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Winnie Awa Antidote Street
Photography Charisse Kenion

These entrepreneurs are snatching the black hair industry one wig at a time

TextFelicia Pennant Old

Jim + Henry’s Tammy Facey, Antidote Street’s Winnie Awa and Boho Locs’s Lulu Pierre share how they’ve solving firsthand frustrations with solution-driven products

Welcome to Rooted, a campaign celebrating the power of black hair and the launch of ‘Tallawah’ – an exhibition by photographer Nadine Ijewere and hairstylist Jawara Wauchope. Here, we explore what the beauty of black hair is all over the globe, from Jamaica to London and New York to the screens of Nollywood films. 

The UK black hair industry is worth an estimated £88million but who is it really benefiting? How many black British hair brands can you name off the top of your head? One was my answer before this piece, a crying shame given the vitally important progress the new wave of black hair entrepreneurs is making on both sides of the Atlantic. Brands like Pattern and Shea Moisture are supporting the natural hair movement and have the same goal: to help black people celebrate their natural hair and achieve optimum hair health. As awareness about these innovative products and enlightening expert advice from these independent self-starters grows, traditional narratives and practices related to black hair are reforming.

“Black hair is no longer hated. An afro is no longer stared at. I like to think I have encouraged my customers to love their curly hair without any real effort. I simply tell them the facts: natural hair is beautiful, end of story,” says Tammy Facey, founder of Birmingham-based hair line Jim + Henry. Half Jamaican, half Irish and a GHD devotee before a significant break-up, Facey literally cut her ex (and her dead ends) out of her hair, and her quest for products that would nourish her curls lead her from “natural oils, Shea butter, and an expensive organic hair conditioner” to making her own in her kitchen.

“Once I arrived at our current formulation I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I love my hair’,” Facey continues. “Our conditioners, Eight (the UK’s first leave-in comprised of only eight ingredients) and Ten (deep conditioner), are creamy and have been created with my actual twin sister who has curly hair, and my older sister who has a stunning, richly-textured Afro in mind.” Jim + Henry launched in 2018 and also offers a hair oil ‘Five’ and a hair cleanse ‘Nine’ to complete a one brand hair routine if desired, acknowledging the diversity and varying degrees of moisture curly and afro hair requires. 

I have a confession to make: I’m lazier and less educated about my hair than I’d like to be. Having never felt the burn of a relaxer or hair follicle-altering chemicals on my scalp, I’ve been part of the natural hair movement forever by default. But there are big gaps in my knowledge that I want to fill, beyond the basics of washing, conditioning and moisturising my hair on a regular basis, and it feels like there’s no-one to ask. 

Cue pink-haired Winnie Awa and Antidote Street: her forward-thinking digital destination for afro-textured hair. The Nigerian-born businesswoman was in a similar boat to me, after cutting her hair and not knowing what to do with it, so she launched the site from her Balham flat with two friends (who are no longer part of the business) in 2014. Marrying a strong editorial aesthetic, with a carefully curated edit of 100 products from about 25 brands, tested by a panel with varied hair textures before going live, Awa was also astute enough to realise that customers want ”digestible” advice.

“People who shop on our site are like: ‘Just break it down for me, I haven't got time to spend on YouTube watching videos back to back to back’,” Awa explains. We've recruited a mix of trichologists and hair coaches to dispel the myths (like how you shouldn't oil your scalp) because that's something that's very dear to my heart. We don't actually want people to be product junkies, we want them to find something that is part of life for them.“

“Black hair is no longer hated. An afro is no longer stared at. I like to think I have encouraged my customers to love their curly hair without any real effort. I simply tell them the facts: natural hair is beautiful, end of story” – Tammy Facey, founder, Jim + Henry

Similar progress in real life and on the high street seems slower. Supermarkets appear to have increased their afro hair product offering, but when you enter non-black hair shops,  you’re still confronted with ceiling-to-floor shelves of brightly coloured hair products and basically left to fend for yourself. Troublingly, you can’t be 100 per cent sure of what’s in the bottles based on the ingredients label, especially studies into the toxic chemicals found in black hair products are ongoing. Not on Antidote Street. If products don’t comply with strict EU regulations, Awa won’t stock them.

“There's definitely been a real shift in the quality of products in the UK. Jim + Henry, Afrocenchix, Dizziak – they've got beautiful brands, they're very clear on who their customer is and they're ultra-modern. You want to put these products on your shelf.” Awa says she’s also seen an uptick in US shoppers coming through to her site for hair products, whereas before it was UK customers heading to the US for the same reason, which she puts down to the fact that FDA compliance is much less stringent.

I’ve been switching between long protective styles since I was 11 (over 15 years ago) and, my natural, shoulder-length hair is never out unless I’m on the way to my hairdresser. My go-to style right now is Boho Locs, Lulu Pierre’s brand of handmade synthetic faux locs, designed to be installed by the crochet method. I’ve been wearing ‘mermaid’ locs for just over a year and unlike other brands, they look so natural that I’ve fooled Jamaicans (including my own family) into thinking they’re real. That’s the point. “(There’s) this idea that synthetic hair has to look plastic or feel cheap or be really disposable, something that you wear for two minutes and throw away,” says Pierre on one of the main stereotypes that she wanted to smash when she launched her brand in 2016. 

The former salon owner is not the only one – Freddie Harrel’s new natural-textured wig brand RadSwàn is proudly, and undetectably, synthetic too. “Synthetic hair is a heavily Korean-dominated market but we’ve had 100 per cent year on year growth. People repeat-buy the product so that’s validation,” Pierre continues. With various lengths and styles, plus accessories to customise and make the style your own, Boho Loc’s success can also be put down to the quickness of the installing the style – a few hours – as seen in easy-to-replicate install videos starring the Boho Locs gang. Regrams of customers and celebrities like Naomie Harris, Jourdan Dunn, and Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock wearing the hair on their Instagram feed (83.8k followers) also help boost brand awareness. Then to ensure loyalty, their attentive customer service department checks in regularly and sends pre and post-install hair guides for you to bookmark. 

“I do get messages from people who are very inspired by what we at Boho Locs,” says Pierre. Clued up on exactly what her international customer wants, thanks to regular surveys and an annual call with VIP customers, Pierre has the data to develop products near-guaranteed to sell out. “Highlights was something that came up massively in the last quarter so we brought out three colours: fun, warm, and blonde. I'm working on two or three more locs styles based upon what customers said last time. They were interested in a human hair product from us.”

Talk inevitably turns to how black hair is still politicised and policed, but it’s a challenge they’re overcoming. “When you think about it, you're basically saying to someone the way your hair naturally grows is unacceptable,” Awa says. “You're actually asking people to be less than themselves. And as someone who is a founder of a company I'm looking to grow, I want people to show up and be fully themselves.” Pierre admits: “Some of my customers were worried – they’d say ‘how can I wear locs to work in a professional environment? But in my American focus group, they didn’t feel that there were any negative connotations. In locs, they said, they feel like a goddess, it’s elegant and more classy than other hairstyles. We’re more associated with the Bohemian free side as opposed to being anything negative.”

So what’s the future of black hair businesses from where they’re standing? How can more positive changes be facilitated in the years to come? Facey is particularly eco-minded: “Can we really cater to curly and Afro hair demands and save our world? Of course we can. At the moment, we are encouraging all of our customers to refill the jars they have. It saves on so much waste, which is rife within the black hair industry, from products you try once and hate, to the collection of ‘empties’, which end up in the rubbish.” Pierre points out that Richelieu Dennis, founder of Shea Moisture and one of her inspirations, opened a $100m fund for black female entrepreneurs last year, providing an opportunity for way more black ownership and manufacture outside Asia. “They’ll be end-to-end distribution for hair products and extensions, and more black-owned beauty stores.” Awa’s focus is more product innovation – namely a spray-on dry shampoo for black hair and Antidote Street just launched Amara, a silk pillowcase that also keeps your skin “soft and hydrated”, the site’s first in-house product. As she sees it: “The future is people feeling empowered to make whatever choice they feel like.”

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