This year popular cosmetics and hair care line Carol’s Daughter launched the site Transitioning Movement. Meant to help guide women giving up chemical relaxers into the oft-confusing and conflicting world that is “going natural,” the multi-million dollar corporation seeks to both inform — and expand their base.
Can you blame them? There’s money in those curls. But for once, it seems women and minority-owned product lines got to the market first.
Carol’s Daughter. Miss Jessie’s. Karen’s Body Beautiful. Qhemet Biologics. Oyin Handmade.Kinky-Curly. All leaders in providing products to those moving from chemical processes to natural. All still independently-owned. All started by women of color – like African American Karen Tappin of her namesake company and biracial black and Japanese sisters Miko and Titi Branch of Miss Jessie’s.
But that’s not how it typically goes down. While several natural hair care alternatives run by women of color dominated the conversation, L’Oreal and other major retailers saw their overall sales in the black hair care market fall in 2009.
Long gone are the days when you had civil rights activists pushing for stores to carry black hair care products on their shelves. Rainbow Coalition/PUSH, activist Rev. Jesse Jackson once spearheaded a campaign to get major retailers to carry black hair car and skin products in their stores in the 1970s and 80s.
Jackson’s effort was a sort of capitalist attack on racism. He famously held a funeral for cosmetic company Revlon when a representative declared black businesses would become extinct from larger white companies snatching them up. But the reverend had a point – black people shopped at Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, and a multitude of places. Why not carry goods for them and integrate the cosmetics aisle? Segregation divides us. Capitalism teaches us the one with the most money wins.
Racism can really impact your financial bottom line.
Yet, since racism is nonsensical, with every new black innovation, there’s typically a lag time between what black people want and when corporations start providing. This is why a company founded by black Americans, Johnson Products — creator of your grandmother’s hair oil of choice “Ultra Sheen” — found itself bought up by Proctor & Gamble. (And after floundering there for years, having its thunder stolen by the likes of multinational cosmetic corporations, it was sold to a black management firm in 2009.)
How does this happen when, since 1954, Johnson was one of the only people making black hair care products? It happens when Johnson becomes complacent and doesn’t adapt to the needs of its customers for so long that multinational firms finally are able to catch up, realize there’s money to be made, copy and improve on the product, then woo away their consumer base
My father, a loving creature of habit, used Afro Sheen for decades. Myself, my mother, and sisters did not. We moved on to products less heavy and greasy, giving us better results.
And for a while, those came from the likes of the slowest adopters to black hair care, but once they smelled the money, were the most aggressive, dogged, and prolific.
But not anymore.
While companies like L’Oreal, Pantene, Revlon, and Proctor & Gamble rush to adapt themselves to this rapidly shifting market, they aren’t the ones able to dictate what’s hot and what’s not. They can’t afford to have the attitude former Revlon President Irving J. Bottner had back in 1986 when spoke on what it meant for companies like his to compete with black-owned firms: ”In the next couple of years, the black-owned businesses will disappear. They’ll all be sold to white companies.”
These companies are now followers – shifting formulas and marketing strategies to keep up with their African-American lead upstarts, who came out to dominate the market right from underneath them.
Going natural is now a big and growing part of the more than $165 million black hair care mass market. Companies that focused primarily on creating hair relaxers are scrambling to capitalize on what they initially thought would be just a “fad.”
But the fad talk has faded away to the realization that this might not simply be a trend, but a larger movement in hair maintenance for black women.
“Views of beauty have shifted,” said Winston Benons, brand manager for Miss Jessie’s, a hair care line catering to women with naturally curly hair. Benons emphasized that, with this new idea of beauty, black women have more choices in products and styling techniques than ever.
“We have products that perform well. We have products that enhance their natural hair. It looks beautiful. It looks presentable. These products are here,” Benons said. “Generally salon brands tend to keep their secrets. They keep on how the product is used and all that stuff. We’re putting up before after pictures, how-to videos and materials, talking about the best ways to use them.”
Benons said Miss Jessies is “at the forefront” in this “natural hair movement.”
Right now there are a multitude of popular natural hair blogs and online news sites – from popular destinations with large followings like Black Girl with Long Hair, Curly Nikki, Afrobella, K is For Kinky and Hair Milk – to the multitudes of personal blogs, hair video bloggers, and niche writers who detail their personal journey from perms and hair weaves to every type and variety of curl.
The attitude is even revolutionizing black salons. For years I stopped going after tiring of stylists who had no interest in helping me with my natural hair or overloaded their appointments, leading to me spending an endless Saturday at the shop. But after a brief stint with salons run by recent immigrants, such as Dominicans and Ethiopians, I finally found a salon and an African American stylist in Washington, D.C. who had that perfect combination of hair education and business sense that made me want to show up on time for my appointment and leave a tip. She was largely horrified at my stories of stylists who openly told me they hated doing my hair and over-charged me out of annoyance or excessive wait times – but she wasn’t surprised.
Again, complacency had hit the salon community for some African American hairdressers. But as hair needs and desires change, many stylists realized it was matter of business. Either adapt or lose your customers.
You can be another natural hair success story like Karen Tappin. Or you can get left behind as Ultra Sheen had for decades until finally scrambling back to its roots.
Just like deciding whether to go curly or straight – the choice is yours.