Globalization's Personal Link Hindu Locks Keep Human Hair Trade Humming

By Britta Sandberg

Part 3: Happy Hair and the Hair Mafia

After landing at Rome's Fiumicino Airport on board a UPS flight, Manibhen's hair is loaded onto a van and driven 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the town of Nepi, where it is delivered to a company called Great Lengths. The company, which controls 60 percent of the world market for real hair extensions, processes five tons of hair each month. It recently opened a branch in China.

"We are the Bentley of hair extensions," says David Gold, 55, the owner and founder of Great Lengths. Gold wears his own hair like a young Rudolph Valentino, together with a plaid shirt, Clarks shoes and jeans. He looks more like an obsessed inventor than a millionaire. "The best way to get a first impression," he says, walking over to one of the three helicopter landing pads on his 10-hectare (25-acre) lakeside property, "is to take a look at the entire operation from the air."

He rolls his panorama helicopter out of the hangar, gets in and takes off. He flies over his olive grove, the main house, the guesthouse and pool, and heads across a volcanic landscape dotted with lakes toward an industrial zone. He has built three large factories on the sparse Nepi plain, the third of which was just completed. Because Gold likes to see things from the air, the name of his company is also printed on the roofs of his factories.

An hour later he is sitting in his office, with its tiled floor and nondescript gray furniture, looking through a large glass window into the adjacent production hall. Today is a blonde day, color tone No. 9, at Great Lengths.

Manibhen's hair is floating in a depigmentation bath in a plastic tub. The hair looked oddly lifeless when it arrived in Nepi in a cookie box lined with white paper. Tomorrow it will be dyed three shades darker, from its natural, hazelnut brown to color tone No. 1, deep black, the color the customer from Munich has requested. Only Gold, his daughter and his son know the secret formula of the osmosis bath used to remove the pigments from hair. "It's a bit like the Coca-Cola formula," he says.

'H.B. Curly'

The computer beeps, indicating that Gold has received an e-mail, from Los Angeles. "Halle Berry desperately needs hair by Friday," the message reads. "We know it's impossible, but please try to make it." It is already Wednesday, but the actress will get her hair, marked "H.B. curly."

Celebrities are the company's best advertisement. When a 2005 report on American television revealed how many extensions were worn on the red carpet at that year's Oscars, the company's US sales jumped by 110 percent, to more than $20 million (€13.6 million).

Brown cardboard boxes are lined up against the wall in the shipping area, next to Halle Berry's new hair. Each box represents a country, and the boxes contain hair for the entire world. Bosnia is next to South Africa, Venezuela is next to the United Arab Emirates, Australia is paired with Latvia and Japan with Thailand. The Chinese receive hair from Kashmir, the Indian state on China's southern border. Kashmiri hair is too thick for European heads, but just right for the Chinese. Some hair is flown back to India. Even Delhi now has a few salons that offer extensions.

"This is happy hair," says Gold. "The people who donate it are happy to sacrifice it; the hairdressers who buy it are happy to be able to work with it; and the women who receive it are happy because they look better with it than without it. What could possibly be wrong about that?"

Yes, what? He is talking about hair, not organs, and the vast majority of the donors have it cut off voluntarily. But there are shadier ways of obtaining human hair, and there is even something called the hair mafia. Dubious dealers sell real Ukrainian hair on the Internet, providing no information about its source, for $1,200 (€816) per kilo. Investigators have identified the Ukrainian town of Tores as a hub of the illegal hair trade.

In Brazil, the police have noticed a growing and unsettling trend of "hair attacks" by "scalp hunters." In England, reports of forcibly shaved Russian prisoners created a scandal, mostly because Victoria Beckham said that she could not rule out that she might have been wearing the hair of Russian female inmates in her asymmetrical ponytail. "I've got Russian cell-block H on my head," the wife of famed footballer David Beckham sighed after the story appeared in the Sunday Times.

Of course there is an illegal trade in human hair, says Gold, but his company will have no part of it. "We wouldn't be able to buy up the quantities we need from those sources." The company maintains 45 distribution offices in 53 countries. The last offer Gold received to buy his company amounted to roughly €150 million ($220 million).

"Without Margarita," says Gold, a native Englishman, "we would never have come this far." Gold met Margarita, a hairdresser, in a salon in London's Camden Town in the 1990s. She was offering her customers hair extensions, but they wouldn't stick. Gold fell in love with Margarita and decided to search for a solution to Margarita's hair adhesion problem.

Together with scientists, he developed a system that connects hair extensions to a person's own hair using keratin platelets, and he had it patented. The system remains the basis of his success to this day. Before long women were practically breaking down his doors, but after four weeks they returned, furiously pointing at tennis ball-like shapes on their heads. People who knew more about hair than he did explained to Gold that he had made a critical mistake: He had not accounted for the hair's direction of growth.

Each individual hair is structured like a pinecone. If the direction of this scale-like structure is ignored, the individual hairs rub together on the head and become entangled and angled in unwanted directions. After Gold's initial mistakes, the direction of hair growth was marked: with rubber bands, in India, indicating where the tips of the hairs are located; and, in Italy, with bands of white material to which the roots are sewed.

Despite these precautions, some of the hair still gets mixed up during the production process. It is filled into plastic bags and flown to North Africa, where 260 workers sort it, one strand at a time, so that the roots and tips are pointing in the same direction once again, and then flown back to Rome. Globalization, as it turns out, can be very hands-on.

'An Honor to Wear this Woman's Hair'

Verena Franke has spent the last four hours undergoing an ultrasound treatment that presses Manibhen Yashwanthpur's hair into her own hair. When the process is complete she sports a substantial mane of hair, German at the top and Indian at the bottom.

"Super," says salon owner Renate Klingspor, "you don't see any color difference, no transition at all. That's exactly the way it should be." Klingspor wears a T-shirt with the name of her salon in rhinestones, jeans with a rhinestone belt, and blonde hair -- with extensions, of course. She describes herself as a "pioneer in the German hair extension world." She says that she discovered the ultrasound device used to attach the hair extensions in 2000. "That's when I realized that this was the machine we needed," she says, sounding like an aid worker who has discovered a new method of water purification.

Her customer, Verena Franke, now looks a bit like Pocahontas. "It's really hot," she says, pulling on the foreign hairs. 138 of the 150 skeins have already been attached. The extensions last for six months. By then a person's own hair will have grown so that the hair extensions no longer sit properly in place. The foreign hair is removed and discarded. It could, of course, be reused, but the used-car principle doesn't exist in this industry. "Nevertheless, it's definitely worth it," says Verena. "Somehow it makes you more feminine."

Women with hair extensions normally never discover where the hair actually comes from. But it's different in this case. When Franke hears the story of Manibhen, she gazes at the photos of the Indian woman for a long time, photos depicting her with a full head of hair and shaved bald, alone and with her family. Then she utters an astonishing sentence: "Strictly speaking, it's really an honor to be wearing this woman's hair."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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