Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Cost Of High-End Extensions

2009_good_hair_003At the risk of proving beyond a doubt that I am a naif who can live in one of the most expensive, cutting-edge, fashion-forward cities in the world and still entirely miss out on significant trends, I will admit that I only just discovered that white women having been paying for hair extensions for years. A worldly friend of mine, who’s been educating me about mainstream culture since we were both 15, clued me in during a conversation about Alison Brie’s hair in Sleeping With Other People, which looked throughout like it was starring in its own commercial for Pantene Pro V.

“It’s fake,” my friend said. “Or like half of it is. It’s extensions.”

I have so much hair that people on the street will touch it, sometimes, uninvited. Even relative strangers in the workplace have copped a feel. Though thankfully not recently: Mike keeps his hands to himself. Most of my friends also have to deal with thick curls, so I’m familiar with endless conversations about leave-in conditioners. I’m less familiar with the idea that women like Alison Brie might look in the mirror and wish for weaves.

This recent piece on The Cut by Jessica Roy helped me better understand.

Usually, to get extensions, you have to “know a guy” (or in most cases, a girl). Other salons that often offer extensions often require that you set up a consultation for them to color-match your hair, then wait for the hair to arrive via a third party. RPZL gets its own 100 percent virgin hair straight from the manufacturer, so you can have the extensions attached to your head within minutes of picking them out.

Having never gotten extensions before, I opted for the clip-ins, which are the cheapest option and the only ones you can remove yourself. If I looked more first-season Real Housewife than Kardashian, I figured, I could always steal away to a nearby Starbucks bathroom and unclip the evidence.

I’m unsure what “100 percent virgin hair straight from the manufacturer” means. If someone like Fantine or Jo is involved, selling their one beauty to raise some cash, there wouldn’t be a manufacturer. But if there is a manufacturer, what does it mean to call the hair “100% virgin”? We’re not talking about olive oil here.

No surprise, China is the #1 exporter of human hair in the world, although most of what it sells is “fallen hair” mislabeled as having been donated by Brazilians or Malaysians. One expert quoted in Yahoo says, “If you’re shopping for extensions, and they say they’re shipped from China, it’s probably Chinese hair masquerading as something else.”

I guess that’s more like the “cheap, K-mart … polyester hair” Dionne puts down in Clueless. 

Indian hair, by contrast, is good quality and easy to come by:

Indian hair, with its thick, dark, slightly wavy texture, is very popular in the hair extension industry. In addition to the luxurious texture, Indian hair is plentiful: Hindu Indians cut their hair as part of a ritual sacrifice to God. In a country of more than a billion people willing to sacrifice their hair for blessing, there’s never a shortage.

I remember learning that from Good Hairthe absorbing Chris Rock documentary about the time and financial commitment required to maintain various ‘dos. But can you convincingly dye Indian hair and sell it to blondes like Jessica Roy at high-end Manhattan hair bar RPZL? Probably not. For amber waves of grain, as one former beauty queen found out when she decided to investigate the origins of what her handlers kept attaching to her head, one visits Mother Russia.

I met hair dealers and drove around with them in their cars. We visited sites where they pinned up posters advertising “We buy hair”. I visited Russia’s only hair factory in Mosalsk, met a hair scientist and visited hair harvest events where all day people came and sold their hair. Of the characters I met, those that I was most drawn to were a lady in her 60s who was selling her hair for the fourth time and a young woman selling her hair to pay for driving lessons, after growing it for 19 years.

In India, I witnessed a forced factory tonsure and in Russia, the hair scientist told me tales of exploitation. Both Russia and India demonstrated that this is a business supplied by women, driven by women and run by men.

Roy’s story is something of a cautionary tale: she admits that having fake, extra glossy, extra bouncy hair turned her into a megalomaniac who couldn’t stop Instagramming or asking everyone, “Doesn’t it look amazing?” On the other hand, her narcissism is exactly what RPZL hopes to inspire. The store even advertises an on-site “selfie booth.”

With a unique selfie booth, Gorgeous Girls can snap the first shots of their chic new looks and upload them to social media for their very own #RPZLfie. Plus, a custom playlist of the hottest tracks curated by A-list DJs highlights the high-tech and cutting edge feel, as Gorgeous Girls select songs they want to hear throughout the space.

Since extensions require maintenance, RPZL offers various “Gorgeous Girl” membership packs, starting at $75 a month and going up to $325. And bring the little ones! There’s a whole selection of RPZL Kidz hair products too. Made of 100% “protein,” whatever that means. If the girls get hungry, I guess they can snack on their ponytails?

Extensions for grown ups are purportedly made of “100% Virgin Remy hair.” Here’s an excellent explainer on the difference between Remy and non-Remy: “If ‘100% Human Hair’ is the Benz of the industry, then ‘Remy Hair’ is the Phantom…And “Virgin Indian Remy” is the Bugatti.” I don’t know what that means but maybe you will.

The hair extensions that turned Roy from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde are “made in Italy” (perhaps via Russia?) and they can be yours too for the low, low price of $250.

One wonders, What would the cool cats of Hair make of all of this?

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