Beauty tool puts a new twist on grooming

If you're yearning for braids, there's an appliance that might help the young and patient.

October 20, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

My son got right to the heart of the Quick Braid's hybrid appeal: It looks like a weapon, he said. No, wait, it looks like a toy.

Just what was it? I decided to find out.

I have a fondness for Vegematic ingenuity and those who toil in their garages to bring time-saving, energy-conserving, life-changing tools to the world. Where would we be without the electric Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler or the Pocket Fisherman Spin Casting Outfit? In general, though, I gladly leave the use of such contraptions to others.

But the peppy Quick Braid commercial featuring cheerful teens applying the hand-held gadget to one another's locks caught my eye, perhaps because it's geared toward personal grooming and not greater kitchen prowess, which I don't really aspire to.

At Target, I grabbed the only Quick Braid Styling kit on the shelf. The $16.99 package came with the braider, a "carry pouch," separating comb and 40 designer beads and bands. Cool! Batteries were also included.

A colleague wisely suggested that I first test the Conair appliance on a wig, lest I yank out my hair. So at the Sally Beauty Supply shop, I invested in a cheap, henna-colored fall.

I went to work on the wig, and soon realized that the hair braider doesn't actually interweave hair into plaits; it twists. I also learned that separating hair into small, tidy sections is a painstaking job. And that a shock of long, coarse synthetic hair isn't the best guinea pig even if by now it resembled a guinea pig (a very shaggy one at that).

So I let the mop / braider mess I had created sit for a few days. Someone coming upon this dresser-top tableau might have assumed that a mutant rodent had met its end at the hands of a strange purple Ninja-type creature. Others might have determined that the rodent got the best of the braider. I considered it a draw.

I called a few local salons to ask if stylists were familiar with the braider and, if so, had they mastered it. The closest I got to making myself understood was during a conversation with a friendly receptionist who told me that while waiting for a medical appointment recently, she had heard a woman rave that the braider "really works!"

Several calls to African braiding studios proved fruitless, and I began to feel a tad foolish.

I also perused the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Web site for mention of recalls or ghastly mishaps. I saw none.

It was time to take the plunge and try the braider on my own tresses. I even forced myself to read the directions, which I'm generally loath to do, mostly out of fear of misunderstanding them. But in this case, it was imperative. By now, concern for the welfare of my hair was universal among friends and family.

I carefully separated a small hank of hair and pulled the rest back in a pony tail. Then, while peering into the mirror, I attached neat sections to hooks on each of three prongs of the Quick Braid. Not as easy as it sounds. After a bumbling five minutes, I managed to do so. Per instructions, I held the braider "out and down with a little tension to make nice, tight twists." I pushed the button up. The braider whirred, twisting each individual section. Then, I pushed the button in reverse, and the braider quickly twisted the three sections together.

About 10 minutes later, I had completed another braid. Each braid seemed to take longer than the previous one. At this rate, it would take hours to do my hair. I'd never get to the dance, if I had one to go to. The pitch I had read didn't seem to apply to me: "With the help of Quick Braid, you can create trendy two- or three-stranded rope-twist braids in seconds!" And my two pitiful little braids hardly seemed worth the trouble.

Then, glancing at the package, I found the key disclaimer: "Triple braids are more easily formed with help from a friend or parent."

Finally I realized that the Quick Braid and its ilk were not created to expedite grooming but to have fun. It's more of a social tool than a styling tool. They are the Vegematics of the young teen world. And I am no teen. Maybe I should have realized that my time to play with the Quick Braid has come and gone. But for a moment, I was pretty excited about its possibilities.

While skewed toward girls age 8 and up, the Quick Braid's consumer demographics leaped to a high of 28 when several bridal magazines promoted it for women celebrating island weddings, says Babe Rizzuto, Conair's public relations director. If you're in Jamaica, why not just get your hair braided in a local studio? "That takes so much longer," Rizzuto says. "You have to sit for six hours to get a similar look."

All in all, the Quick Braid has been "phenomenally successful," she says. "We've definitely moved over two million pieces over the past year." The new Quick Wrap, which twists ribbons into the mix, is Conair's latest generation of braiding technology.

Even if I flunked Quick Braid 101, I still think it's a neat idea: a gadget inspired by the art of African braiding that now serves the same purpose as a salon where braiding could take place. It's an excuse for girlfriends with all types of hair to get together, socialize and get their hair done.

The Quick Braid is not an end in and of itself. It's a means for having fun while trying something novel, if not entirely practical. Ron Popeil of Ronco fame knew this all along. Gadgets like the Quick Braid and the Vegematic are pocket sideshows; they're weird and wonderful and amusing. And, sometimes, they work.

Free to a loving teen home: A slightly used Quick Braid. Carry pouch and beads are untouched.

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