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These Women Are Working to Modernize the Wig and Hair Extensions Industry

As Black women, many of them were inspired to create their own businesses after years of personal frustration with the category.
Photo: Courtesy of RadSwàn

Photo: Courtesy of RadSwàn

Global market research firm Mintel predicts that African-American consumers will spend $1.75 billion on hair-care products this year alone. And while the focus for a long time has been on items like shampoo, conditioner and styling products that were created with natural hair in mind (still important!), it's also starting to shift to wigs and extensions. That's in large part due to the work of a handful of Black women looking to not only disrupt — but also improve — the market by introducing quality hair in a range of textures.

Stephanie Nolan first had the idea to start XOXO Virgin Hair while working as a model in the early 2000s. She noticed that hairstylists on set spent the majority of prep time fussing and fighting with the weave she was then meant to wear. "They would have less-than-desirable experiences working with hair extensions or wigs that just weren't cooperating," she says. "And it would end up really dragging out photoshoots." Even though she mostly experimented with weaves for fun in her personal life, when she did, the hair she bought didn't meet her expectations as far as performance goes. "I know that the everyday woman also doesn't have time to fuss with their hair in the morning because she has to be at work at 8:30 in the morning," she says. "And spending a lot of time on hair just takes away from being able to eat breakfast, being able to commute, so many things." So Nolan created her company in 2014 with convenience, ease and, most importantly, quality in mind.

When Ngozi Opara founded Heat Free Hair back in 2012, she was working in finance during the day and owned a hair salon in Washington, D.C. at night. This was around the time when the natural hair movement took off and she started getting a lot of clients that wanted to grow out their straight, often relaxed hair and embrace their non manipulated texture. But, they didn't want to go through with the big chop, opting for protective styles like sew-ins instead.

At the time, there weren't any extension products on the market that would blend properly for women with coily hair textures (think 3B and 4C), Opara says. "Clients were using virgin hair, but the only available options all came in straight, wavy and loose curly textures." She continues: "This was prior to the lace frontal and laid closure movement — this was back when you had a leave out and a weave and a sew-in." This often meant Opara had to straighten her clients' hair in order to get it to blend properly. But she wanted to be able to give her customers sew-ins without having to manipulate their hair with heat. "I set myself up to be the first company to [make] virgin hair exclusively for natural hair textures," she says.

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Gina Knight, based in the U.K., noticed a similar gap in the textured extension market across the pond. After having her first child, she started to suffer from severe hair loss. "My hair was falling out in vast amounts and I was becoming very bald in certain areas," she says. She started covering up her head, but she was a blogger at the time, and a big focus of her content was natural hair. "It sort of messed with my business and the things that I was doing; I was like, 'How am I supposed to talk about natural hair if I don't have any hair?'" she says. Knight started losing confidence and decided to turn to wigs to give her back what she thought she had lost. Like Opara, she couldn't find any options with hair similar to her own hair texture. "Having to have more of a Eurocentric wig just wasn't me," Knight says. She ended up having to have hair sent from the United States, but she eventually started making her own wigs that matched Afro hair types.

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According to Mintel, between 2015 and 2019, the use of braids and extensions by Black consumers in the U.S. grew 64% and the use of wigs spiked 79%. Nolan says her customers are about 60% "wig connoisseurs," while the other 40% are "wig novices." And while she does have customers that range from white trans women to Latino men, she says the majority are Black women — and such is the case for all three of the women I spoke to. It's also Black women who are seen wearing the film lace frontals "Oba wigs" and drawstring ponytails being advertised on their sites. They're on the homepages and in the about sections. But up until recently, products like wigs and extensions were primarily created by people outside of the Black community. And perhaps that's why there were so many issues.

Photo: Courtesy of Heat Free Hair

Photo: Courtesy of Heat Free Hair

In 2013, after receiving a poorly made batch of hair from her factory, Opara decided to do something a little unconventional: She moved to China to learn about the manufacturing process. "I said to the factory: 'I don't know what you guys are doing, I don't know what I'm selling, I have to be able to be ethical about my business practices,'" she says. "I can't sell something and not know how it's made and not be a part of that creation process." She stayed for six months and learned very quickly that not only did the factories have no concept of how the product they were making was being used, but also that a lot of the people producing the wigs didn't know how to create textured hair without using chemicals. (She also learned about the murky, convoluted process of sourcing and how hair is being marketed, which you can read more about here). After a lot of tests, roundtable discussions and educating, they eventually got to a place of understanding and were able to create a product all parties were proud of.

Today, Opara owns her own factory in China and has more than 50 employees (some of whom came from the original factory she worked with), but her story is very much the exception in the industry. As Knight explains, as great as the movement toward Black entrepreneurship in the wig and extension space is, there's still a lot of work to be done. "We are the ones who are utilizing [the product] the most, we're making it modern, we're making it so that other races want to get in on it and want to wear wigs. But I think people need to be honest with the fact that, in the supply chain, we don't have a stronghold," she says. "Along the line, it does fall out of the hands of Black-owned because we have to source from all over."

Nolan adds that there's also an issue of some companies being white- or Asian-owned, but Black-presenting. "It is problematic and needs to be discussed," she says. "There are a lot of elephants in the room that need to be spoken about." Opara explains that, once a lot of companies realized there was a market, they jumped on it without considering the group they're marketing to. That's perhaps what's most upsetting about how the industry has evolved since she first started her business. "When I created my brand, I had this customer in mind, I had my clients at the time in mind, I had myself in mind," she says. "I shared the same pain points as the people who would benefit from my product and I didn't even necessarily know it was going to take off, I just wanted to help solve a problem." It's unfortunate, she says, because the companies with more power take away opportunities from Black female founders that are creating these products for their community.

But it does seem like the ground is slowly breaking. Influencer Freddie Harrel announced recently that she raised $2 million in seed funding from all-female investors for her startup RadSwan, which creates synthetic hair extensions for women in the global African diaspora. Business of Fashion has already dubbed it "Glossier of the Black Hair Market." And it's important to support Black women and their businesses so even more companies can thrive, Opara says. "I feel like it's my duty almost to try to encourage people to support Black businesses because I know the value that it has for future entrepreneurs," she says. "But I also feel like, at least for myself as a consumer, I want to know that the brand I'm buying from is a brand that actually cares about me and not just about the money that they're making from me."

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