2017 was a banner year for Gabrielle Union. The actress' hit show, Being Mary Jane, was in its fourth season on BET. She published a now-bestselling memoir, We're Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, and celebrated the release of a clothing collection with New York & Company. The cherry on top was a brand-new venture, Union's first foray into the beauty industry as an entrepreneur: a complete line of hair-care products, simply titled Flawless by Gabrielle Union.
Union's brand, like everything she touches, was poised for success. But behind the glamour, Union was having a very different experience: During the formulation and promotion of her line, she says, personal troubles made her feel the opposite of the "flawless" message her line touted. "I was coming off of years of back-to-back IVF treatments that left me with bald spots on my head," Union tells Refinery29 during a phone interview. "It was the worst time to launch a hair-care line, when I was missing chunks of my own. It just felt disingenuous."
As Union struggled, Flawless by Gabrielle Union moved forward, dropping at US shop Ulta with 10 products to considerable financial success. But in spite of the profits, the brand didn't sit right with the person who put her name on it — not after what she'd been through. "At the time, we created something special, but my values weren't centred," Union says. "My most authentic voice was telling me to pause." So she made the decision to part ways with her initial partners and regain majority control of the line. The products from the launch remained on shelves until they were sold out, then vanished.
Union went back to the drawing board to rework Flawless on her own terms, and brought her hairstylist of over 10 years, Larry J Sims, along with her. "Taking this break allowed me to have some time to prioritise how I wanted this brand to be," she says. "My first order of business was wanting to reclaim my company and become 100% Black-owned, Black-led, and Black-marketed." Union also wanted Sims to have part ownership. 'There was no way I would create a hair-care line without the man who was literally in the trenches with me," she says. "Not only is he my hairstylist, but he's one of my best friends who was drying my tears and helping me grow my hair back."
For three years, Sims and Union worked with a team of chemists to develop an entirely new range of products with naturally-derived ingredients like Brazilian bacuri oil, Himalayan moringa oil, and African shea butter to deliver salon-quality results. As the duo formulated new products, they diligently tested them on Union herself.
The new and improved Flawless is a 13-piece range made to fit every hair type. You'll find shampoos, conditioners, scalp treatments, curl cream, co-wash, and more — all under $10 (£8). Starting 3rd August, the brand will be available to shop on Amazon, a conscious choice in retailer that ensures accessibility for everyone. "You're actually an asshole if you create something that helps you and write it out to exclude the vast majority of folks," Union says. "There is a way of doing business without gouging, and we're always looking to challenge ourselves and do right by our community."
"You're actually an asshole if you create something that helps you and write it out to exclude the vast majority of folks."
Beyond creating hair products that could make anyone look red-carpet ready, Sims and Union wanted to carefully craft how they ran, marketed, and grew their brand as Black entrepreneurs. "I think the cool thing with Flawless is that it allows me to create change and space for others who come after me," Sims says. "Gabby has been so generous in offering me ownership and allowing me the space to create something for us by us."
Sims' and Union's desire to foster opportunities in the beauty space comes from decades of experiencing unequal opportunities in the industry. Union has long been vocal about her experiences as a Black actress in Hollywood; in December 2019, she was allegedly fired from America's Got Talent for speaking up against the show's racist and toxic work culture. According to a Variety report, Union was told numerous times at AGT that her hairstyles were "too Black" for the show's audience. Despite his A-list clientele, including Union, Angela Bassett, and Zendaya, Sims has also encountered hurdles in his decade-long career — namely his fight to become a member of the Local 706 Union, which protects artists from unfair and unequal work conditions and opportunities.
"I've worked on countless projects with Gabrielle, including Being Mary Jane for years, America's Got Talent, nationally televised commercials — I've done huge projects with my other clients, from Lupita N'yongo to Kerry Washington, and I still have to fight to prove myself," Sims says. "I am still fighting to be recognised and respected by an organisation that makes it so hard for Black stylists to get in." Union says she's personally tried to vouch for Sims, and even requested years of call-sheets to prove their work together. "We have receipts of people who aren't held to the same standards, and everyone just assumes no one will speak up," she says.
Sims and Union want other young Black creatives to know that there's room for everyone in the beauty world, despite what society has dictated. "One of the thing that Larry and I talk about in our group chat is the notion of crabs in a barrel," she says. "We've been fed this idea that we need to boot out the competition, but competition can foster a positive environment and make us better." The revival of Flawless comes at a pivotal time where Black women in Hollywood are making their voices heard in the hair aisle: Tracee Ellis Ross shook up the shelves at Ulta with the release of Pattern Beauty in late 2019, and Taraji P Henson manifested her passion for scalp care to launch TPH by Taraji at Target earlier this year.
The success of Black women-led beauty brands, both new and old, is proof of the power that can be achieved when we're celebrated and take up space. "When I think of my community of brothers and sisters in Hollywood, I truly believe that we can create and serve without the competition," Union says. "Our family can just be successful."