'Why Digital, Black-owned Hair Services Are Booming - And Why That's So Important'

·8-min read
Photo credit: Plume Creative - Getty Images
Photo credit: Plume Creative - Getty Images

As you'll likely know, if you use them, high street shops dealing in Black haircare, from wigs to weaves, are frequently not owned by Black women themselves – despite the huge amount of money which this demographic spends on such products.

A shift is afoot, however. Since the world went online-only, thanks to repeated pandemic-era lockdowns, a new paradigm has started to emerge. Here, writer Ata-Owaji Victor dives into the exciting rise of the digital-first, Black, female-owned hair provider and service.

Over the past decade, online platforms from Facebook to YouTube have played a seismic role in amplifying information and products for Afro and multi-textured hair. Black women – after being historically ignored by the mainstream beauty industry – used these digital spaces to share banks of knowledge for all hair structures.

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Despite this digital-driven haircare boom, though, shops that offer specialist things to buy, including weaves, wigs and extensions, have mostly remained bricks-and-mortar premises. Here, something else is true. Black women monetarily dominate the hair industry in the UK – accounting for 80 % of total hair product sales. However, many big chains of hair shops that cater to us are not Black-owned.

The closure of such spaces over repeated UK pandemic lockdowns, however, is sparking a change. This forced move away from traditional hair stores has paved the way for Black hair services and stores that operate exclusively online: spaces for Black women, by Black women.

These platforms provide more than just products and services, though. Rather than the less-than-brilliant customer experiences that many Black women report in the larger chains, these offer a personalised service that makes me, for one, feel incredibly inspired.

This spirit is seen in well thought-out personalised haircare platform Carra, the newer brainchild of e-commerce site Antidote Street’s Winnie Awa [pictured below.] Carra launched earlier this year and serves as the hair coach every curly-haired women needs, but in app form. Featuring 1:1 video sessions with experts, tailored routines and personalised-to-texture product recommendations, it's a far cry from what I and countless others have experienced via non-committal and product-led advice typically given in afro-Caribbean hair stores.

Photo credit: Charisse Kenion
Photo credit: Charisse Kenion

Awa says that, like most breakthroughs in the Black beauty industry, the idea came from listening to her audience. 'Running Antidote Street gave us front row seats into the biggest challenges faced by people with textured hair. Despite providing a curation of products, we found that our customers were often confused, overwhelmed and spending a lot of money on the wrong products,' she tells me.

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Alongside these problems, Awa saw another: that at least '85% of Antidote Street customers were not happy with their hair routine and 77% didn’t feel like they were using the right products for their hair'. This provided the inspiration for Awa’s quest to begin: 're-invisioning today’s noisy and overwhelming textured hair experience, in order to build a truly borderless personalisation platform targeting multicultural people all across the globe.'

Awa says that her own experience was also a major driving factor in the creation of Carra. ‘For the vast majority of my life, I did not know how to care for my hair – heck, I didn’t even understand that it was curly’.

This resonates for Helen, a 48-year-old business director for a comms and marketing agency. She says that using Carra has been about much more than just learning about afro hair. 'It’s such a great concept – one of those ideas you hear about and think, why has this never been done before?' she says. 'I’ve watched my fair share of YouTube videos and collated Pinterest boards, but I know what I’m learning via Carra is tailored specifically to what I need.'

Like most Black women, Helen explains that she was used to frequenting Black haircare shops on the high street. Here, she states that ‘the priority tends to be either to buy products (in a shop) or have a haircare treatment (in a salon) so additional practical maintenance tips and product advice use to feel almost like asking for a favour’.

She describes her more holistic experience at Carra as: 'quite "sisterhoody" because it’s fulfilling a genuine need… you’re basically paying for a chunk of time to get expert knowledge and attention and you can ask anything you want [to your personal hair coach, via video call], that’s the whole goal. It’s a very friendly chat and feels warm [but also] focussed.'

The platform lets users set the topic that they are interested in, which, again, allows advice to be super tailored. Helen says that she, for example, wanted help on her natural hair journey, for which she wanted to use organic products that would be super effective for her hair type and porosity. She says that she 'wouldn’t know where to go for that on the high street.'

The fact that these services are digital – and thus accessible – is another factor in their success. Helen says that accessing them via her phone means that there's no time-intensive travel to new locations and no danger of having your hair criticised by insensitive staff.

These wins are also at the core of Black female-led hair extension brand, RUKA, which launched in early 2021. Here, you can buy extensions designed to match your natural hair texture.

CEO and Co-founder, Tendai Moyo, says: 'I launched RUKA on the back of a lot of frustration. Besides the crazy statistics – Black women spend 13x the amount on extensions compared to their white counterparts, and 6x on hair products – Black women were feeling the pain of spending a lot of money on their hair, but not seeing the value translated in terms of the consumer experience or the product quality itself.'

She adds that the creation of RUKA came about as a direct response to traditional high street hair shops with ‘products by untraceable brands, absent customer service and vague talk of "kinky textures" '.

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According to Ugo Agbai, COO and Co-founder, launching the brand digitally: ‘was important to help us translate our story in an immersive way, which can be experienced by our RUKA community – despite a national lockdown.' She explains that because: 'one of our values is "inclusive as the default", the digital launch meant we could include our full community, regardless of unique accessibility and mobility needs.'

The textured nature of the hair extensions and attachments offered by RUKA are coils away from the sleek styles that, thanks to mainstream beauty standards, are typically prioritised in shops. Agbai says that after: 'playing around with styles, braids and hair extensions in order to learn what my hair loves most – which has often been a more frustrating experience than it should be – I wanted to build the brand that younger me dreamed about, one that allows women to celebrate their hair as it is.'

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She also details that, due to industry issues with hair quality, ('I think we all have that horror story of receiving very expensive hair which just isn't good enough quality and then getting rubbish customer service after reporting the fact') with RUKA, she wanted to: 'reshape that experience by putting Black women at its centre and truly listening; creating something that feels like a celebration of us and our hair – and which brings a scientific focus by creating extensions that truly match Black women’s hair textures.'

This inclusive approach is one that landed with 24-year-old fan Ibukun, who says: 'RUKA is important to me because it is not just providing protective styles but encourages me to embrace and take care of my hair. Protective styling is a key part of my haircare regime, but there aren’t a lot of "healthy" methods out there. It was refreshing to see a brand that provided protective styling products that do not force me to use damaging styling methods.'

She explains that, prior to using Ruka: 'I hadn’t done much to my hair in the past, because high street extension providers often give unclear installation instructions; poor quality products for the price point; marketing pictures that don’t match the actual extension or show an outcome that requires a lot of styling.'

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While she notes that buying extensions online isn't without possible challenges, ('Because I can’t see or feel the product before I buy it,') she believes that RUKA navigate this incredibly well, because of the brand's 'consistent video content that shows people interacting with the product in real-time, via styling videos.'

The short story? Afro and multi-textured hair may have 'finally' reached the feeds of mainstream beauty brands, but the digitised hair revolution, with brands like Carra and RUKA at the forefront, are becoming a pivotal bridge between Black hair and even more Black entrepreneurship. I, for one, could not be more thrilled.

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