Last year, Riqua Hailes — the owner of a chain of salons that specializes in hair extensions — hit a breaking point. A client who had received luminous new locks at Hailes’ shop in Los Angeles came back a month later and showed Hailes the matted, tangled mess they had morphed into. Hailes had bought thousands of dollars of these extensions from a supplier in China; if this was how they fared after a month, they were the salon-product equivalent of expired yogurt. “I’m not going to pay $10,000 for $200 hair extensions,” Hailes says on a recent afternoon in the back office of Just Extensions, her L.A. salon. “I picked up the phone, I told China I was getting on the plane, and then I went, and I brought the girl.” This was the beginning of Just Extensions, a documentary Hailes made about the six weeks she spent traveling through China, Cambodia, India, Brazil, and Peru last year trying to figure out how hair extensions are sourced and processed. Hailes’ film, available for download October 14, delves into the nitty-gritty of how extensions are created and why some cost more than others. Because it’s unregulated, the size of the market defies solid estimates, but trade between suppliers and buyers — both consumers and salon owners like Hailes, who can buy hair online or at trade shows — reaches into the millions. There are no hard-and-fast rules governing what hair extensions can be made of or how they should be labeled. At a Chinese factory, Hailes watches in amazement as workers dump “fallen hair” — the strands and split ends that flutter off women’s heads every day — into buckets where they're soaked in germ-killing acid. Later, they're mixed with synthetic fibers to create extensions marketed as Brazilian or Indian hair. In Brazil, she discovers horse tails being sold as extensions. "Feels disgusting," she says, poking a blonde dreadlock.
Hailes also meets people who willingly part with hair that many people in the U.S. covet. In India, she visits a temple where men, women, and children shave their heads as a religious rite. Their hair gets swept into bags and auctioned off to people who sell it to extension factories in China. “To have so much faith that I’m going to cut my hair, cut my children's hair, because I believe they’re going to be blessed by God — they have no idea where their hair is going,” says Hailes. But there are also those who struggle with the exchange. In Cambodia, a newly bobbed woman tells Hailes, through a translator, that she feels very different when she looks in the mirror, and men don’t seem to like her as much as they used to. She received $7.50 for her waist-length hair. “They don’t even have the magazines that we have, but everybody has the same image in their mind about what beauty looks like,” Hailes says.
Easy solutions elude this industry. While Chinese manufacturers have created partially synthetic extensions that mimic the look and feel of real hair, in Hailes’ experience, they only last two to three months, compared with the eight-to-12-month life span of top-notch, human-hair extensions. Even if 100%-synthetic extensions performed as well as their human counterparts, they would threaten micro-economies in countries like Cambodia, where many women sell their hair to feed themselves and their families. (As Hailes put it, “They sell their hair so they don’t have to sell their bodies.”) Digging through a box of discarded hair extensions in her office, Hailes shows me the My Little Pony-level quality of the partially synthetic extensions she recently removed from a client. She’s working on her own line of extensions now, and trying to pass on the knowledge she gained from making the film to her clients.
They sell their hair so they don’t have to sell their bodies.
“I want them to know where their hair is coming from, so they can put a value on that,” she says. “I’m not saying you can’t buy fallen hair; there’s a use for that. However, I don’t want to pay $500 for that and I don’t want you to pay $500 for it either.” Outside her office, four women sit in shiny, white swivel chairs as stylists sew in layers of new hair. Hailes nods her head toward them. “Everyone in this salon has extensions,” she says. “That’s why I did this — so people who come to me know exactly what they’re getting.” Or at least, she hopes, they'll know more about a market that remains largely in the dark.