Written By: Samantha Swindler – Oregonian April 4, 2021
Nicole Rose launched her new hair oil line last fall, but you could say it’s been 67 years in the making.
The Portland entrepreneur’s company, Ella Dean, is named after her grandmother and inspired by her family’s hair salon.
Rose, 27, is now the fourth generation of Portland’s Dean family to find her calling in the world of hair. Her great-grandparents, Benjamin and Mary Rose Dean, founded Dean’s Hair Salon and Barbershop in 1954 at 215 N.E. Hancock St.
Today, the shop is run by Rose’s aunt and is the oldest continually operated Black-owned business in the state of Oregon, according to the Oregon Black Pioneers.
Like her mother, a photographer who captured the beauty of Black hair in her 2007 book “Hair Dance,” Rose was inspired by her family’s history but charted her own territory.
“The salon is the foundation,” Rose said, “but I’m building my own brand.”
Over the decades, all the Dean kids spent their childhood at the family salon.
Rose’s mother, Kelly Johnson, worked there throughout high school, washing brushes, sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms and running errands.
“I was fascinated with all of it and so, I guess, of course I did a hair book,” Johnson said. “I’ve been totally fascinated by it all my life.”
Her children’s photography book “Hair Dance,” features young Black girls with all types, textures and styles of hair.
“My pride in my grandparents’ legacy was the inspiration for this book,” she writes in the photographer’s introduction. “Hair is our crowning glory, and every day we should appreciate its grace, color, and texture. I wanted to portray African American hair in the most radiant light, as my grandparents did.”
Though released 14 years ago, the book is having a second life of sorts. You can find copies of it for sale on the Ella Dean website. On Saturday, Johnson will do a virtual reading of “Hair Dance” for the Multnomah County Library.
And that young girl on the book’s cover – her eyes closed, windswept hair blowing behind her – is Rose herself.
“This book is very important for young Black girls to start at an early age to appreciate how they look,” Rose said. “Now that I’m older, I realize that my mother was ahead of her time. I’m happy that it’s resurfacing and getting the recognition again that it still deserves.”
Johnson fell in love with photography at a young age. When she was 9 years old, her father handed her his Contina 35mm camera, something to distract her while he was trying to watch a football game.
“I said ‘Daddy, can you show me how to work the camera?’ Because I was fascinated with it. And he said, ‘Be smarter than the camera, kid.’ And I guess for the rest of my life I’ve been trying to be smarter than the camera,” Johnson said. “I kept working with it, and I have never stopped.”
In 1987, she was hired by The Oregonian, initially in photo sales. But she kept showing the photo editors her work and pushing for assignments. In 1992, she officially became a staff photographer and one of the first three participants in the newspaper’s new Minority Residency Program, which aimed to bring greater diversity to the newsroom.
“It was the best education I’ve ever gotten,” Kelly said. “Every day was learning, not just about being a photographer, but about people and engaging with life.”
“The reason that I left The Oregonian was to have Nicole, so it’s come full circle,” Johnson said. “It’s like a rebirth, what Nicole is doing, because (the salon) was a foundation, but she’s taken her creativity and said, ‘I’m going to put it in this direction,’ and we’re super proud of her.”
When she was a child, Rose also helped at the salon, just like her mother.
“I loved going there on Saturdays because it was so packed and it just felt like one big family reunion,” Rose said. “There would be times where I would be walking from Portland State and somebody randomly would come up to me and say you look so familiar, who are you?
“And all I had to say was ‘I’m a Dean.’
At the time of the photo that was featured in her mother’s book, Rose was 9 years old and getting her hair chemically straightened. At about age 16, Rose decided to go natural and grow back her curls.
Today, Rose sees more Black women embracing their textured hair and looking for natural hair care products.
“I think people are tired of being judged,” Rose said. “This is who I am and I’m not going to change for you because your standard of beauty is different from what my standard of beauty is. Whether it’s bald or having short hair or long hair or curly hair or wavy hair, we’re finally showing our true selves.”
The Ella Dean line of hair oils for textured hair includes “No Time for Flakes,” a dandruff control formula made from cedar wood essential oils, “Honor Thy Crown” with cucumber and pumpkin oils, “So Long Itch” with vanilla and prickly pear, and her most-popular product, “Look But Don’t Touch,” made from pomegranate, Indian gooseberry, mustard and watermelon oils.
“Instead of using shea butter, coconut oil and castor oil, why not introduce my audience to pomegranate oil, onion oil, passionfruit oil, spinach oil? Different oils that we usually don’t see on the market,” Rose said. “I knew this was my chance to add a new twist to the natural hair care industry.”
Rose clearly has a flair for brand-building. While her full name is Nicole Rose Johnson – her middle name was a tribute to her great-grandmother – she’s marketing herself as CEO and founder of her new business as simply Nicole Rose.
And the company name Ella Dean is a more lyrical shortening of her grandmother’s name, Gloria Ella Dean, who was the second generation to manage the salon.
Rose hopes to someday see her line expanding into shampoos and hair creams and being sold at larger retail and beauty chains.
“I definitely want Ella Dean to go to the next level, and my other goal is to possibly own my own hair salon,” she said.
For now, Rose makes her product batches herself after working her full-time job at an HR company.
“I knew I still wanted to work in the beauty industry. The salon definitely gave me that push,” Rose said. “I just said you know what, I’m going to go for it, I’m going to stop discouraging myself and just see what happens.”
Mother and daughter are sure Gloria Ella Dean would love her namesake collection, but she is unaware of her granddaughter’s company as she battles dementia. The Ella Dean website has an option to round up on orders and make a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association in her honor.
“When I think of Ella Dean and the salon, I think of family and warmth and friendliness, and that’s what I want my customers to feel,” Rose said.