Maybe you recall the second in Les Misérables when Fantine chops off all her hair? The destitute young mother sells her long locks, then her teeth (a detail often excluded from child-friendly adaptations) before she actually is eventually forced into prostitution. It could be nice to believe that her experience was no longer a reality, the business of human hair had gone the way in which from the guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. Modern marketplace for extensions made of real human hair is growing at an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported into the UK, padded by helping cover their a small amount of animal hair. That’s thousands of metric tons and, end to terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if perhaps you like, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales when compared with that from the US.
Two questions spring to mind: first, who may be supplying all this hair and, secondly, who on this planet is buying it? Unsurprisingly, both sides of your market are cagey. Nobody would like to admit precisely where they are importing hair from and women with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian virgin hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that this locks are derived from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in exchange for the blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s one of the more-visited holy sites in the world, so there’s a good amount of hair to flog.
It has been referred to as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly an acceptable story to tell your client as you may glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export huge amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The veracity behind this hair is most likely a grim one. You can find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being made to shave their heads so those who work in charge can market it off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no one can make certain that the hair’s original owner received a decent – or any – price.
It’s a strange anomaly inside a world where we’re all enthusiastic about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems in any way bothered in regards to the origins with their extra hair. But then, the current market is hard to regulate and also the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can pass through a number of different countries, making it tough to keep tabs on. Then the branding can be purchased in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The reality that some websites won’t disclose where their hair originates from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. Several ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but in many instances, the customer just doesn’t want to know the location where the hair is harvested. Inside the FAQ parts of human hair websites, most queries are things like ‘How do you take care of it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ as an alternative to ‘Whose hair would it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts that the hair ‘has been grown within the cold Siberian regions and it has never been chemically treated’. Another site details the way to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will use ash. It is going to smell foul. When burning, a persons hair will show white smoke. Synthetic hair is a sticky ball after burning.’ In addition to not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The highest priced choice is blonde European hair, a packet that can fetch over £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé first. Her hair collection used to be estimated to become worth $1 million. As well as the Kardashians have recently launched a variety of extensions underneath the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to offer you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I live in London, there are a number of shops selling all kinds of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (that is hair that hasn’t been treated, as an alternative to hair from virgins). Nearby, the local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair into the heads of ladies seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Way Is Essex. My hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women looking for extensions to make them look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate probably have used extensions, which is actually a tabloid story waiting to take place: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair can be a precious commodity because it will take time to grow and artificial substitutes are believed inferior. There are women happy to buy and then there are women happy to sell, but given the size of the market it’s about time we discovered where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine might have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now over a billion-dollar global scale.