The monopoly of black beauty

Beauty Supply products do not nourish the sea of curls that consume Jade Bryant’s head.

Weaves, braids or wigs do not safely conceal her brown natural tresses.

She prefers a more organic route.

Bryant doesn’t support the Korean owned beauty supply stores that conveniently flock every block in her neighborhood, anymore.

“I felt like they were watching me,” she said, recalling a time she stopped at her local beauty supply store to purchase razors. “When I asked for help, they pointed to the black clerk that sold the weave hair. I wasn’t even looking for weave.”

“I want to see black women sell things that black women use most,” Bryant said.

The essence of black hair

Korean owned beauty supplies are a known reality in most black neighborhoods and have been since the 1960s. The supply stores sell everything and anything from makeup, to perfume, scarves and even clothes.

Their biggest commodities? Wigs and human hair exported from Korea.

Since slavery, African-Americans have been conditioned to alter their hair to mimic white America’s standards. And the exported, long, crisp hair from Korea offers African-American women an alternative to wearing their natural hair, which in its natural form still makes political statements.

“I want to see black women sell things that black women use most,” Bryant said. “But I know there are barriers to enter the field because a lot of beauty supply stores buy their product from Asia at a discounted rate. It’s hard for other ethnicities to get into the industry.”

The envious monopoly

From 1965-1978, $100 million in wigs were exported from Korea to America. After much success selling the hair, other Korean entrepreneurs joined the market, giving many the opportunity to start a new life in the US.

By 2014, there were more than 9,000 Korean-owned beauty supply stores in black communities across the nation.

Like Bryant, Ashley Smith doesn’t shop at the Beauty Supply in her neighborhood. Instead, she is following a trend gaining momentum: shopping for hair online. Though it may be more expensive than the beauty supply hair, the quality of hair is an investment worth making for many.

“Having connections enables Koreans to lower the cost of their products, black merchants may get products at a higher cost because they don’t have these connections,” Smith said. “Most people who open businesses have a partner. Coming together is hard. We, as a black community, just don’t partner much.”

Meant to be a low cost selection of beauty products, beauty supply stores keep prices affordable by exporting their products. Consequently, they cannot sell products from local black businesses because that would drive prices up.

“I think the beauty supplies will always be around, especially the ones in the hood,” Bryant said. “It’s right there – it’s right around the corner. Older generations will go there because that’s what they are used to. They sell wigs all day long and you can get other trinkets.”

$500 billion industry

Stripped from their culture in Africa, slaves lacked the products to take care of their hair, while mixed race slaves assimilated to European hair standards. When sold, those with “good hair” were more expensive than the dark skin with kinkier, thicker textures.

For 200 years, African-Americans have continued to press, relax and chemically change the texture of their hair to reach American’s societal beauty standards, and businesses provided them the resources to do so.

“A lot of black businesses are looking for the fast buck, but you have to see beyond that,” said Terrence Johnson, a former owner of a black business and a bar tender at The Promontory in Hyde Park. “I’ve worked at bars and restaurants for years and that’s the biggest mistake I’ve seen.”

According to Mintel, the black hair business is potentially worth $500 billion, and is changing as hair needs evolve.

Yet blacks see little profits from the lucrative business that their communities fuel.

But that is changing.

In the past ten years alone, The Natural Hair Movement, a movement inspiring women to wear their natural hair, caused relaxer sales to decrease dramatically as more women embrace their natural hair.

This leaves a window of opportunity for black entrepreneurs who can sell products that meet the needs of African-American hair.

“There’s a big demand for hair care products in the black community in Chicago,” Johnson said. “But the only way it’s going to happen is if people come together. Put our resources together to have these things in our neighborhoods. Other ethnicities do it. Why can’t we?”

The journey to acceptance

Despite societal standards to have long hair, Jade Bryant wears her natural hair proudly. She cites men as one of the biggest influencers on women and how they wear their hair. Through it all, she hopes to be a model for African-American women to embrace their natural beauty.

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