Perhaps 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 is eventually forced into prostitution. It will be nice to consider that her experience was not any longer possible, how the business of human hair had gone the way from the guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. The current industry for extensions made of real human hair is increasing in an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million worth of human hair was imported to the UK, padded by helping cover their a bit of animal hair. That’s thousands of metric tons and, end to terminate, almost 80 million miles of hair, or maybe if you want, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales when compared with that of the US.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, who seems to be supplying this all hair and, secondly, who on earth is buying it? Unsurprisingly, each side in the market are cagey. Nobody desires to admit precisely where they can be importing hair from and women with extensions want to pretend their brazilian virgin hair could be the own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that the locks originate from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in turn to get a blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s just about the most-visited holy sites on earth, so there’s a lot of hair to flog.
This has been described as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a suitable story to know 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 considerable amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The truth behind this hair is most likely a grim one. You will find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being forced to shave their heads so individuals in charge can sell it off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no one can be sure that the hair’s original owner received a fair – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly in the world through which we’re all passionate about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems at all bothered about the origins of the extra hair. But then, the current market is difficult to control as well as the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can move through a variety of countries, making it hard to keep tabs on. Then your branding is available in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The point that some websites won’t disclose where their hair comes from is significant. Hair is sourced ‘all over eastern Europe’, says Kelly Reynolds, from Lush Hair Extensions, but ‘we would not know specifically’. A few ‘ethical’ extension companies exist, but generally, the client just doesn’t need to know where hair is harvested. In the FAQ parts of human hair websites, most queries are such things as ‘How should i maintain it’ or ‘How long does it last?’ instead of ‘Whose hair would it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts that this hair ‘has been grown in the cold Siberian regions and possesses never been chemically treated’. Another site details the way to distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will consider ash. It would smell foul. When burning, a persons hair can have white smoke. Synthetic hair might be a sticky ball after burning.’ And also not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly option is blonde European hair, a packet in which can fetch over £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for starters. Her hair collection was once estimated being worth $1 million. Along with the Kardashians have recently launched a range of extensions under the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to offer you that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I reside 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 opposed to hair from virgins). Nearby, a local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair into the heads of women looking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women seeking extensions so they are look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate could have used extensions, that is a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is really a precious commodity since it takes time to grow and artificial substitutes are believed inferior. You can find women happy to buy and then there are women ready to sell, but given how big the marketplace it’s time we determined where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine could have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now on the billion-dollar global scale.