifices; she’d have to make it work somehow.
“But I knew that the fireplace and the cupboard were so grand,” she says, “the ceiling was so high, and I wanted it to feel like that.
“Like all those tiles!” She directs her heel towards the fireplace. “They were all painted yellow, and there was a gas fireplace in front, so I could only see what was behind it by peeking through. My husband just kept chipping away at them, and the first time I saw them I couldn’t believe it was an original tile. I’d been saying to people at The Gatsby that my dream was to find original tiles, and I can’t believe it actually happened. But it did.”
And then there were the walls.
“When those oranges and reds came through,” she laughs, “it was like, oh gosh! This is different to what I expected. But because there are so many different tones in the walls it just began to flow together. I ended up being really pleased.
“I do feel like this space has completely inspired me, and I think it’s this place that has made Kojo&Lee come to life. I think a space makes such a difference to how creative someone can be.”
All Nikki-Lee’s appointments are booked in advance to ensure she gets enough time with each person and can cater to their individual needs. It’s been almost a year since her heels introduced themselves to the lonely old floorboards and she’s already booking appointments weeks ahead. On the day of our visit she apologises for the noise; Kojo&Lee have just hired two other stylists and she is taking on a trainee, so there are builders working in the new space.
“It’s been incredible. I’m so happy that it’s grown. I’m so fortunate. I think people feel relaxed here, like they can be free to talk about whatever they want to talk about. I don’t feel like it’s clients that are coming in anymore. I try not to say clients anyway, because you build relationships with each person individually. It’s about seeing someone for who they are, and then tailoring the experience around them.
“I feel part of Sheffield now, and I love it. People in Sheffield are so supportive of independent businesses. I’m so excited about all the different things that are going on here, and I feel in a really fortunate position to be able to meet a lot of different people and be a part of what they’re doing.”
Nikki-Lee glances towards the window, and for the first time since our chat began we can hear the sounds of Devonshire Street wafting into the room from a floor below.
“I realised this is where I’m meant to be,” she says. “To be somewhere and feel a part of it.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield, issue 4