Perhaps you recall the minute 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 could be nice to imagine that her experience was not any longer an actuality, how the business of human hair had gone the way in which in the guillotine – however, it’s booming. The current niche for extensions created from real human hair keeps growing at an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million amount of human hair was imported into the UK, padded by helping cover their a little bit 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 in comparison with that of the US.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, who seems to be supplying all of this hair and, secondly, who on the planet is buying it? Unsurprisingly, both sides from the market are cagey. Nobody desires to admit precisely where they are importing hair from and women with extensions prefer to pretend their brazilian hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain that the locks come from religious tonsure ceremonies in India, where women willingly swap hair in turn for the blessing. At Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in southern India, tonsuring is customary and it’s probably the most-visited holy sites on earth, so there’s a lot of hair to flog.
This has been known as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a sufficient story to inform 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. There are actually reports of female prisoners and girls in labour camps being required to shave their heads so those in charge can sell it off off. Even if the women aren’t coerced, no person can be sure that the hair’s original owner received a good – or any – price.
It’s a strange anomaly inside a world in which we’re all enthusiastic about fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems in any way bothered regarding the origins of the extra hair. Then again, the industry is hard to manage and the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can go through several different countries, that makes it difficult to keep tabs on. Then your branding can be purchased in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The fact 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 typically, the individual just doesn’t would like to know the location where the hair is harvested. In the FAQ parts of human hair websites, most queries are stuff like ‘How will i maintain it’ or ‘How long can it last?’ rather than ‘Whose hair could it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts that this hair ‘has been grown within the cold Siberian regions and possesses never been chemically treated’. Another site details how you can distinguish human and artificial hair: ‘Human hair will use ash. It can smell foul. When burning, the human hair can have white smoke. Synthetic hair might be a sticky ball after burning.’ As well as not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly choice is blonde European hair, a packet in which can fetch more than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé for one. Her hair collection was once estimated to become worth $1 million. And the Kardashians recently launched a selection 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 sorts of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which can be hair that hasn’t been treated, as an alternative to hair from virgins). Nearby, a local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair into the heads of women seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My very own hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women asking for extensions to ensure they look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, that is a tabloid story waiting to happen: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is a precious commodity since it takes time to increase and artificial substitutes are believed inferior. You can find women happy to buy and there are women willing to sell, but given the dimensions of the market it’s time we found out where it’s all from and who benefits. Fantine might have been fictional, but her reality still exists, now on a billion-dollar global scale.