hair braiding Montreal mental health IC System Yasmine Cloutier-Maalouf

This Montreal hair braiding project takes on mental health challenges

We spoke with Yasmine Cloutier-Maalouf about how she uses her unique skills to spark reflections about mental health.

What’s in your head, represented on your head. That’s the central theme of the hair braiding project conceived by Montreal student Yasmine Cloutier-Maalouf, who uses her unique skills to spark reflections about mental health and that tender place of early adulthood trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing with your life. 

An exploration of anything weighing heavily on the minds of young people through braid-ups, from addiction to difficult emotions to toxic relationships, IC System lives and thrives on social media, particularly TikTok, where Cloutier-Maalouf has over 15,000 followers. But the 21-year-old doesn’t plan on resting on her laurels – you can expect IC System to start to take up space IRL as the project continues to grow. 

“The ‘IC’ stands for ‘identity crisis,’” she explains. “That feeling when you’re asked, ‘What are you going to do with yourself?’”

Photos by Lam Dam

What distinguishes Cloutier-Maalouf from other braiders is her skill in braiding shapes, letters or symbols. That’s the type of work she most enjoys doing, as it lets her be creative and tell a story. Some of the braid-ups she’s done as part of the project depict a woman’s legs, a weed leaf or a pair of eyes with a single blue tear. 

“Most of my inspiration is through communication,” Cloutier-Maalouf says. Some of the styles she creates for the project come from a spark of inspiration on her part, and some are devised in collaboration with the person being braided. Her longtime clients will often gladly be the subjects for a specific design she has in mind. 

“I have the main idea sometimes, there’s stuff I want to express.  Most of the time it’s when I’m having a good moment, stuff just appears in my head. I’m like, ‘I need to do that!’”

TikTok and Instagram are how she finds new clients and shares IC System hairstyles. As a content creator, she frequently organizes photoshoots for some of her more elaborate ideas, getting friends or models to sit in and get braided up. The hair salon she works at, APART Studio, collaborates with a modelling agency for their stylists to have models to showcase their work. 

Cult MTL sat in on her latest photoshoot, a five-person scene about the complicated nature of family ties. 

“I wanted to represent how, with the people of your family, you’re stuck with that link. There’s something that holds you all together,” Cloutier-Maalouf said while she was braiding model Salma Aber. “I will braid people together to represent how we’re attached to those people. You may want to get detached, but it’s family.”

Aber and Bisungu Tychique, who Cloutier-Maalouf met through TikTok, were braided together with one long, continuous braid.

This Montreal hair braiding project takes on mental health challenges

“I wanted to represent also the different types of roles that people could play in a family. Some people are more involved, some people are more a victim.”

And as shapes are her favourite things to braid, her longtime client Alejandro Alvarado got a house braided onto the top of his head to demonstrate the domesticity of the scene. Alvarado gets his hair braided by her before his muay thai fights, and has been the subject of some of her more creative pieces and photoshoots for a long time. 

“I feel blessed with the people that I have around me for this,” Cloutier-Maalouf said. 

The photoshoot was taking place in the apartment of another client who had responded to her social media callout asking for someone to provide the setting. It was a laidback atmosphere; the models and makeup artist Estelle Moubarak discussed the highs and lows of content creation in the age of TikTok. It’s free advertising for Cloutier-Maalouf, but hard work goes into making it happen. 

“What I like about Yasmine is she is creative in terms of the haircut but also in how she markets her work, the fact that she takes the initiative to do photoshoots,” said James Dissake, who had offered up his apartment for the day. “She goes looking for photographers, makeup artists… she is really very direct in her way of doing things.”

Hair braiding by Yasmine Cloutier-Maalouf at APART Studios

Dissake, a YouTuber, commended her use of video and noted that some of her TikTok videos have over a million views, including one they created together. 

It was through Instagram that Dissake first saw Cloutier-Maalouf’s work, when he arrived in Montreal and was looking for someone to braid his hair.

“I looked at what she was doing and I thought it was super cool,” he said. “She advised me on products, she explained to me how to wash my braids, that I had to put on a cap at night so that it wouldn’t frizz, that sort of thing. What’s good about Yasmine is that when you don’t know anything, you’re accompanied from start to finish.”

More than simply more fodder to feed the algorithms, this scene was Cloutier-Maalouf’s largest IC System project to date. And she’s not stopping there.

“In the hair industry or art industry, sometimes I feel like there’s certain stuff you have to do a certain way,” she said. “I don’t know why, but even very good artists, they will tend to follow trends instead of creating their own. But I feel like I have my own universe, and I don’t want to follow any trends there.” ■

Yasmine Cloutier-Maalouf can be found on TikTok and braids out of APART Studio (3643 St-Laurent, #410).

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