Dionne Alexander is still critiquing her work from almost two decades ago.
“Oh my God, I need to redo that,” says Alexander over the phone. She’s referring to an intricate wig she worked on for Lil' Kim with her seamstress Richard Anthony Gross. The wig, similar to the one Lil Kim wore to the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, was comprised of two sections that connected with a zipper. Alexander says it was only meant for still photographs, but Lil' Kim insisted on wearing it in her music video for “In the Air Tonight.” “She liked it so much that she had to wear it. I couldn’t get her not to do it, you know what I’m saying?”
During the ‘90s and the early 2000s, Alexander was the go-to hair stylist for women who defined fashion during this era. She’s responsible for the side swoop bang and french roll Mary J. Blige wore in the “Not Gon Cry” video; the ‘60s-inspired lace front bouffant wig Lauryn Hill wore over her locs in the “Doo Wop (That Thing)” video; and the short cut Missy Elliott wore on the cover of “Supa Dupa Fly.” She's also done hair for Iman, Rosie Perez, Faith Evans, Lil' Mo, SWV, Yo-Yo, Aretha Franklin, and more. But her most recognizable or influential work is probably Lil' Kim’s wigs covered with designer logos.
Lil' Kim first wore the turquoise wig with a Chanel logo placed on her bangs for a Manhattan File magazine cover and shoot styled by Sybil Pennix in 2001. Alexander isn’t sure whose idea it was—Lil' Kim told a reporter that she asked Alexander to place the logo on the wig—but Alexander remembers buying the wig, which started out blonde, and then dying and cutting it inside her Los Angeles hotel room over night.
“That was a blonde wig that I dyed those colors with the brown and the black,” says Alexander. “And don't ask me how I knew to do this, because I don't know. But I went to the arts and crafts store, I purchased some thick tracing paper, and I cut out the Chanel logo and then I used magic marker to put it on the wig. That’s my secret.”
Alexander was also responsible for the blonde wig covered in Versace Greek keys that Lil' Kim wore to the Spring/Summer 2001 couture Versace show in Milan. She created that design, which cascaded down the hair, using stencil paper and a gold magic marker.
“Somebody called me from Europe and was like, ‘Yo, that's all people are talking about is this wig,’” said Alexander—Vogue (or Style.com) mentioned it in its show review. “I just remember the voice message Kim sent me, because she freaking loved this wig. She was like, ‘Oh my God Dee-Dee. I love this.’ I kept that message on my machine for the longest."
The styles Alexander created in the ‘90s and early 2000s are still referenced today. A couple of weeks ago Cardi B wore a blonde pony tail covered in LV monograms, created by Tokyostylez, that matched her outfit. “Oh that’s pretty,” says Alexander who wasn’t aware of the look until I texted her a photo. “Louis Vuitton is going to start making ponytails now.” But even before that celebrities have worn their own versions of wigs with designer logos. Nicki Minaj wore a Fendi printed wig in a campaign for her Fendi capsule collection, and Beyoncé, who paid homage to Lil' Kim for Halloween in 2017 by wearing some of her most iconic looks, wore a Chanel printed wig modeled after the one Alexander made.
And there's Cardi’s “WAP” video, featuring Megan Thee Stallion, a visual homage to Lil' Kim—the monochromatic looks paired with matching wigs, the dropped down fountain pose that brought to mind the Hard Core poster, and the '90s updos that proliferated during this era but were probably popularized by artists like Lil' Kim and Mary J. Blige. I texted Alexander the video, which was styled by Kollin Carter and EJ King. Tokyo Stylez and Kellon Deryck did the hair, and Erika La' Pearl did Cardi's makeup (Megan Thee Stallion did her own). She was impressed by the entire project.
Alexander was aware of the Beyoncé moment, but for the most part she’s out of the loop about the online chatter surrounding her work, which she usually isn’t credited for.
“I love that others are inspired by what inspired me. I'm very honored by that,” says Alexander. “People have always said to me that I need to tell my story.”
This is an abridged version of Alexander's story. She grew up in Washington, D.C. surrounded by hair since her mother owned salons. After high school she moved to Europe to model, but came back to D.C. after four months because she and a friend couldn’t get their visas. She did hair for local celebrities like boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s family, participated in hair shows at Howard University, and traveled as a platform artist doing hair extension bonding when it had just entered the market. But she always wanted to work for bigger clients.
Her cousin did hair, too, which is how Alexander became friends with Big Daddy Kane. The rapper came into D.C., her cousin did his locs, and Alexander let him know she wanted to move to New York City and do hair. The rapper got her a one-time gig styling hair for models at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and a year after that she moved to New York and started working at Anderson’s Hair I Am, a salon in midtown Manhattan whose clients included cast members from The Cosby Show and All My Children. She came across a job listing seeking a hairstylist for the film Fly By Night, but was rejected because she wasn’t in the labor union for hair stylists. Luckily for Alexander, the hair stylist they hired dropped out three days before filming started and they needed someone as soon as possible.
“I dropped my resume off to the makeup artist, and she was from D.C. I had a D.C. address on my resume, so she called me,” says Alexander.
Through that film, which dropped in 1993, she met MC Lyte, who became her first celebrity client. This was at a time when MC Lyte’s image was transitioning into something softer. Alexander styled MC Lyte’s hair in a layered bob for the “Ruffneck” video and cut it in a shorter style for the “Keep On, Keepin' On” video with Xscape. She would also go on the road with MC Lyte and learned the basics of the business.
“MC Lyte is the reason why I'm in this industry,” says Alexander. “Her and her father, Nat Robinson, treated me like family and taught me the game. I didn’t have an agent helping me understand how to get my money and he was really helpful with that. People noticed how her look changed and it just made everybody flock to me.”
Alexander started to do Rhonda Cowan’s hair. Cowan was working at Def Jam at the time and connected Alexander to her network of women working in the music industry.
“It was a small circle, and within that circle my name circulated because New York wasn't known for hair the same way D.C. was. So any new artist that would get signed, they would send them to me.”
Mary J. Blige was one of those new artists. Alexander’s earliest work for Blige included the What’s the 411? album cover where Blige wore a hat over her auburn extensions, the “I Can Love You” video featuring Lil' Kim when Blige wore loose blonde curls and side swooped bangs, and the “Reminisce” video when Alexander styled her hair in a French roll and high ponytail. Once Blige came along, Alexander devoted most of her attention to her. She would tour with Blige, style her hair for photo shoots, music videos, and off days. In 1996 Alexander bought a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill area. She lived on top of her salon, which was located on the ground floor. Her regular clients would mingle with celeb clients like Blige and Lil' Kim.
“Mary was fun, but she wasn’t always as adventurous. She knew what she wanted and had a strong opinion. She had to maintain her fan base and her identity,” says Alexander. “But the label didn’t get involved in the hair really. The only thing they said to me was ‘hurry up.’”
Alexander usually worked alongside stylist Misa Hylton and makeup artist Nzingha Gumbs. They were the glam squad before that term even existed, and worked together on some of the most influential fashion imagery and moments from the ‘90s and early 2000s including Lil Kim’s lavender jumpsuit and pasty she wore to the 1999 VMAs and the cover of Notorious K.I.M, along with Blige’s classic look from “Not Gon Cry” that Paloma Ford just referenced: black scarf draped over her blonde bangs worn with black lipstick and black Chanel sunglasses.
“We just jelled,” says Alexander. “Everything just flowed and we came up with some really beautiful things. A lot of that stuff comes at the moment. It wasn’t planned or thought out. We started planning things down the line, but back then we just did it. It was raw.”
Alexander would continue to work with Blige, who mostly wore weaves and extensions that hairstylist Ellin Lavar usually installed. Alexander was responsible for cut, color, and maintenance. She also worked on the Share My World and Mary albums. She transitioned Blige from blonde to a warm red, which she says Blige was open to. But she also presented her with more daring styles, like a bilateral cut that appeared in the September 1999 issue of Vibe magazine.
“Mary wasn’t hesitant about this style or the color. It was just changing it up within the same range. She didn't mind trying different colors and stuff like that,” says Alexander. “That's when I was doing bilateral cuts. That’s a good cut on Mary, though. When I go back and look at my work, I'm like, ‘Oh God.’ Because I’m like, ‘You really were ahead.’”
Alexander would look to European fashion and hair magazines for inspiration, which kept her in front of what was happening in the U.S. She was inspired by hair stylists like Vidal Sassoon and Floyd Kenyatta. She eventually transitioned from Blige to doing Lil' Kim’s hair full time. One of her last jobs with Blige was for the MTV VMAs in 1999, when she also did Lil' Kim’s lavender wig.
“That was a really rough and challenging weekend,” says Alexander. “We were running back and forth from hotel to hotel."
According to Alexander, Kim had always wanted to work with her but she was so busy with Blige she couldn’t take on any other big clients. But once Alexander and Blige decided to amicably part ways—when asked why, Alexander just says “It was time.”—she was able to fully flex her creative muscles and recreate the styles she admired in European magazines.
“Kim had already done the ‘Crush on You,’ video.” She liked to change things up and she was excited about everything,” says Alexander. “I give Kim so much thanks for allowing me to express myself creatively because she was adventurous and willing to really go there.”
Alexander worked with Kim right as the fashion industry started to embrace her. She styled the wig for her MAC campaign with Blige in 2001—"I drew the roots in on that wig with a magic marker.” She worked on the icy blonde wig Kim wore in the Iceberg ads in 2000. She put together those spiky pigtails Kim wore when photographed by David LaChapelle. And she was one of the first hairstylists to produce the wet and wavy look that Kim wore on the cover of Source magazine and in MTV’s House of Style bathing suit shoot. And she cut, dyed, and styled all of the wigs for Lil' Kim’s “No Matter What They Say” video, including the floor length curly one—Alexander noted that she couldn’t fly to Los Angeles at the time, so Neeko Abriol, the hairstylist known for Halle Berry's short cuts, installed them.
Alexander says she sourced most of her wigs in New York. She would purchase blonde wigs so she could color them with bright hair dye she bought from Duane Reade. This was a time when hip-hop was full of ideation. There was no blueprint so creators like Alexander were executing off the cuff and producing styles, music videos, photos, and album art without any inkling that they would mean as much as they do today. Her sourcing skills and innovative thinking helped her find a solution for Lauryn Hill who needed a 1960s inspired wig to wear over her locs for the “Doo Wop (That Thing)” video. Rosie Perez suggested she go to Ira Sims, a company known for supplying actresses with wigs, and Hill had to come in to get measured for the wig.
“That's when I was introduced to lace wigs. That was the first time I had ever seen them or heard anything about them,” says Alexander. “I cut it, styled it, placed it over her locs. And don’t ask me how I knew how to get the lace to lay flat. It was the most expensive wig I ever worked on or purchased.”
Alexander describes this period as fun and fruitful. She never worked with an agent because she didn’t completely trust them, so she was pocketing all of her money and doing well. But one day in 2003, she just decided to quit.
“It was a deep spiritual move for me,” says Alexander. “I was no longer happy doing what I was doing, creating the images I was creating. So something shifted within my soul.”
Alexander was suffering from endometriosis, a disease she dealt with her whole life but wasn’t diagnosed until the late ‘90s. She remembers being sick on set, popping Motrin to deal with the painful cramps, and stress from the job she loved didn't help. She wanted to move to Dallas and start a family, and she knew the slower lifestyle she craved, and her health, wouldn’t align with being a celebrity hair stylist. So she let Lil' Kim and the team know about her move.
“They were devastated,” says Alexander. “I didn’t have to leave. I could have stayed but I had no desire. I played that position and I loved it. I'm very grateful for my past. It’s made me who I am now. But it doesn't fit who Dionne is today."
Terrence Davidson worked under Alexander during the latter part of her career. Once Alexander moved to Dallas, he would work for Lil' Kim and go on to work with Nicki Minaj. It took her a few years to get her endometriosis symptoms under control—she became a vegetarian—but she opened up her own shop in Dallas and built up a clientele—she even did Iman's hair once when she stopped by the city for work. At the beginning she wanted a complete break from her old life. Her mother suggested she put up pictures of her celebrity client work in her salon, but she wasn’t ready. She needed to heal.
But she's ready to talk more now. She’s relaunching a hair care brand, Lature Hair, with her long-term friend and business partner Alpatrick "Panama" Golphin—Paris Davis' SP Media is helping with brand storytelling. And she wants to help women who deal with thyroid issues and endometriosis, which disproportionately affects Black women. She observes the celebrity hair industry from afar. Some things she likes—she notes respecting stylists including Kiyah Wright, Ursula Stephen, Ted Gibson, Carla Gentry Osorio, Chuck Amos, Earl Simms, Kim Kimble, and Derek Jae—some things she doesn't.
“Hair is very basic right now,” says Alexander. “It’s kind of all over the place and I don’t see any creativity. I don’t see cuts. I don’t see color. I see colors, but I don’t see them interchanged with cuts. We used to color the hair for the cut, you know what I mean?”
But she’s also sympathetic towards celebrity hair stylists. She knows they have their limits and ultimately the client gets final say and can change styles as they see fit. She still keeps in touch with Rosie Perez and MC Lyte, has lost touch with Lil' Kim and Blige, but has fond memories of their time together and what they built.
“I remember telling my mother one day, ‘Mom, I feel like I woke up out of a dream.’ Because it was a dream,” says Alexander. “I didn't know anyone in New York. I had that Big Daddy Kane experience, but that's all I had. I just came into the right people and it just started happening. And honestly, I feel like if nothing else came out of it, for me it was being able to share with people that dreams do come true.”