The shops you see on every high street are now slowly but surely starting to be owned by black women – and rightly so. But why has it taken this long? Carly Lewis-Oduntan investigates…
It’s an issue that’s long been discussed among black women. After all, it would be difficult not to have noticed the glaring absence of black ownership in one of our most frequented spaces - the hair and beauty shop. Specifically the black hair and beauty shop - the only place we can rely on to provide the products and cosmetics made for us that have yet to touch the shelves of the UK’s mainstream retailers.
On my local high street in Lewisham, there’s an afro hair and beauty shop on practically every corner, each vying for the attention of the next potential customer. Without stepping inside any of them, my immediate assumption would be that none of them are owned by black women, and I’d be right. After all, in the many years that I’ve been shopping at these types of stores, I’ve only ever discovered two with black women at the helm.
Despite our readiness to buy – black women in the UK spend six times more on hair products than white women according to research from L’Oréal – we’re almost never on the profiting end of the transaction. Instead, South-Asian men have dominated the black hair and beauty retail market for decades. But how and why have we remained so consistently underrepresented in an industry that we contribute billions of pounds to every year?
Filling the void
“There are two things. The first one is fear of the unknown – opening your own business is always going to be a big, scary step, and obviously I wanted it to be a success. I’ve found people tend to be loyal to the shops they already know, too,” says Sandra Brown-Pinnock who owns Xsandy’s Hair & Cosmetics in Lewisham Shopping Centre. “The second – which is something I experienced – is about getting support and getting black women walking through our doors. When I first opened the shop I wasn’t getting as much support as I’m getting now, which I think is probably down to lack of awareness.
Not many people actually knew I was here.” Frustrated with Xsandy’s modest footfall, Brown-Pinnock sent out a WhatsApp message to her contacts, letting everybody know where the shop was and the goods she stocked. The news that Xsandy’s was black-owned, which was and still is practically unheard of, caught people’s attention and soon, everybody was talking about it.
At the time of opening in June 2015, Xsandy’s was thought to be the only black-owned hair shop in South East London. Discussing her decision to open her own store after previously working as a psychiatric nurse, Brown-Pinnock says, “I started losing my hair and I didn’t know why. After talking to friends and hearing their product recommendations, I went to one of the other shops and asked if they had a particular treatment. They didn’t have it so the guy just picked something up off the shelf, handed it to me and said, ‘you can use this.’”
That something was a random jar of gel, followed by a tub of Vaseline. “They were adding insult to injury at this point,” Brown-Pinnock told me. It was then that it first occurred to her that she had the knowledge required to be able to provide a different kind of service to other women like her. “I was really angry. I walked back to the car park and said to myself, why do we, as black women, do this? We already know everything about our hair yet we go to these shops to ask questions when they don’t know as much as we do.”
Sisters Juliet and Judith Omotayo co-own Hairglo in Downham, South East London. Since opening their shop last November, they quickly noticed that they were naturally able to provide a level of customer service they felt was lacking at existing shops. “Women want to have a conversation,” says Juliet. “So we actually spend time in the shop reading about the products and trying to educate ourselves so that we can share what we’ve learnt with our customers.”
Survival of the fittest
Even with all the product knowledge in the world, the business of black hair and beauty shops remains bitterly competitive. Black women with limited experience and no influential connections have to work harder to establish and maintain their success in an industry that’s largely controlled and influenced by men of a different race. And though this doesn’t necessarily boil down to just that - even well-known chains are struggling on the high street - it’s another obstacle that they have to overcome.
Erica Ogundare owned Kushty Cosmetics, a beauty shop that stocked products for darker skin tones, based at The Mall in Wood Green, North London, until late last year. And as a black woman, she initially faced skepticism from wholesalers. “It’s rare to find a woman of colour running that kind of business, so when they see someone like me they’re probably not going to take me, or my shop, seriously. That’s the main thing I had to battle through,” she says.
And that’s not the only problem these women face. Brown-Pinnock had trouble trying to win over her wholesalers before she opened Xsandy’s Hair & Cosmetics as well, which she suspects is because she’s a woman of colour. But she also faced hostility from other local shop owners. “One of my customers told me she’d gone to another shop on the same highstreet holding a carrier bag she got from my shop, and the owner said to her, ‘take those products back, we’re going to crush her in six months,’” she recalls, “Hearing that just shocked me.”
Happily, Brown-Pinnock’s shop has survived and thrived. Stores like hers and Omotayo’s are starting to change the way the black beauty industry runs. “We used to walk through these shops and think ‘that’s how it was when I was young, that’s how it is now and that’s how it’ll always be,” says Ogundare.
But, actually, these women are setting an example and are proving we can make a change to an industry that should inherently belong to us. They’re becoming positive role models who are creating change. They’re providing better service and are changing people’s perceptions. So here’s to the next wave of afro hair and beauty shops that are actually owned by black women.
Images: Unsplash / Gbenga Oduntan