It was a quick run with his little sister to the Korean-owned beauty supply store for a couple of packs of Brazilian hair which initially sparked Damien Stephens interest in the hair extension business.
With no real clue on how to start, he went on the Internet and began looking up information on how he could get into the industry. What he found was a manufacturer in China more than willing to work with him to develop his own brand of extensions.
But before he even had the hair physically in his hand, Stephens took to social media to test the validity of his new enterprise: Flawless Hair Company, which specializes in 100 percent virgin Indian and Brazilian hair.
“I had made a Facebook status and told people that they could make pre-orders. By the end of the day, I made $2,000 from women I didn’t know from a can of paint,” he said.
That was in 2011. Today, Stephens has moved his business from Facebook statuses to an actual brick and mortar storefront located in Oak Park, Michigan. He says that he is on track to beat last year’s stellar record that earned nearly a half-million in sales. But despite how rapidly his business has expanded, Stephens says that he is not surprised.
“The Asian always had total control of the market. So once women started knowing that we [black people] had it, they were more comfortable,” he said. “They [black women] really wanted to do business with us and were excited to do business with us. I get it all the time, people come into the shop and say, ‘Are you black owned?’ And they are just so excited to give me money.”
According to some estimates, while the number of US salons offering hair extensions have increased by 28.5 percent, the vast majority of beauty supply stores (where hair extensions are usually sold) are owned by Koreans and other Asians.
However, thanks to the Internet, African American entrepreneurs have been able to forge relationships with manufacturers and distributors of raw and virgin hair around the globe, particularly in places like India and China.
They have also been able to harness the power of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to circumvent the stranglehold brick and mortar beauty salons have on the hair market, all while building a loyal customer base of their own.
Antoinette Murray is the CEO of Haute Kinky, a hair business she founded in 2013, and says her strictly online hair extension retail shop is booming. She attributes her success partly to the exclusivity of the product, which is texture hair aimed at women with 3b-4c natural hair coils.
“Lots of brick and mortar stores work in a network which has their own brands, and that is an industry that is hard to get into. But textured hair was easy to break into because they can’t get close to the 4c texture I sell. And lots of them don’t want to carry that texture in their lines, “ she said.
Despite the seeming impregnability of American-Asian hair distribution networks, Murray, who also works with a hair extension manufacturer in Asia to develop her exclusive brand of extensions, says that breaking into even the more traditional forms of hair extensions like Brazilian or Indian is not impossible. “It’s about networking and traveling,” she said.
Catrina Browser, owner of Sugar Rock Candy Virgin Hair agrees, “The Asians in Asia, I believe, have been willing to take money from the black sellers here in the States, but the problem is that before, you had to go there to make those connections. But technology has really changed the game.”
Browser, a former hair salon owner and licensed cosmetologist from Philadelphia, has been in the extension business for nearly six years, in both the sales and manufacturing side of raw and chemically untreated hair. She credits website like Alibaba.com and AliExpress.com for not only helping her break into the business but forcing the Asian hair markets to open up, including bringing in other countries outside of China and India into the hair game.
Today, Browser works exclusively with a hair collector from Burma. Their partnership has been fruitful: she is selling over 200 kilograms of hair (or 440 lbs) annually.
“In the past, there were black people who were trying to sell hair and couldn’t figure out how to get into the business. But now, you have hundreds upon hundreds of black-owned hair companies — some last a month, some last a year, some are still in business. But it made it possible for anyone from anywhere to get into a multi-billion dollar industry,” she said.
Based in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, Rotha Williams, CEO of KeiSa Hair Extensions, has been in business for almost six years. He is also part of the rapidly booming hair extension industry in of the small Southeast Asian country. He said that technology and the Internet have been essential components to his business, which he says also consists of 500 retail clients and 12 resellers in the States.
“Most of my clients are African American. And I love them,” he said.
Follow Charing Ball on Twitter @charingball