The Brands Reimagining Natural Hair Care

It’s no surprise that Black consumers — who, according to Nielsen, were responsible for over 85 percent of the spending in the American “ethnic hair and beauty aids” market in 2019, almost $55 million in total — want brands that feel familiar and inspire trust, especially when it comes to something as personal as hair. And while a number of large Black hair care companies, including Shea Moisture, Cantu and now Carol’s Daughter (which was bought by L’Oréal in 2014), are operated by white-owned corporations, the majority of the brands that make up the new wave of natural hair care lines are Black-owned.

Last year, when the actress Gabrielle Union relaunched her hair care line, Flawless by Gabrielle Union, with her business partner, Larry Sims, a celebrity stylist and her best friend of two decades, “we wanted to keep it FUBU top to bottom,” she told me on a recent Zoom call from Los Angeles, using the acronym for “for us, by us.” An earlier iteration of the brand, which she founded in 2017, was rooted in a business arrangement, Union said, whereby she was an owner in name only and afforded little creative control. After reclaiming her company, she felt she could fully direct her energies toward creating products for Black people in need of hair regrowth and repair (she had experienced significant thinning herself in 2017 after multiple rounds of IVF). On the day we spoke, Union wore her hair in a high bun — in preparation for a wedding scene for a movie she was shooting later that day — that Sims, her stylist for the production, had set with Flawless’s Three-Minute Restoring Conditioner and Repairing Edge Control. “We are doing outreach to HBCUs, to Black scientists and Black chemists,” Union explained, “to try to create a pipeline, not just for us, but for the hair care industry at large.”

Some beauty founders, though, believe that the notion that only Black-owned brands should create products for Black customers helps perpetuate the marginalization of natural hair care. True inclusivity, they say, would mean that every hair company, regardless of its owner, would offer products for a range of different types and textures. Nancy Twine, the founder of the clean beauty brand Briogeo, believes that until diversity, inclusion and equity are the status quo, she and other leaders will have to keep pressuring the industry’s gatekeepers, many of them non-Black, to make representation ubiquitous. Still, a Black hair care company “could have a white founder,” she told me. “I am all about ‘for us by us.’ I think that is beautiful and excellent. But if we really want equity, the ones who don’t look like us or don’t have our hair texture” and are in power, she continued, will also need to “bridge the gap.”

For Vernon François, a celebrity hair stylist and the founder of an eponymous hair care line, the need for representation has felt especially acute since he became a father. “Encouraging hair love and acceptance, genuinely knowing that what you were born with is good enough,” François wrote in an email, “all these things are gifts that directly affect your self-confidence, which is linked to achieving greatness and happiness in life.” He has imparted the knowledge he began acquiring at 14 — when he first started working in a salon, in London — to his 3-year-old daughter, who can now detangle her own hair and loves seeing her father’s products in Sally Beauty. But François wants to expand inclusivity in other ways, too. “Everyone has a hair journey,” he said. “The stories of male and nonbinary hair journeys exist too, they are out there, but often there is a divide in what is spoken about in the mainstream beauty space.”

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