Hair Traffic

Your extensions look hot—except maybe for the roots

D'Amato hasn't heard back from the senators yet, and grumbles about these "laws on the books that aren't being enforced. China, they make a lot of bucks with these wigs. We're not happy."

He may never be happy, because an executive of a human rights group (who asked that her name not be used) said the U.S.-China commission is powerless, and that under the present administration there is little use hoping for action on the part of the federal government.

illustration: Jonathan Barkat

Hair Party

Great Lengths International has bypassed the China controversy by purchasing what's called "temple" hair. They have a holding facility in Bangalore, India, with a network of employees who travel the subcontinent inspecting hair from thousands of temples and bringing it back if it is suitable, says U.S. program director Brett Butler. In the past two months Great Lengths has bought 13 tons from the world-famous Indian holy site Tirupathi, hair that was shaved from the heads of the pious. At Tirupathi every day, tens of thousands of mostly Hindus elect to give up their vanity to God.

Tirupathi is so flush with money it's been referred to as the Vatican of India, and there has been some back and forth in blogland about whether or not temple administrators, who openly sell to traders standing by ready to bid when the really good hair comes off, are taking advantage of the faithful. But Dr. V. Narayana Rao of the University of Wisconsin says money earned really does pay for schools, hospitals, and the like. Besides, he says, those who get "tonsured"—as the head-shaving ritual is called—do so with joy. Whatever happens to the chopped-off hair is beside the point.

Great Lengths also says its hair never goes through China—after the hair is collected in India, it goes to Tunisia to be cleaned, sorted according to the various shades of brown, and stitched at the root ends. The finishing work takes place in Italian factories.

Operating in Tunisia is probably a smart business decision. Judging by a 2006 report put out by the Icon Group, a commodities research firm, Tunisia is positioned to be the Henan province of North Africa, importing an enormous amount of virgin hair from India. Furthermore, the North African country shares several characteristics with China that make them both such reliable suppliers. Besides having a supply of disciplined laborers accustomed to tedious work, Tunisia's dictatorial ruling party tolerates little worker agitation or public discourse about corruption or human rights.

Hairstylist Shanda Lee Young putting extensions on client Robin Tyler
photo: Shiho Fukado

In its last country report, the U.S. State Department called Tunisia's human rights record "poor," and Amnesty International reports that in spite of increasing national wealth and an amicable relationship with the West, life for the average worker has grown more repressive.

But wherever the hair is processed, as Great Lengths expands (and Butler says there's no sign of any slowdown—sales have increased 64 percent since 2004), will Tirupathi and the other smaller Indian tem ples be able to keep up with demand? Butler says they aren't worried, but in any case, there is no shortage of secular South Asian sources.

There's always "comb waste," a cottage industry that depends on strands salvaged from the brushes of long-haired women. Collected into soft, black balls, the hair is later untangled and sorted by length. The trouble with that hair, from a high-end perspective, is that it's "dead"—which is why it fell out in the first place.

Far more desirable is the freshly cut hair of young girls, finer and softer than adult hair. But M. Krishna Kishore of Gupta Enterprises, India's largest hair exporter, told The Economic Times, an Indian financial newspaper, that hair collectors who buy from villages operate with a "modus operandi" he considers "hazy."

The Starbucks of Extensions

But third-world poverty and Chinese prison camps aren't things to which hair makers give much thought. Any more than, say, cokeheads do South American militias. Or bag and shoe designers do the factory farms that produce leather. And even though the New York hair makers say they haven't paid much attention to the sudden ubiquity of Great Lengths, it's hard to ignore the fact that it's moving into fashionable city blocks faster than Whole Foods.

Teitelbaum shrugs it off. His desk is messy, the office chaotic. When big stars come by they sometimes look around the shop—at the two women bent over sewing machines, at the guys with strong grips yanking a made-to-order recipe of auburn "Wet and Wavy" with chestnut "French refined" through a lethal-looking piece of wood covered in metal, at little Cecilia sitting in a corner unwrapping freshly baked tendrils from wooden sticks—and then they walk back out. Doesn't matter, the hair maker says—he has more orders than he can fill. Who cares about a flashy website and flat-screen TVs in the waiting room when you create a product like this?

But Ivy Roberg, a diminutive woman in a blunt cut, black suit, and pearl earrings, gets a tight jaw and a wild look in her eye at the mention of Great Lengths. She's worked at Alkinco's for 20 years, and Teitelbaum has been one of their chief competitors for a generation. With the intensity of a Law & Order actress, Roberg re-enacts what she says is a not atypical scene with a client.

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