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The epic transformation of the black hair and beauty industry
Black hair is a big deal – culturally and economically. Black women are estimated to spend around six times more on haircare than other women, typically change their hairstyle far more often and spend hundreds of hours in hair salons. And yet, barely any mainstream UK retailers stock hair extensions, wigs, afro hair creams, oils or dyes. Black women fronting national ad campaigns for cosmetics brands – or any brand, for that matter – still make headlines. When it comes to beauty, black women and their hair feel more or less ignored.
Young black consumers are fed up. Tired of sub-standard haircare products, annoyed by sub-par customer service, jaded by promises made by mainstream stores and beauty brands to meet their needs, frustrated by how hard it is to discover and source new cosmetic products, angry at how little representation they get in the media, and irked that many of the businesses they buy from aren’t black-owned.
So they’re taking matters into their own hands.
In the last five years, a wave of black British business founders have started plugging gaps in the market and creating solutions for problems they – and the other two and a half million black people in the UK – face. Across a huge range of products and services, these new businesses are offering the diversity and quality already taken for granted in just about every other consumer sector.
The media and marketing landscape has also changed. Social media and online retail are giving these products and brands unprecedented reach, helping them bypass chain store buyers and freeing them from local high street limitations.
The UK’s multi-million pound black hair and cosmetics sector is getting a makeover, powered by black business owners themselves.
High-street status quo
Walking into ‘ethnic’ retailers, concentrated in areas with historically high populations of black people, is like heading back in time. Items are patched with fluorescent price stickers, the products’ packaging looks like it hasn’t had a rebrand since the 1990s, the floors are carpeted and the aisles narrow.
Pak Cosmetics is London’s biggest chain of black hair and beauty product retailers, with nine green-fronted stores across the city, an online shop and a wholesale outlet, which even supplies supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda. Serving thousands of customers per week and selling about as many products, it’s almost synonymous with black British cosmetics retail – and yet is owned by Saghir and Tanvir Hussain; an Asian family, like the majority of its competitors.
In recent years, this issue of ownership has become a point of contention; customers complain male Asian staff have a poor understanding of the products they sell. Pak’s, for example, maintains a store policy to point customers to best-selling items rather than offer personalised advice.
Quality, provenance and safety of products are also concerns. Over 80% of products in shops like Pak’s are imported from the US where, a 2016 study found, one out of 12 beauty products marketed to African-American women were toxic. The origins of ‘100% human hair extensions’ are hazy and their quality is taken at a brand’s word, while most high-street retailers have a no-refund policy on wigs and extensions for hygiene reasons. Hair has no Fairtrade-style accreditation system; customers must rely on a brand’s reputation instead.
Many black women are frustrated there is no alternative to shops like Pak’s.
‘The products are outdated, the shops are outdated,’ says Ibi Meier-Oruitemeka, founder of hair and skin care brand The Afro Hair and Skin Co. ‘For a long time there’s been a culture of low standards when it comes to black beauty products.’
The contrast between the glossy interiors, attentive staff and product selection of a Sephora or Selfridges couldn’t be more stark.
‘It doesn’t feel like you’re shopping for beauty,’ says Jackie Taiwo, who founded online retailer Melariche out of frustration over the lack of choice in cosmetics in London, in contrast to her native New York. ‘In America, in urban cities, people are more willing to embrace diversity and value it,’ she argues. ‘They don’t shy away from telling stories that are specifically catered to minority communities.’
Yet, unlike food retailers, which tend to customise their produce range based on local demographics, Boots, Superdrug and the major supermarkets have a limited range of products suitable for black hair and skin, even in areas with large black communities. A recent report by Superdrug found that 70% of black and Asian women feel the high street doesn’t cater for their beauty needs.
‘There’s a lack of representation on the high street,’ says Tommy Williams, founder of hair extensions startup All Shades Covered. ‘Boots has started to recognise the opportunity,’ he adds. ‘But the way it services customers is terribly wrong. The products it stocks – like relaxers, which the younger generation rarely uses – are the products people were using 10 years ago.’
This lack of availability and variety in mainstream stores creates a catch-22 situation. It’s notoriously hard for small or new British brands to get ranged, while there’s limited space even for hair and skin care products from large, US brands, such as ORS Haircare, Shea Moisture, and Dark and Lovely (owned by L’Oreal). At the same time, because customers know they’re unlikely to discover any new products in-store, they’re less inclined to visit in the first place, so stores aren’t incentivised to widen their product range.
Online retail is one solution. Melariche, Antidote Street, The Good Hair Club and My Luxe Beauty are just a few of the platforms founded in the past few years to sell beauty products for black customers. With a focus on lifestyle as well as retail, they are more in-line with the likes of fashion brands than pharmacies.
‘It’s only now that we’re starting to see young businesses like The Good Hair Club, with a modern aesthetic, catering to young, modern women,’ says Meier-Oruitemeka. ‘Habits are changing – people are looking for that social element, and connection to brands, rather than just going and picking up anonymous products.’
As increasing numbers of black women switch from chemically relaxing their hair to wearing it natural, there’s a growing need for both haircare products for natural hair, and also advice on how to look after it.
‘Growing up our parents would braid our hair, then as we grew older, we relaxed our hair or put in extensions. It got to the point where we never learned how to look after our hair,’ says Winnie Awa, co-founder of Antidote Street, who realised how hard it was to access the kind of products recommended by black beauty bloggers when she herself switched to natural hair.
As a result, unlike the websites of businesses such as Pak’s, these new platforms are also positioning themselves as sources for the advice, reviews, personality and community lacking in most physical retail stores. All four have blogs, covering topics such as care regimens for relaxed hair, explainers on hair types, skincare routines for hyper-pigmentation and tips on how to attach hair extensions. They act as product curators, offering quality control and helping customers discover new brands.
Antidote Street, for example, has an on-site trichologist (hair scientist) and offers travel-size product kits for customers to try out. ‘It’s a brilliant conversion technique,’ says Awa, and gets around the problem of it often being expensive to test new products bought online.
Working with bloggers is another way in which Antidote Street is in line with the changing habits of young consumers. Of its customers, 30% are from outside the UK, and the majority of these have been referred via social media. ‘It’s starting to drive the way customers shop,’ says Awa. ‘They see someone get good results [from a product] and think, if it worked for her, it’ll work for me.’
On the high street, Sandra Brown-Pinnock is also trying to make shopping for beauty a social experience. She runs two stores, Xsandy’s, in Lewisham and Peckham in south east London, which she opened in 2015 and 2016 respectively, with the aim of setting a higher bar for customer service and product education. ‘Customers want to know more about what is really good for their hair and skin, and how products work,’ she says. ‘They’ve been fed so many lies. Now they want authenticity.’
She’s also keen to promote British brands, in-store and through her website. Currently, she ranges 18 UK-based brands, but wants to add more. Like her competitors, the majority of the products stocked in her store come from the US, via a small group of wholesalers.
It’s effectively a monopoly, she says. The supply chain is hard to break into. Many of the wholesalers – Dooa, Sherrys, Beauty Star – are the sole UK distributors for some brands. Often, those brands have contracts with the wholesalers which means they won’t, or can’t, work directly with retailers like Xsandy’s. Meanwhile, some high-street retailers band together to buy in bulk from the wholesalers, and so get preferential rates. Black-owned businesses have historically been excluded from these deals. With the minimum spend at around £10,000, it’s easy to see why many would-be retailers think it’s not feasible to even open up shop.
For Brown-Pinnock, the racial politics underlying the situation are part and parcel of the problem. ‘When I look at our community, we do a lot of spending, yet we don’t invest,’ she says, estimating the average black woman spends a minimum of £50 per month on hair and skincare. (Putting the annual UK spend, by her reckoning, at £900m.) ‘Now we need to own a part of [that market].’
Encouraging and supporting British businesses could check the wholesalers’ power, offer customers more choice, give stores like Xsandy’s a new USP and make it easier for new retailers to enter the market. ‘Everybody needs to come together, then we can get our own wholesalers, and then we can go across the pond,’ says Brown-Pinnock.
‘The root of everything is economic change,’ argues Deborah Johnson, co-owner of the Simply Gorgeous hair salon, explaining her preference for supporting black-owned businesses. ‘In order for communities to prosper, they need money. My goal seems more realistic when I see people like me doing well.’
‘There’s a push towards supporting black-owned businesses,’ agrees Meier-Oruitemeka. ‘With the information coming to light that the black hair industry is predominantly owned by Asian men, people are more cynical about the lack of expertise – and more importantly, quality – they’ve been subject to.’
This growing desire to support black-owned businesses doesn’t affect customers’ wish to see change on the high street. ‘If mainstream stores stocked our products, people would be delighted,’ says Cheryl Jumbo, founder of the Black Beauty and Fashion Awards.
Some high-end beauty brands, notably Estee Lauder and MAC, offer a wide range of foundation shades. Estee Lauder’s Double Wear foundation, for example, has 44 shades, from ‘Rich Chestnut’ through ‘Deep Amber’ to ‘Espresso’. A spokesperson for the brand stated it ensures all shades are stocked at its retailers, and that it encourages in-store teams to ‘distort locally’ and ‘display the shades that are relevant to their local customers’. Not all brands are so diligent; the shades generally available in most high street stores range from ‘pink to pale’, notes Melariche’s Taiwo.
Availability and accessibility is even more of a problem for younger customers, or those unwilling or unable to splash out £31 on foundation. Often the only option is Sleek, an affordable makeup brand available in many Boots and Superdrug stores, as well as most ethnic retailers, that sells highly-pigmented lipsticks for £5.50 and dark shades of foundation for £8.
This year, L’Oreal launched its True Match foundation range, with a marketing campaign featuring 30 famous or inspirational women of different skin tones, including black British beauty blogger Patricia Bright, who has over one million Youtube followers. L’Oreal did not, however, stipulate that retailers must stock all 23 shades of the range.
Superdrug has launched a campaign called ‘Shades of Beauty’, ‘to make high-street beauty more accessible for black and Asian women’. It started a microsite on its website with around 100 products for women of colour, however admits that the full range is not available in all of its shops, due to ‘store space limitations’.
Cake, a makeup brand started in 2015 to fill a perceived gap in the market for makeup catered to darker skin tones, is now stocked by Superdrug online as part of its campaign. Stevie Newman, the brand’s founder, says Superdrug was keen to range her products in store too, however she cannot currently produce the necessary quantity to meet the order requirements.
Boots meanwhile has appointed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the face of its No7 make-up brand. In 2015, it also bought Sleek, which primarily tailors its products to black customers. Sleek states that in 2015 it was one of the fastest growing mass makeup brands in the UK – a sure sign of demand for cosmetics designed for deep skin tones.
It’s not the first time major retailers and brands have made moves to appeal to black customers. However, without commitments to maintain diverse product ranges, fund product development, actively scope out new brands catering to black women, or feature more black women in marketing materials across the board, it’s likely these recent campaigns will fail to capitalise on the full potential of the black consumer market.
That leaves a big slice of the cosmetic industry still not accounted for — and one that small, black-owned British businesses could snap up.