Scratch the surface and you’ll find the flowing locks of Russian prisoners, Hindu pilgrims and victims of blackmail. But the human hair trade is starting to change.
When Thien Y arrives to an alleyway in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, she brings her whole family. Uncles, aunts and cousins crowd the lane, dodging clotheslines and noodle soup stands.
Meanwhile, a New Yorker sets up shop just inside an open doorway, taking out a set of scales, zip ties, some scissors and ziplock bags.
Thien Y is one of the Vietnamese women supplying Dan Choi’s fair-trade hair company, Remy New York. She’s an 18-year-old student from the countryside in her first year of university.
“I want to use the money from selling my hair for my tuition, rent and food,” she explains.
Dan pulls up a stool and unties her hair, sending waves of thick, black silk down her back.
The rise of fake hair
Hair like Thien Y’s is in high demand, with an ever-growing number of women, and increasingly men, using hair extensions in their daily lives.
Social media is driving the hair extension trend
The global hair extension market was worth US$2 billion in 2017 ($2.76 billion). It’s predicted to hit US$7 billion by 2028.
Ariana Grande has been credited with a surge in sales of fake ponytails while Nicki Minaj’s floor-length extensions have inspired copycats. Some big Hollywood names, such as Jessica Simpson and Kylie Jenner, have even opened their own wig and extension lines.
Meanwhile, social media influencers are being paid by extension companies to post “hair transformations” on Instagram.
It’s an affordable transformation for many, with a full head of extensions costing Australian customers about $160.
So where is all this hair coming from?
Dan is on a mission to offer women a fair price for their hair and open up economic opportunities for them and their families.
But outside of his fair-trade business, things aren’t so rosy.
Where do your hair extensions come from?
Most hair extension companies keep their supply chains hidden, so the brokers sourcing hair operate in the shadows, with little to no regulation.
Brokers typically target struggling regions where women will sell their hair for whatever they can get.
Most hair is sourced in Asia, from women like Thien Y.
“It’s mostly processed in China,” says Dan. “The buyers will go to South America, India, Vietnam, buy the hair, then process it and make it into whatever.”
Tonsuring image on Twitter
In other cases, hair is sourced from Indian Hindu temples, where female pilgrims shave their heads in worship as part of a religious ceremony, referred to as tonsuring. The temples tonsure thousands of women a day.
But sometimes traders simply take hair, whether that means forcibly shaving it from the heads of Russian prisoners or stealing it in places as innocuous as shopping centres.
“I was held down by a gang of men who hacked at my hair,” one young Indian woman told The Observer.
“I know other women who have been blackmailed and threatened to shave their own heads, in some cases their husbands have received money for their hair and ordered their wives to have their heads shaved.”
In Vietnam, brokers often walk or ride around the streets, touting their service.
“They buy hair very very cheap,” says 26-year-old office worker, Linh.
“They are always on the move. They just go around calling ‘I’m buying hair’ like a street seller.”
Hair is increasingly being bought and sold online, often via social networking sites. Last year, Linh sold 40cm of her hair for just VND 400,000 ($23) to a trader on Facebook.
Facebook brokers display little other than a contact number. Women must negotiate a price.
“I didn’t know what was a good price because there was no information online,” she says. “I got my hair cut at a salon and then I had to bring it to them at their home.”
By contrast, Thien Y will receive $150 for the same length of hair.
Hair fraud on a billion-dollar scale
The majority of the world’s wigs, wefts and extensions begin life as discarded waste product — hair swept from salon floors, picked from combs and salvaged from plugholes.
“Premium” hair is supposed to be different — but with no industry oversight and shadowy supply chains, there’s little way consumers can know what they’re getting until it’s too late.
The most coveted grade of hair is “virgin remy” — unprocessed (“virgin”) hair that has been kept in a ponytail (“remy”).
“Remy hair, where the cuticle layers are all facing the same direction from root to end, ensures the hair extension behaves exactly like your own hair,” says a spokesperson for Sydney salon, Christopher Hanna.
But Rob Aubin, chief executive of hair extension seller Great Lengths Australia, says it can be hard to know if you’re getting what you paid for.
“To know if hair is remy or not remy, you need to have a scanning electron microscope,” he says. “It’s easy for a consumer to be duped.”
Price doesn’t always guarantee quality. Many “virgin remy” bundles are really just a combination of hair from salon floors or drains, mixed with synthetics and other non-human fibers, says Dan.
Hair extensions sellers are reliant on their brokers for information and most have no idea where the hair originated.
“It’s tough to find someone who goes directly to source,” says a US-based Etsy seller.
To cover themselves, some sellers waive responsibility.
As one Australian company writes, “we do not warrant that the quality of any products purchased by you will meet your expectations.”
In Australia, there are no laws requiring imported human hair to be certified or a duty paid.
“Some countries in the EU require human hair to be fumigated but that doesn’t seem to be true for Australia,” says Dan.
Inside the hidden hair factories
Dan doesn’t believe some companies could be paying their staff a fair wage while selling extensions as cheaply as they do.
Little is known about the conditions for the workers who process and bundle the hair, but reports suggest they’re not receiving a fair wage.
Journalists from the New Zealand Herald snuck inside hair factories in Taihe, China and found “gated communities” that smell of “stagnant peroxide”.
“More than 1,000 workers are inside — some paid as little as $2 an hour and nearly all female. They sit on small, wooden stools combing the hair through nails, soaking it in conditioner and dyeing it in metal barrels.”
Just as few consumers are able to distinguish good hair from bad, even fewer are aware of the realities of the hair industry.
According to Sydney Salon, Marie-France Group, clients don’t usually ask how hair was sourced.
“They often ask if it is Indian, Russian, remy … they are usually more concerned with quality, price, and if it is the best for their hair,” says a spokeswoman.
‘I want to change the hair industry’
For Dan, the biggest challenge has been educating his market to understand why his prices are so high.
“I have a very famous Hollywood wig-maker who balked at our prices. She basically said ‘your prices are European prices, you have Asian hair’.”
The price that Dan will pay Thien Y for her hair will double by the time it hits the shelves, to cover fair labour costs and other expenses.
“Each hair piece takes hours to make,” says Dan. “At the minimum we have to sell our hair for $US250 per 100 grams, because we have to factor in US taxes, logistics, a fair wage, et cetera.”
The majority of his profits go to school projects in rural Vietnam.
He aims to take his model to other parts of the developing world, bringing opportunity to communities that would usually be exploited by the industry.
“I want to change the whole dynamic of the hair industry,” he says.
When a stranger wears your hair
All of Thien Y’s hair has been cut now and is lying in shiny black rolls on the scales. Dan weighs it and lifts it carefully into ziplock bags to be taken back to his workshop.
A few months from now, it will be on someone’s head on the other side of the world.
She smiles as Dan puts the hair in his backpack.
“My hair is very important to me — it’s a part of me. But I felt happy to cut it,” she says.
“I don’t feel like it’s strange if someone else wears my hair. My hair is valuable, I feel proud.”
Words and photographs by Zoe Osborne
Edited and produced by Annika Blau and Leigh Tonkin