Remy. Virgin. These are words familiar to anyone who has even mildly experimented with wigs, weaves or extensions. But how many of us really know where the hair we’re wearing actually comes from?
When Chris Rock visited India to investigate the source of the American hair trade for his 2009 documentary Good Hair, he only scratched the surface. While the Hindu tonsure ritual of shaving one’s head seems not only a voluntary, but noble sacrifice, the underbelly of one of the world’s most lucrative industries is—in a word—shady.
So it’s fitting that style site Refinery29 did their own exploration of the hair trade as part of their investigative YouTube series, Shady. In the episode, “The Truth About Where Hair Extensions Come From,” senior beauty editor Lexy Lebsack speaks with three hair experts—celebrity wigmaker Merria Dearman, hair entrepreneur Riqua Hailes, and Dan Choi, founder of ethically-focused hair company Remy New York, traveling all the way to Vietnam to see Choi at work, personally engaging with the women he buys hair from.
It’s a brief, but revealing look at an industry in which women are consistently exploited, sometimes being offered as little as $2-$3 dollars for a head or hair that will retail for hundreds—or, in the case of tonsure, sacrificing it to temples that will make millions off of the profits. As Lebsack notes in a voiceover, “One constant in all of this is that the hair trade sets up shop wherever women are the most disenfranchised.”
Dearman, whose custom-made wigs adorn some of the most famous heads in the world, humbly admits, “I try to source from people who I know where the hair is coming from, but I don’t know.”
Hailes, founder of Los Angeles, Ca. hair bar Just Extensions, thinks most people who benefit from the hair trade—either as clients, manufacturers or brokers—neither know nor care where the hair comes from. After her own experience with unscrupulous hair sellers, Hailes traveled across six countries—Peru, Malaysia, Brazil, China, India and Cambodia—to get to the root of the hair trade (pun intended).
Refinery29 tags along for the ride, making the distinction between the highly valued and often falsely marketed Remy hair—which is virgin hair of the highest quality sourced from a single donor to ensure consistency in texture, and the often inferior hair collected from the floors of temples and hair salons, chemically treated with and even mixed with other hair types to mask its inferiority.
But the most revealing moments come when Refinery29 travels to Vietnam to interview Choi, a wigmaker and hair broker who has the ambitious mission of creating “one of the first ethical and totally transparent [hair] companies on the market.” Dearman likens Choi’s practice to fair trade, where the women who donate are paid a competitive and often life-changing rate for their hair and Choi is able to guarantee that the hair he is selling has been ethically sourced.
But obviously, Choi is simply one man in a industry that is almost incalculable in its scope, and unless consumers demand more transparency from all of their suppliers, there is little chance of it changing. And perhaps that’s the real truth Refinery29 reveals about the hair industry, and how it thrives: As consumers, we are equally responsible for doing our part to ensure that its ethics are in place.