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Wigging out: exploring Ukraine's vibrant false hair industry


TextIra Lupu

In the wig shops of Ukraine you can be anyone you want to be and all for the price of 10 hryvnias (around 30 pence)

Platinum blonde diva, sultry brunette pornstar or baby-pink-haired doll. In the wig shops of Ukraine you can be anyone you want to be and all for the price of 10 hryvnias (around 30 pence) – the sum you pay in a local wig shop to put on any style you fancy, a compromise that stops the wigs getting too damaged, but allows women to try before they buy.

For most of those who have ever looked into buying fake hair – extensions, hairpieces, wigs – it would seem that Ukraine is an export hub. The 2018 export figures for fake or processed hair in Ukraine are as low as only about £253,000 against import worth £1,226,000. Official statistics for import/export of natural human hair (sometimes labelled as “Russian Hair” because they’re so alike) is zero. Overall, it looks like real hair is often exported through the black market, with production processes for wigs starting somewhere else. This real hair is imported globally, particularly by buyers in the West who are looking for natural blonde hair, or to number one buyer, Israel, where Orthodox Jewish women make up a prominent wig market but do not want to buy from China or India, where the hair may have come from temples of other religions. However, as popular as Slavyanka hair is, and as expensive as it is to buy, Ukraine and Russia are surprisingly not in the top 15 countries that export the highest volume of human hair).

We hear a lot about Ukraine’s hair exportation business, but we rarely hear about the domestic market for wigs and fake hair in Ukraine. Wigs have long been a staple in Ukrainian culture. In the Soviet era, it was trendy for women to own at least one wig – from as little as a tiny chignon hairpiece to as much as a whole wig, often made from their own locks in a local theatre studio. Some hairdressers at the time secretly made wigs for selected clients within their homes, always in danger of going to prison for making money on the sly, given the Communist government.

Today, wig making is not a secret practice anymore, but the number of factories or homegrown enthusiasts is still very limited. In Ukrainian wig shops, most items for sale are made of either synthetic hair or real hair sourced from China. But it’s those made from Ukrainian hair, especially the long, strong, undyed (‘virgin’) Slavic type of strand, that get true hair fetishists sweating. Partly because, when it comes to maintaining their long manes, plenty of Ukrainian girls go to great lengths, from traditional folkish methods – observing a lunar haircut calendar, to using burdock oil and complex decoctions like plant-based concentrated liquors – to using the right comb. As the Zagovory chant goes: “Seed is for the bird, grass is for the root, Sun is for the Moon, and my comb is for my hair”. But that's just one of the hundreds of old magical verses which more spiritual Ukrainian girls may whisper to themselves whilst carrying out their beauty routines.

One of the less talked about reasons for the domestic hunt for Ukrainian human hair extensions is that many adult females in the country can’t keep their beautiful hair as beautiful anymore. “Some of the ladies have absolutely lost their connection with the elder generation. In fact, we forgot how to treat our hair for it to be healthy,” says Yulia Stets, a popular Kyiv-based hairdresser and wig maker. She thinks such tendency is there because of hard water and ecology issues and also marketing influence. “In this respect Ukrainians are just like Americans – they are easily forced to buy and use excessive, or inappropriate styling products.”

A single, natural Ukrainian hairpiece may cost from around £350-600 if made by local company, like the city of Dnipro’s famous “Gipermarket Volos” (“Hair Mall”), and up to £4,500 if custom-made by a selected professional. Given the unstable economic climate and a reported average salary of around £200 per month for females, many Ukrainian women can’t actually afford these wigs, and would rather opt for cheaper Asian styles. As a result of the Maidan Revolution in 2014 and ongoing military crisis, Ukraine’s currency has fallen by more than 60pc against the dollar and the economy has faltered. So hair shops report a slight decrease in domestic sales, although women still try their best to look beautiful.

In this climate, some females make money selling their locks. Because demand for Ukrainian hair is so high in Ukraine, there are plenty of adverts to highlight this: “We buy hair at a high figure”, they claim. In reality, donors will only really receive around £80 per ponytail. It’s not always a financial imperative and desperation that forces women into doing it, as many international media outlets report. Most of the times it’s just a good way to earn a little when you plan to get a haircut anyway. Even more so given the most-wanted hair suppliers are teens with their undamaged “virgin hair”. And teens worldwide always want a new hair style and a few quid.

In the end, hair retailers can get quite merciless, and things can get really surreal. A Ukrainian woman might visit a hair shop to buy herself a wig or hair extensions, but under the guise of Ukrainian home-grown hair, she might instead receive the more ubiquitous and therefore cheap Chinese hair, severely bleached, artificially prolonged and all brittle. Where there is treasure, there is replica.

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