This is the hackle. Respect the hackle. This is Merria. She’s a master wig maker, whose skill and expertise has made her a celebrity favorite. This is what they do after they cut it off the ponytail to get that shorter hair out. She painstakingly sews each wig by hand in a process that can take months to complete and cost as much as fifteen thousand dollars. Close it off, and then there you go. And how you tie it determines the way the hair flows and falls and parts. She knows everything there is to know about hair, except for one thing. Where does most of the hair being sold in the industry come from? I try to source from people who I know where it’s coming from, but I don’t know.
As Refinery29’s senior beauty editor, I’ve been on set for dozens of shoots and interviewed hundreds of hair stylists. Nearly everyone of their kits holds the same things: flat irons, curling irons, brushes, product and hair. But Hollywood’s best kept secret is far from new. Both Black and Orthodox Jewish communities have openly worn hair for generations. But it’s just now that the popularity has exploded into the mainstream. Celebrities have opened up on social media about wearing human hair, revealing just how common wigs and extensions are on the red carpet, and in everyday life. Extensions have really pushed the hair trade up. People want things that are disposable. They just want long hair today and that’s that. There’s something intimate and uncanny about wearing the hair of another person. It can transform the way you look, but at what cost? Close your eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder who this hair once belonged to.
It’s difficult to trace the origin of much of the hair on the market. It’s no surprise because the hair trade has always been shady. For centuries, hair brokers have used any means necessary to get their hands on hair. In the 1800’s, peasant women in France were lured into being shorn like sheep. In the early 1900’s, it was reported that hair sold in the states was coming from sewers and corpses in China. Hair dealers were thought to be so shady, they were banned from Ellis Island. Controversy continued into the 21st century, as reported by CNN. She lost eight inches of hair. From the robbers perspective, it’s quick and relatively easy money. One constant in all of this is that the hair trade sets up shop wherever women are the most disenfranchised. And the people who end up wearing the hair are often unaware of the journey it took to get to them.
Most people do not know where their hair comes from. And I don’t think they care. Riqua Hailes, the founder of a hair extension salon in Los Angeles, didn’t particularly care either. Until, she got scammed. I had already lost ten thousand dollars, I couldn’t afford to lose any more. They had these great pictures that tell you how it was going to perform, they sell you on a dream. That’s the issue with it.
Riqua went on a hair buying trip to try and get some answers. We want to know if all the hair in Malaysia is really coming from Malaysia. She travelled across six countries and found the lack of regulation in America and around the world, makes it hard to guarantee what you’re getting. Push it, push it, push it.
There you go. Oh it fried the hair. It fried the hair. I can smell it. It smells like…what is that, is that burnt hair? Or is that plastic? That’s plastic. Plastic. Mixed with what’s known as fallen hair. It’s the cheapest tier of human hair, collected from salon floors, hairbrushes and drains. The hair is detangled, processed with chemicals, coated with silicon and sometimes mixed with synthetic and animal hair.
While okay for some uses, it’s a less expensive version of a higher quality, more elusive hair: virgin remy. So everybody is secretive about where their hair actually comes from. That’s where the hair broker makes his money. Remy. Remy. Remy. Passing off non-remy hair as a remy, is just one of the many tactics of hair dealers. Where do you get your hair from now? I get my hair from India. Widely considered to be one of the most ethical places to source hair, Hindu temples are a crucial part of the industry. Every year millions of devout followers travel to temples like this one. The Shri Venkateswara Temple in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
It’s the most visited Hindu temple in the world and perhaps the most lucrative. Here devotees shave their hair as an offering to the Gods, which becomes an easy revenue source for the temple, bringing in more than seven million dollars per year. It’s a practice that provides a constant supply of cheap, high quality hair. But it’s not for everyone. For some, matching specific textures and colors is worth paying top dollar for. Blond, red, wavy, coyly. The more niche the hair is the more expensive and harder it is to source, making this type of hair prime for exploitation.
After months of back and forth, only one of them agreed to show us their operation. We set out to Vietnam to meet him. Vietnam is in a moment of major transition. With one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, it’s growth is a mix of opportunity and exploitation. Hair sellers here have been known to offer women next to nothing for their hair, or offer them what sounds like a good rate, only to disappear before payment. Even though Dan agreed to meet us, I still had no idea what to expect, or how legitimate his operation would be. Hi! Hi. The way other companies operate, everything is gonna be under the radar. Some of the women that we’ve bought hair from, they have been scammed before. We’re trying to be different than everybody else. Dan’s mission is to make his company, Remy New York, one of the first ethical and totally transparent companies on the market. These are gonna to be our dyed hairs. So we do have different varieties. This is so exciting. Different colors.
Yeah. Really cool. And you have short ones, too. Sure. So if a girl were to come to you, and want to cut her hair, but she had short hair you would still buy it. Of course. Okay. Yeah, we try not to turn away anybody. Just because everybody needs help. So this one is gonna be one of our long ones. This one is pure virgin remy. You can feel the softness of it. In my six years in the beauty industry, I had never seen hair like this. Oh my gosh, this is so long. This level of high quality hair isn’t something you can fake. And as soon as I saw Dan’s hair, I knew he was doing something right. But he invited us out to see for ourselves. Dan travels across the region to buy hair in person, and at a fair rate. Here in the countryside having long hair is still an important sign of femininity. Hi. How are you? For Nguyen Thi Thuy, it’s a promise of a better future.
Will you miss your long hair? That’s like actually criminal. It hits home that the hair trade starts with women like Thuy. Behind many of these wigs and extensions, is a woman making the tough choice to sell her hair to better her life. Dan zip ties Thuy’s hair to avoid tangling and to keep it all in the same direction after it’s been cut. It looks beautiful. I think it looks beautiful. You look young and fresh and really pretty. Will you tell her that? You do. Yeah. How are you feeling? Dan paid Thuy a little over a hundred dollars. The money is more than a month’s worth of living expenses for her entire family. Enough to buy livestock that will bring in new income stream for years to come. Dan’s rates are not only unheard of, they have the potential to change lives. It’s a mission Dan’s taking across the country. From a woman who wants to use the money to put her son through swim lessons for the first time, to another who needs to pay for books and tuition at school next semester.
And even a woman who wants to advance herself through the trade. You know there’s no shortage of hair companies in the world. But there’s no companies that want to make a difference, that want to change lives. The reason why I’m doing this is because I know that nobody else will, and nobody else has. While it’s still the early days for Dan’s company, a lot of eyes are on him to see if Remy New York can be a new standard within the industry. What does an ethical supply chain for hair look like? It’s sort of looks like fair trade. This guy in Vietnam he’s transparent, and the girls are getting something in return that’s extremely valuable. You have to make an effort to understand where the hair coming from. Do your research. Make sure that the women it’s coming from are getting a wage. I think that’s how change happens. Hair can be more empowering than we ever thought possible. For the women who wear it, and those who use it to create businesses that enrich their communities.
But also for the women who sell it to better their lives, and the lives of their families. A fair trade, transparent supply chain can leave everyone better off. That is, if the industry allows it and the customers demand it. Thanks for watching Refinery29. For more videos like this click here and to subscribe click here. .
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