MOSAL’SK, Russia – The road into town is a potholed track, passing villages of log cabins and fallow fields that speak to the poverty that has gripped this part of central Russia for as long as anyone can remember.
But on a lane where geese waddle through muddy puddles, a brick building stores crate upon crate of this region’s one precious harvestable commodity: human hair, much of it naturally blond.
For the global beauty industry, this is golden treasure.
“Nobody else has this, nobody in the world,” said Aleksei N. Kuznetsov, the owner. “Russian hair is the best in the world.”
Buyers of human hair, most of them small-scale Russian and Ukrainian itinerant operators who sell to hair processors like Kuznetsov, flock to poor regions like this. Cash in hand, they pay small sums for a head’s worth of tresses sheared from women who often have few economic alternatives.
Long sought for wigs and toupees, human hair is now in particularly high demand for hair extension procedures in more affluent countries. Dark hair from India and China is more plentiful, but blond and other light shades are valued for their relative scarcity and because they are easier to dye to match almost any woman’s natural colour.
The largest market is the United States, where tens of thousands of beauty salons offer hair extensions. African-American women have long worn hair extensions, but the trend among woman with lighter hair has been popularized by celebrity endorsements from the likes of Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton.
Great Lengths, an Italian company and major supplier to the United States, has estimated the American retail market for hair extensions at $250 million annually, or about 3 percent of the entire hair care products market. The average price for extensions is $439, according to a 2009 survey by American Salon Magazine, although the procedure can cost several thousand dollars at elite salons.
Here in Mosal’sk, a 41-centimetre braid, the shortest length a buyer will consider, fetches about $50.
Natalya N. Vinokurova, 26, grew up nearby in Yukhnov, a town where half the homes lack indoor plumbing and the average monthly wage is about $300. What little cash-crop agriculture there once was collapsed with the Soviet Union.
But Vinokurova cultivated something with market value: strawberry blond hair that hung to her waist before she sold it.
“I wore it in a braid, a ponytail, different ways,” she said. “But I got sick of it, and all the other girls have short hair, so I cut it,” and then sold it, she said with a shrug. She now wears a bob and has no immediate plans to grow it to a marketable length, which she said would take years.
American customers are typically unconcerned about the origins of extensions, other than to ask if they are hygienic, said Ron Landzaat, founder of Hair Extensions Guide, a trade group in Santa Rosa, California, who said the hair was sterilized by boiling it.
“They are concerned about their looks more than anything else,” Landzaat said by telephone.
Obtaining adequate supplies is the industry’s biggest challenge.
Great Lengths, the Italian supplier to the U.S. market, obtains hair that women have ritualistically donated to temples in India, and says it can be dyed to match most hair types. Others in the business, including Kuznetsov, say European hair is a better option for women with light hair, and so is prized.
Although Kuznetsov has no local rivals that he knows of, he keeps a security guard posted at the entrance to his storeroom. The milk crates, filled with the hair of thousands of women and sorted by categories including “Southern Russian” and “Russian Gold,” might make an alluring target for a heist.
Generally, about 70 percent of the hair purchased in Russia comes from locks kept at home from previous haircuts. Some Ukrainian and Russian women, for example, traditionally cut their hair after the birth of their first child, and may decide only years later to sell it. In areas of dire poverty, it is a final resource to tap in times of desperation.
The rest is bought, often after some haggling, directly from the head of the seller, who then gets a haircut on the spot. As a courtesy, in Russia, the deal is nearly always done in a salon so a hairdresser can do the cutting carefully.
“Some women cut their hair to change their style, others need the money,” said Sergei V. Kotlubi, a buyer who plies the blighted industrial regions near the city of Novosibirsk in Siberia. “It’s like fishing. You never know what you will catch.