If you were shopping for a wig online anytime before 2019, you were probably frustrated. At the time, Google thought that the 'best wigs' were on Amazon and AliExpress. The heavy synthetic caps — propped atop dead-eyed, white mannequins — were enough to make your scalp crawl.
It was a tough reality for every person who needed hair: women who lost theirs through chemotherapy treatment, those diagnosed with alopecia, anyone experiencing severe hairline thinning, postpartum hair loss, or stress-related shedding. Most especially, though, the wig industry has the heaviest impact on Black women who make up roughly 80% of the market.
"This community has been treated pretty poorly when it comes to brand aesthetic," explains Iso Igbinedion, now the CEO and co-founder of Parfait, a custom 'wig concierge' startup. At just ten years old, Igbinedion was burned by a chemical relaxer and started wearing wigs as a protective style. In her twenty years shopping for hair on the internet, her options never got better. "There has been very little innovation used to improve the hair-buying customization and installation process," Igbinedion explains. "It felt like little attention was being paid to solving problems for these marginalized communities — for Black women."
"This entire community has been treated pretty poorly when it comes to brand aesthetic."
Iso Igbinedion, CEO and co-founder of Parfait
The wig-buying process felt unnecessarily "friction-filled," Igbinedion explains. You had to find a unit or bundle, online or at a beauty supply store, and then figure out how to make it look good, through watching YouTube videos or asking a friend or relative for advice. The hair supply-chain was flawed: the big retailers were controlling a wig industry that didn’t account for the Black experience.
Simone Kendle, the CMO and co-founder of Parfait describes the problem as, "a disconnect between who is owning the products and who is using the products," Kendle explains. "If you think about who owns beauty supply stores, they're international and not owned by the African Americans who are often looking to get a wig or hair extensions. They're just focused on what they can sell cheaply."
Wig shoppers were forced to settle. "We are at the mercy of whatever [we] have access to," Kendle adds. With uninformed wig suppliers and retailers at the top, sourcing a good wig felt like a crapshoot. "You don't know if the photo you see on Amazon is actually going to be the wig you're going to receive," Kendle says, "and there's no support to help you. When you think of other kinds of retailers, like Rent The Runway or Warby Parker, you're getting support end to end. In the wig industry, that doesn't exist because we haven't been served correctly."
There were obvious, gaping holes in the market. Britney Winters, the founder of Upgrade Boutique, an e-commerce platform for wigs, felt them too. "There was no place where you could create a wig and get it fully customized like you want," explains Winters. "There were a lot of retailers that were offering pre-styled wigs. But if you saw Beyoncé in a photo and you were like, 'Oh, I want my hair like that,' there was no place that you could go to have that recreated."
Starting about four years ago, the tides began to turn.
"People have not focused on improving the experience for Black consumers — they haven't felt that there is enough value in going after that community," explains Igbinedion. "That sentiment has changed in the last four years. The issues we saw [in] summer 2020 with George Floyd really made companies see that there is an underserved community that is also very-valuable, a 300-billion-dollar market opportunity that no one has even looked at. Now [they're] seeing the buying power of Black women, of the Black household, of people of color in general, people are really starting to think about where these technical innovations belong."
Igbinedion and Kendle teamed up with their two other co-founders (Iso's sister Ifueko Igbinedion, CTO, and Marlyse Reeves, COO), and started investing in Parfait, which catapulted the wig industry into the fashion-tech space. Not unlike a Rent the Runway or Warby Parker, the concept is a full-service wig platform that allows you to customize a wig to your exact specifications and head size. Serena Williams is an investor.
"It starts with discovering the brand, often people follow us on Instagram first," Igbinedion explains of the modern discovery process. "Once they get on our site, they browse our signature styles or collections we've curated so far; we just did a collection with Justine Skye. Then you select the fun parts: your part style, texture, length. You're then taken to a page for your dimensions, you take four selfies that capture your head dimensions and the color palette of your skin tone. We take that information and make a custom wig for you through our manufacturing process."
Because of the DIY nature of wig styling, there's education baked into the Parfait business model as well. "Each week on my Instagram I'll post a tutorial showing my followers how to try on wigs," Kendle says. "I always showcase a new wig. This week it was an auburn bob and I showed what you can do without using any glue at all." Igbinedion also wears a Parfait closure wig, a rooted chocolate brown in a body wave, that looks natural even through a Zoom screen. "I'm a glue-less girl — hair health for me is 100% my top priority," Igbinedion explains.
Of course, not all wigs can be applied at home. Finding a stylist trained in professional wig-application is another hoop Black women often have to jump through when it comes to their hair. Winters remembers being a student in Boston back in 2106 and having to take day trips into New York City just to find a hairstylist she could trust. "The other Black female students who wore extensions were having the same issue," Winters explains.
After finishing her MBA, Winters launched Upgrade Boutique in 2019. The site helps solve for installation issue, connecting wig customers with stylists in their area who can install them. "My idea was to apply Drybar's model to the wig industry — have this established brand, recognizable from city to city, where people could go to get wigs installed."
"My idea was to apply Drybar's model to the wig industry — have this established brand, recognizable from city to city, where people could go to get wigs installed.
Britney Winters, founder of Upgrade Boutique
The website functions like StyleSeat; you can browse wig stylists in your city and book in to have your wig installed by someone who fits your budget and aesthetic. Upgrade also has a wig-customization process, similar to Parfait's, that allows you to create your ideal wig style. Thanks to Winters' focus on hair quality and lace quality, Upgrade has gained significant traction with celebrities like Mary J. Blige, who wore an Upgrade wig during her 2022 Super Bowl performance, Taraji P. Henson, and Savannah James (Lebron James' wife).
Her key objective was to make natural-looking wigs. "I am very anal about wigs looking natural," Winters says. "I do not like costume-looking wigs. I don't like bulky-looking wigs. I want people to think that [hair] is coming out of your scalp."
It's all promising, and in 2022, wigs have never looked better. But there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of followthrough on investment.
Last year, I got excited reading a Vogue profile about another new wig brand, Waeve, conceived of by two friends and recent college grads who bonded over their similar frustration with the industry. They concocted a brand-concept prototype and raised $2 million in funding (with notable investment from the former CTO of Glossier). Waeve launched as a wig brand and website in 2021, but by March of 2022, the brand had to stop production, likely do to hair supply-chain issues (a pandemic-induced problem explored by The New York Times). "We’re a small team that has accomplished so much and yet we want to do more and continue improving," the founders wrote in an Instagram post. It underlines the fact that this industry still needs support and continued support to keep the innovations tracking upward.
The vision for the future of the wigs is clear across the board, in Igbinedion words: "It's to elevate the experience and de-stigmatize the industry."