Maybe you recall the moment 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 might be nice to imagine that her experience was will no longer possible, that this business of human hair had gone the way in which in the guillotine – but the truth is, it’s booming. The current industry for extensions created from real human hair is increasing with an incredible rate. In 2013, £42.8 million amount of human hair was imported into the UK, padded by helping cover their some animal hair. That’s a thousand metric tons and, end to finish, almost 80 million miles of hair, or if you prefer, two million heads of 50cm long hair. And our hair industry pales in comparison to those of the usa.
Two questions spring in your thoughts: first, that is supplying this all hair and, secondly, who on earth is buying it? Unsurprisingly, both sides of your market are cagey. Nobody wants to admit precisely where these are importing hair from and girls with extensions love to pretend their brazilian hair is their own. Websites selling human hair will occasionally explain 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 just about the most-visited holy sites on the planet, so there’s a lot of hair to flog.
This has been described as ‘happy hair’ – and it’s certainly a sufficient story to tell your client as you glue another woman’s dead hair to her scalp. But countries like Russia, China, Ukraine, Peru and Brazil also export huge amounts of hair, so where’s that from? The reality behind this hair might be a grim one. You will find reports of female prisoners and ladies in labour camps being compelled to shave their heads so those who are in charge can sell it off off. Whether or not the women aren’t coerced, no one can make certain that the hair’s original owner received a good – or any – price.
It’s an unusual anomaly within a world through which we’re all obsessed with fair trade and ethical sourcing: nobody seems whatsoever bothered regarding the origins of the extra hair. But, the industry is difficult to manage and also the supply chain is convoluted. Bundles of hair can move through many different countries, making it challenging to keep tabs on. Then a branding can be purchased in: Chinese hair is marketed as Brazilian, Indian as European. The point that some websites won’t disclose where their hair originates 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 need to know in which the hair is harvested. From the FAQ sections of human hair websites, most queries are stuff like ‘How do I care for it’ or ‘How long could it last?’ as an alternative to ‘Whose hair will it be anyway?’ One profoundly sinister website selling ‘virgin Russian hair’ boasts the hair ‘has been grown in the cold Siberian regions and has never been chemically treated’. Another site details how 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 is a sticky ball after burning.’ In addition to not melting, human hair styles better. Accept no imitations, ladies.
The most costly option is blonde European hair, a packet of which can fetch greater than £1,000. So who buys this? Well, Beyoncé first. Her hair collection used to be estimated to get worth $1 million. As well as the Kardashians recently launched a variety of extensions under the name ‘Hair Kouture’, designed to provide you with that ‘long hair don’t care attitude’.
Near where I reside in London, there are many of shops selling all types of wigs, weaves and extensions. The signs outside advertise ‘virgin hair’ (which can be hair that hasn’t been treated, rather than hair from virgins). Nearby, the local hairdresser does a roaring trade in stitching bundles of hair in to the heads of girls seeking to 33dexjpky like cast members from The Only Method Is Essex. My hairdresser tells me she has middle-aged, middle-class women seeking extensions to ensure they look ‘more like Kate Middleton’. She even suspects Kate may have used extensions, that is a tabloid story waiting to take place: ‘Kate wears my hair!’
Human hair is a precious commodity because it will take time to increase and artificial substitutes are considered inferior. You will find women prepared to buy and there are women willing to sell, but given the actual size of the current market it’s about time we found out 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.