Death Threats & £2 Ponytails: What The Fake Hair Trade Is Hiding
The industry has long exploited poor women, but one new company is stepping up to create fair trade hair.
Nguyen Thi Thuy’s hip-length hair has always been one of her most prized possessions. Every morning before work, she gently combs out any knots, massages it with coconut oil to keep it jet black and shiny, and weaves it into the safety of a braid. Long, healthy, thick hair is a traditional marker of beauty in rural Vietnam, and although she already works two demanding jobs as a farmer and housekeeper, taking care of her hair is one of the few luxuries she can afford.
Over the past few years, Thuy has been targeted by travelling hair traders who scout her small town looking for women desperate enough to sell their hair on the cheap. The most she’s ever been offered is 70,000 dong, or about £2.30. Some women fall victim to these prices, but even in her family’s hardest times, she’s always said no. But the latest rumour in town is more appealing: Her youngest son heard of a man who travels through the countryside paying close to £75 for hair like hers... an amount that could finally allow her to provide for her family without working 16-hour days.
What may seem like a small amount in the UK goes a long way in Thuy’s rural Vietnamese community. She has long dreamt of being able to raise chickens and ducks on a family farm, but it’s a major financial investment that’s she’s never been able to afford. So she agrees to sell her hair for the very first time. "I love my hair so much, it’s so beautiful," Thuy tells us. "I don’t know what I will look like with short hair."
Her buyer, Dan Choi, a Korean-American expat who started his human hair company, Remy New York in 2017, arrives days later on a motorbike armed with scissors, zip ties and cash. After agreeing upon a rate, he sections and cuts Thuy’s hair, leaving her with a blunt, shoulder-length chop. Dan paid Thuy about £75 for her hair — the equivalent of her entire family’s monthly salary — which is enough to buy livestock to raise for years to come. They both got what they wanted: Choi has one more beautiful ponytail to sell to a roster of celebrity hairstylists and Thuy will finally be more financially independent.
Feelgood stories like this are uncommon in the global world of hair trading, a completely unregulated business that's reportedly worth billions of pounds per year. Instead, it’s filled with scammers and con artists who prey on desperate women in the developing world to cut their hair off for a few pounds — and later sell it to rich women with means to have human hair as a status symbol. These "hair brokers" flood conflict zones and war-torn countries where it’s easy to exploit women for their last valuable possession. But as consumers become more aware of how the hair industry has been operating in the shadows, one new company is stepping up to create a business model that consumers can feel good about: fair trade hair.
A solution has been a long time coming: People have been wearing hair extensions and wigs for thousands of years, often at the expense of others; as far back as ancient Egypt, wealthy women reportedly wore the hair of slaves to convey status. But the topic of wearing fake hair has never been more accepted than it is now, with top hairstylists marketing their own extension lines, celebrities sporting new wigs every day, and sew-ins offered as a regular service at blow-dry bars. While the stigma of wearing fake hair might be fading, there's still a huge amount of secrecy about where it all really comes from — and the reality is worse than you can imagine.
The Hair Industry Is Designed To Exploit Poor Women
The exploitation of women in this industry starts with how hair is marketed. Google Brazilian or Russian hair — two in-demand types — and you’ll be met with hundreds of returns promising "virgin remy" for cheap. Unprocessed hair (virgin) with all the strands going in the same direction (remy) is the gold standard because it’s healthier, smoother and wears better than the alternatives. But the demand far outweighs the supply, so hair companies fake it by chemically processing any hair they can find (a practice that deceives the consumer and is hazardous to the factory workers’ health) or they buy hair from sources that cannot be traced. This gives way to even more unscrupulous sourcing practices, like armed robbery.
There’s no shortage of stories of women and children being attacked for their hair — robbed by gun or knifepoint in Venezuela, India, South Africa, Ukraine, Myanmar and elsewhere — and held down as thieves forcibly cut off their ponytails. Without required traceability, the door is left open for this to happen all over the world by criminals hoping to make a quick buck on virgin hair. But collecting a large amount of quality hair requires women to give it voluntarily, so it’s more common for hair dealers to travel from region to region buying hair from disenfranchised women until the supply dries up.
This is why a lot of hair right now is coming from places like Myanmar, which has suffered a catastrophic genocide over the past two years, or Ukraine, since it’s still recovering from a revolution and in a land dispute with Russia over the region of Crimea. In fact, some Russian hair Instagram pages are geotagged from inside the conflict zones, and exporters we spoke to claim that Russian military officers often have hair-selling side hustles.
The same is the case for Venezuela, where starvation from a government in turmoil has driven women to walk to the Colombian border; there, booths are set up to shave or cut hair for pennies – compared to the pounds it’s actually worth. It’s been reported that Tunisia, a country that has been relatively unstable since the Arab Spring began in 2011, is also a hotspot for exporting hair.
The one thing all these places have in common? The more disenfranchised the women, the less these dealers have to pay for good hair they can easily flip.
But none of this is new: To be priced competitively, hair dealers have always had to undercut the women selling their hair, which is why dealers have historically flocked to places where women are in dire straits. Hair dealers were banned from Ellis Island in the early 1900s for, quite literally, preying on the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But even after being banned, it’s reported that over 15,000 immigrants still sold their hair as they entered the US each year around the turn of the century.
Because the industry has encouraged these practices for generations, everyone inside is notoriously secretive. Few dealers, wigmakers or even Hollywood hairstylists will go on record because they don’t want to have their sources or practices exposed or questioned — or they simply don’t know.
"Most people do not know where their hair comes from," says Riqua Hailes, owner of Los Angeles hair extension bar, Just Extensions. "Until it's regulated, you're not gonna have a concrete answer of exactly what's going on."
We interviewed several top hairstylists and when we asked them where their hair comes from, many replied with one of a few stock answers. "You don’t want to know," was common, while some spouted off what they do know: "It’s not temple hair," meaning it wasn't donated in a religious ceremony. The conversations didn't go beyond that.
Most people do not know where their hair comes from. Until it's regulated, you're not gonna have a concrete answer of exactly what's going on.
Riqua Hailes, owner of Los Angeles hair extension bar, Just Extensions.
Hair To Feel Good About
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wear someone else’s hair, but how are consumers supposed to shop when it seems nearly impossible to make an ethical choice? For many brands that strive to source fairly, like Great Lengths, Woven Hair and Hailes’ Just Extensions, India has become the most popular option, since women freely give their hair during a religious Hindu ceremony called tonsuring. Because they don’t accept money in return (the temples profit, but costs are still low for bulk hair buyers), it keeps the overall overhead low. But not everyone thinks the tonsuring route is best: Hasidic Jewish women, for example, are a large consumer of hair, but choose not to wear hair that is tied to another religion. India offers few texture variations, so those looking for a specific colour or type are also left wanting.
This is where a company like Dan Choi’s Remy New York (which purchased Thuy’s hair for about £75) comes in: It takes the ethical movement to the next level by laying out exactly where it gets its hair from, allowing third parties (like Refinery29) to follow its supply chain to ensure transparency, and giving outsiders an opportunity to actually speak with women who have sold their hair.
Choi, who started the brand last year, grew up as the youngest son in a traditional Korean-American home in Queens, New York. His father sold real estate, his mother worked in a nail shop. He went to college on Long Island and was setting himself up to follow in his father’s career path when he took time off to travel. He saw the disparity between rich and poor in countries like Cambodia, India and Vietnam — and ended up settling in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He says he felt drawn to the region because he knew he could build a business that could thrive in the fastest growing economy in Asia while putting his philanthropic spirit to good use.
His dream was to create the Alibaba of Vietnam — one with a mission to give back by building schools in rural regions — so he started working in direct-to-consumer sales on Amazon. Then he stumbled upon the hair industry and knew it was a niche he couldn’t ignore: No matter how poor the women or children, most could grow and sell their hair every few years. He tells stories of seeing poor children with short hair selling gum or candy on the streets, knowing that he could have empowered them if he had been the one to cut their hair. "I thought, that could have been me," he says, noting that his parents’ move to the States before he was born was a life-changing opportunity few get.
He used capital from his Amazon business, selling things like toys and bulk minerals, to start buying hair. To get the word out about Remy New York, Choi hires women to hand out flyers in Ho Chi Minh City and markets on Facebook, then sets up appointments and arrives by bike to make the sale. His operation is small — currently employing 15 people — and his rates have made him a target. "Our prices are anywhere from five to 10 times our competitors, which is why we've received dangerous threats," Choi explains, saying he's received phone calls from local competitors threatening violence if he continues driving up the baseline women can expect for their hair.
Our prices are anywhere from five to 10 times our competitors, which is why we've received dangerous threats.
Dan Choi, founder of Remy New York
We spoke to women in Vietnam who had declined sellers for their low rates and those who had sold their hair in the past to other brokers. The most anyone was offered or paid was £11 for their ponytail. By contrast, Choi’s rates vary slightly depending on quality, weight and length; the average sale is about £67, which is the minimum we saw him pay numerous women during our visit.
Most decide upon a bob length, giving up about 16 inches, which is normally around 100 grams. This brings in £67. On average, 12 inches will get you £50, 20 will bring in £82, 23 inches sell for £150, and it goes up exponentially from there, since the longer the hair, the more novel the product. Hair that’s incredibly healthy (no split ends, incredibly soft, etc.) will get an extra £18 or so, but he rarely says no. "We try not to turn away anybody just because everybody needs help," he says. For Choi, even 12 inches of coloured hair is worth something on the market.
Choi says he paid £330 for one of his longest ponytails. "It was life-changing money for her," he says. "It was one of the longest ponytails we’d ever seen... It’s already earmarked for a celebrity hairstylist with plans to use it on one of her chart-topping A-list clients."
Some clients value his transparent approach, but most simply can’t get over the quality of his hair, so they’re willing to pay top dollar. His frontals start at £750, lace front wigs go for £1,500, and custom wigs go for double that. Since the company’s cut out the middleman and processing altogether, Choi’s prices are actually very competitive for a market where virgin remy hair is a rarity. "Gracie [Odoms'], a well known celebrity hairstylist for Jada Pinkett Smith, jaw dropped when I pulled the hair out of the bag," Choi says, noting that hairstylists behind other A-listers had similar reactions. "These are people that touch hair on a daily basis. They're amazed that there's hair of this quality."
Industry standard outposts, like American bi-coastal company, The Hair Shop, where many top Hollywood stylists purchase hair, can’t even sell authentic virgin remy. "Honestly, it’s really hard to get — we’re trying to get it," a salesperson told us, noting that all its hair is processed in some way. "Most sellers of virgin remy sell directly to stylists." This sentiment was echoed in all our interviews: Hair heavyweights don’t share their sources of virgin remy, because it’s a limited resource and no one wants theirs to dry up.
Choi’s still in the infancy of his business — opening schools built by ethical hair profits is still an aspiration, of course — but he seems to have nailed down a business model that could be copied all over the world. His biggest fear is his team getting too big and his buyers in the field becoming corrupt, but his hair is so novel, he’s not worried about a return on his investment. He's earned most of his clients, like wigmakers and celebrity stylists, by simply knocking on doors on short business trips in LA and New York with a suitcase of hair.
One celebrity wigmaker in New York we interviewed, who wanted to remain anonymous, told us that she’s never seen an operation quite like Choi’s. "There you have transparency," she says. "That's what it looks like when the girls are getting something in return that's extremely valuable." She says the hair is also some of the best she’s seen.
Choi’s gotten the same feedback directly. He recalls a moment when he showed a celebrity stylist in LA his ponytails and she got goosebumps. "Where did you get this?!" she said. Since it’s so unique, he had to tell his company’s origin story, but maybe soon he’ll simply be able to reply: "From a woman named Thuy."