Hair Traffic

Your extensions look hot—except maybe for the roots

Today, like every day, Gary Teitelbaum is surrounded by hair. Hair sprawls over his desk, lolls on a chair, spills out of boxes. Not wigs or toupees—his dad sold that part of the business 50 years ago, back when the Adorable Hair-Do Corporation was the Harlem-based Howard Tresses Inc. Since the 1970s his family's deceptively modest West 24th Street workshop has dealt only in 20-inch lengths of virgin Asian hair for extension artists, braiders, and weavers.

He strokes these fat, heavy, black horsetails with love. Turning raw silky stuff into zigzags and spirals is how the Teitelbaums have made their money. In a secret chemical process he says his father developed, ropes of raw hair are acid stripped, twisted around wooden poles, and baked into textures. Then come the color and the polish.

Custom-blended hair is an old New York craft. Besides Teitelbaum's, there's the walk-in-friendly Lugo's in the East Village, the elite Alkinco's on West 40th and the priced-to-sell Lexy's on Flatbush, among others. Local hair makers say business is steady, despite the muscle of an international hair-extending system called Great Lengths International. The Italian-based company took Europe by storm in the '90s, and by 2001 had persuaded over a thousand initially skeptical high-end American salons that extensions aren't just for strippers and the ghetto fabulous.

illustration: Jonathan Barkat

Teitelbaum says he's unconcerned about the competition. About half his business comes from traditional extenders like Shanda Young, who just moved her operation from a spare bedroom in her Harlem apartment to a stylish new work space in Long Island City, Queens. One evening, having cornrowed sections of shoulder-length hair tight to the scalp of a self-described "Jewish girl from the suburbs," Young sews to the plaits two-foot lengths of voluptuously undulating hair of Chinese origin. An hour later, the 25-year-old's attitude is transformed as well. She flips her new hair from her neck and lets it fall back forward—long hair can make you feel like a goddess. "I hear they get it from dead people," jokes the stylist, repeating a persistent but completely unsubstantiated industry myth.

Tales surrounding the origin of donor hair endure—some grisly, some romantic. Teitelbaum, like most in the business, won't give up the name of his supplier. Instead he speaks of villages in the developing world inhabited by women who, thanks to rich diets and good genes, have grown and sold their exquisite, fast-growing hair "professionally" and as "part of their culture." But that's not exactly the case.

In 2002 a grad student from the University of California at Berkeley took a video camera to Shandong—a northeastern Chinese province—to locate a village with an economy centered around the hair harvest. Ly Franshaua Pipkins found entrepreneurs bicycling the countryside in search of hair to sell to traders working for one of China's hundreds of processing plants. But you can't say that the short-haired women and girls of the village were actually earning a living from their low-yield crop. The freshly shorn Dong Qi Li told Pipkins she'd bought a pair of pants and a coat with the cash she got for the hair it had taken her years to grow.

The hair she sold was most likely bleached, kinked, and otherwise Occidentalized on-site—most hair that passes through U.S. Customs has been. Only a fraction of what the International Trade Commission calls "unworked" hair is exported to the States, and every year about 95 percent of this fumigated, sorted, and bundled virgin hair is gobbled up by New York's hair makers. But whether worked or not, whether it's been shorn from Eastern European, South Asian, or provincial Chinese heads, much of the human hair that enters the U.S. has done a stint in an enormous processing plant human and labor rights organizations are calling illegal and exploitative.

The Hair Kingdom

Gary Teitelbaum, owner of the Adorable Hair-Do Corporation, in his office
Adriana Barrett, proprietress of a cozy East Village salon that bears her name, is a pioneer of "white girl" extensions. She once rode along on an ox cart to buy "village hair" from a Shandong village in 1998. More disturbing, she says, was an earlier trip to Russia, when she and her mother were encouraged to dig through a pillowcase full of filthy blond and reddish ponytails while grinning tough guys stood by. The salon owner is adventurous—few stylists have been to the source.

Whatever its origin, a lot of the hair harvested for export now ends up in Henan, a province southeast of Beijing. Much of Henan's success can be attributed to an octopus called Henan Rebecca Hair Product Company, which is now reportedly China's largest hair-processing operation. In 2001 Rebecca airlifted 850 tons of Indian, Southeast Asian, Eastern European, and inland Chinese hair to Xuchang City to be fumigated, sorted, weighed, and bundled by what the Xinhua News Agency calls "Xuchang girls." According to a 2005 Henan Rebecca quarterly report, sales to North America accounted for almost 70 percent of its annual revenue. There is an ethnic hierarchy, and stylists say relatively coarse Chinese hair is near the bottom. Years ago anything called "European" hair—even if it was Asian hair processed in Europe— was treated like gold. But more recently demand for super-long, wavy, not-too-fine/not-too-thick South Asian hair has skyrocketed, and Indian factory owners should have an advantage. Like China, India has a large supply of poor people to supply hair and do the processing work, but with reports of troublemaking Indian labor unions and comparatively underdeveloped light industries, traders mostly just export the raw stuff. Besides, though Indian workers come cheap, in China the labor's so cheap it's sometimes free.

Next Page »