‘It’s About Ownership’: The Politics of Running a Black Hair Shop
In the UK, the black hair industry is dominated by South Asian businessmen. Increasingly, black women are starting to question why.
Photo by Eddie Pearson via Stocksy
"In the 1990s and 80s, it was predominantly black," Sandra Brown-Pinnock recalls. "Black people owned hair shops and [South] Asian people were into pharmaceuticals."
Brown-Pinnock is lamenting the state of Britain's afro hair and beauty industry. Two decades ago, a black woman behind the till of an afro hair store was as noteworthy as a Turkish-owned kebab shop.
Now she is the owner of the only black-owned afro hair shop in all of southeast London, an area home to 275,885 people.
To the du-ragless and un-beweaved, the fact that black women very rarely own or even work in stores stocked entirely with beauty products targeted at them may sound strange. After all, an Asian man opening a Chinese takeaway in Chinatown shouldn't cause the same fanfare as the opening of XSandy's in Lewisham, where 30 percent of the population is black.
I was routinely followed around shops... by shop keepers who seem to think that the majority of the customer base are trying to steal their products.
But black women in the UK are used to the surreal experience of asking for advice on the best type of edge control from a Bangladeshi man. While official figures on the ethnic breakdown of black hair shop owners are not available, it is widely thought that almost all afro hair shops in the country are owned by South Asian men.
XSandy's initially begun as a hair extension company in 2009, after a bout of illness saw Brown-Pinnock begin to lose her own hair. She was in need of a wig and disappointed by high street offerings, and so began to produce and sell her own product.
One afternoon, a long time buyer challenged her about the dwindling quality of her hair, after a pack turned into an unusable tumble-weave post wash. "I asked her where she bought it. She told me the shop and I said, 'When you go back, I'll come with you.'"
After interrogating the shop owners, Brown-Pinnock found out what had caused the slump in quality. They had been taking Brown-Pinnock's hair from its packaging, replacing it with a cheaper brand and "selling [mine] as a higher premium brand."
The incident was eventually settled in court, but from that point onwards Brown-Pinnock decided to sell her products from her own shop. Now she's competing with her old stockists, and since black owned hair shops are something of a rarity in London, it's proven to be a lonely business.
"There's one in Forest Hill and there's one in Sydenham, but a token black person has been hired so people will think they're buying from a black person. The black man doesn't own the store."
Black owned hair shops haven't always been such a spectacle. In the 1960s, Dyke & Dryden—the UK's first afro hair care distributor—kept the country's black population's scalps greased. In doing so, it became Britain's first black-owned multi-million pound business.
Jamaican-born Lincoln "Len" Dyke and Dudley Dryden's partnership birthed Britain's black haircare and beauty industry as we know it. The pair started by selling products from overseas out of boxes and soon set up their first shop in Tottenham, north London, a few years later; before long, they had six. They swapped importing with manufacturing their own black hair products and subsequently became the first company in Europe to do so.
The duo managed to flourish despite increasing encroachment by American competitors. Eventually, it buckled under the pressure, selling up in the 90s to the Illinois-based company Soft Sheen.
No one can pinpoint exactly when or why the black hair industry in the UK became dominated by the Asian community, but most agree the effective demise of Dyke & Dryden was the moment the black community ceded its control.
"I moved to America in 1986 and when I came back to England in 2004, there was no more Dyke & Dryden," says Remi Makinde, a blogger who only patronizes black-owned hair shops. "I asked my mum where they'd gone and she showed me Paks."
Like Dyke and Dryden once upon a time, Paks is now synonymous with all things black beauty. Like most afro hair stores, its staff are predominantly South Asian. But CEO Peter Mudahy says their presence has always been felt within the industry—just behind the scenes.
"Indians and Pakistanis are the ones who make the products and always have," he says. "The relaxer kit that we all buy was invented by a guy called Muhammad Akhtar. They've always been behind it on a technical front and now they've started their own factories and shops."
Despite its long history with the black hair industry, some black consumers claim that an Asian-run industry can't understand their specific needs. Brown-Pinnock herself recalls a situation where she asked if a shop stocked a conditioner recommended by a friend.
"The shop assistant said, 'We don't, but here,'—he turned around and picked up another product—'use this'. I said, 'Why? What will it do to my hair? What's in it?' He didn't know. The mentality was as long as you've walked in, you shouldn't leave without spending."
In the UK alone, black women spend six times more on hair products than white women, so it makes sense that people like Brown-Pinnock want to see black women benefit from the spoils of a billion-pound industry. But it goes beyond tribalism. Whilst the diversity of products, styles, and hair types is what makes black hair so great, it also raises lots of practical questions. The wrong answers waste time, money, and increasingly expensive packs of Xpressions extensions.
Many of the existing male vendors simply don't know enough about black female hair because, well, they don't have it. And unlike e-cigs and electronics, there's no shorthand guide on how it all works.
"You walk in and it's all male," says Brown-Pinnock. "Why do we as black women ask a completely different race about our own hair when they don't have our hair type? Why would you ask them to explain to you what works for when your hair's breaking, or your skin's dry? But we do that."
What are we leaving for the next generation? Our legacy? It's about ownership for black people.
Mudahy's response to the idea that only black women can cater to black women is straightforward.
"Most of the hairdressers in the world are men," he shrugs. "Just this weekend, a supplier came up to me at an event and said, 'I didn't realize it was Asians running this company.' They thought they were doing business with a black company. I said, 'How different would it be if it was a black company or a white company or a green company?' You still obviously enjoy doing business with them."
He also questioned why these accusations are levelled solely at the afro hair industry. "Most of the people in retail are Asian," he points out.
Other underlying tensions continue to disrupt the relationship between black shoppers and Asian shop owners, who are not immune to the racism that plagues the rest of society.
"I was routinely followed around shops with suspicion by shop keepers who seem to think that the majority of the customer base are trying to steal their products," says Chinwe Nnajiuba, a school tutor. "They essentially treat customers like thieves-in-waiting. When I have confronted staff in the past, they have said that they wanted to assist me: If you want to assist a customer you vocally offer them help, you do not follow them down the aisle."
In response to the constant racial profiling, she boycotts high street black hair shops. When possible, she buys what she can from online outlets. "Regardless of this contrived sense of POC unity," she says, "there is racial prejudice."
These tensions go further than the shop floor. A video on XSandy's Facebook page claims that a high street rival offered to sell customers anything Brown-Pinnock did at half price. "He told [my customer] that he wanted to crush me," she said in the video.
Whilst it may well just be the customary douchebaggery of business, Brown-Pinnock took the comment as attack on the black business community.
Mudahy believes that the competitive nature of Lewisham's hair shops is more relevant than race. "You can't come into a field and all of a sudden start crying wolf. It's business." he says. "I don't have a shop in Lewisham because it's a saturated market. Every corner has a shop on it."
Still, Brown-Pinnock feels race continues to play its part, saying even her pricing has been affected by her position as "Asian outlets buy together."
"When I started out I used to buy shea moisture and it was £72 per dozen [tubs]. When I was able to buy three or four dozen at once, it was £22.60. I used to sell the product at £12.99 and people would say, 'I want to support you, but I can get this for half the price around the corner.'
"Even now, if I'm selling it at the same price, people will come in and say, 'Now it's around the corner for 50 pence less.'"
Despite stocking the same products at the same prices as the high street, she believes her store has another USP other than expertise: It keeps money "coming back into the community."
"It's about employment," she says. "I employ all black. I don't care what anyone says."
Asian owned shops also primarily employ other Asian people, but for a different reason: The soaring cost of London rent and gentrification plague both Brown-Pinnock and her rivals. When it comes to one of the biggest criticisms—the lack of black staff—Mudahy offers an explanation. "They're struggling to pay the bills, so they've got family members working in there. It's a struggle for them too."
Brown-Pinnock is opening another London store in Peckham this month. She has plans for stores in Dalston and Finsbury Park, too. But she wants—more than the success of her own store—company. She's a minority in the one industry she logically shouldn't be. Like most of us, she's simply looking forward to the day a black woman opening a black hair store is as underwhelming as it was in the 80s.
"What are we leaving for the next generation?" she asks. "Our legacy? It's about ownership for black people."