The hair extension trade is a multi-million dollar industry – and Slavic hair is particularly prized. The blonde hair extensions have become known as white gold. Ukrainian women can supplement their incomes by selling their hair, with Slavic hair extensions costing about $1,000 (£882) and wigs about $3,000.
Hair gradients available in a salon in Kiev
I was very interested in the thought of someone willing to have another person’s hair attached to their head and having no idea of the origin of that hair, or the circumstances in which it was taken.
I headed to Kiev to take up my residency at Izolyatsia, an art foundation in the city. Walking the streets, I noticed that although large-scale advertising was rare, there were many smaller posters with tear-off telephone numbers. I had to work out what the word for “hair” was in Ukrainian with Cyrillic characters. It became a search.
Advertising posters throughout Ukraine.
I met Yevgeny, who has owned a hair salon in a shopping centre on the outskirts of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, for about eight years. However, his business is probably more accurately described as a hair extension studio.
“Women come to cut and sell their hair, but not that often: our Slavic girls, conversely, are willing to pay their last penny to be beautiful and have long hair. Demand for extensions is greater than for haircuts,” he said.
At Yevgeny’s salon, hair extensions cost between $60 and $300 for 100 grams.
“Hair extensions are becoming more popular, but it all strongly depends on fashion. I had a customer who had her own thick and long hair, who came and asked me to cut off because she was tired of it. She sold it to me, and than she came again in a week saying ‘I want my hair back.’ It happens,” he said.
For fitness instructor Anna, appearance is very important. She was having hair extensions fitted in Yevgeny’s salon when I visited.
Yevgeny invited me into the back room of his salon where an employee – also named Anna – was gluing in the extensions. I asked if I could photograph them and I was allowed.
The hair extensions are glued to the base of the customer’s own hair: this process can take a whole day.
After contacting a couple of people who cut hair in Kiev, I arranged to meet Tatiana. She has been cutting hair from women for 11 years and exports some of it, but also fits hair extensions in the city. She showed me some ponytails of hair she had cut.
“I give many women beauty. I cut hair from Slavic women, and make extensions for other women who have short hair,” she said.
“Slavic hair is the best hair in the world, as everybody knows!”
Tatiana advertises on Instagram and sells to customers across Europe and in the USA.
“I advertise to all women who have long hair and sometimes women call me, and we meet and I cut their hair,” she said.
She usually meets around four women per week.
“Many women who have long hair need more time to make their hair beautiful and to wash their hair, so they want it cut,” she said.
“Usually women tell me that it’s too hot to have a lot of hair in summer. Of course, for poor women it’s also good to get some money, but usually I meet with women of normal financial status who just want to change their look,” she said.
Many of her customers are teenagers.
“Teenagers want to change everything. And then afterwards, they cry! ‘Oh I don’t want to have this long hair, I want to be more modern’ and then they cry after it’s been cut: ‘What did I do?’”
Alina, 22, had advertised her hair for sale on a website, and I managed to connect her to one of the hair sellers I had contacted through the street adverts. I arranged to meet her at a friend’s flat, where I took portraits of her before the hair dealer arrived. He measured out the long hair after putting it into four bunches. Then he started hacking: he admitted he wasn’t a hairdresser. He had been putting up the street adverts for someone else, then realised that he could put his own number on the posters and collect the hair himself, so he did.
He bought Alina’s hair for 1700 hryvnia (about £48). When he had gone, I photographed her again in the same positions, then I interviewed her. She was upset: it had been a traumatic experience for her.
“I’m from Ukraine, I’m 22 and I come from Sumy region. I’m a fourth-grade student of journalism. I work part-time at a news company, posting the news on the website,” she told me.
“I looked into selling my hair when I just wanted to cut my hair and change my style. My boyfriend said, ‘Why simply cut it off? You can sell it.’ I simply wanted to change my image. To change something in my life for at least once, so I mixed business with pleasure.”
“I feel scared that I probably look bad now, because no money can replace my beauty. I’m gonna be pretty anxious about people’s reactions. But as for me personally … it’s hard to tell, I don’t know yet. I’ll have to spend some time getting used to this.”
Finding the right person to sell her hair to was a struggle, she said.
“There was a woman from another city who asked me to send my hair in the post for a price of 2000uah (£56) per 100 grams, but I refused because it seemed weird.
“A man called me, who also offered to cut my hair, but asked me to name my price. It was weird, because it’s hairdressers who should know their prices, not me. Then he wanted to meet for a cup of coffee, so it didn’t feel like it was really my hair he wanted to buy.
“Then a man called Yurii called, the one who cut my hair today, and asked me to send a photo first but didn’t name his price – he only wanted to take a look and give me an estimate.”
I arranged to meet a hair dealer called Vijay, who takes Ukrainian and Russian hair to New York.
“It is either used for hair extensions or wigs: of course, a lot of people with cancer have hair loss, so usually in New York, I sell to wealthy women who’ve had hair loss and want to have wigs,” he said.
He told me he set up his hair-selling business eight years ago, while working as an editor at Playboy.
“It was interesting but I was just a worker like everyone else: when you’re editor, even though the name might be glamorous you’re still, you know, a salary person,” he said.
“For now this is sort of my comfort business: it still sometimes pays the rent or covers trips. In New York I have clients who have worked with me for a couple of years.”
He was keen to point out that the women selling their hair do so willingly.
“People get paid for it: it’s girls who want to style their hair. People assume that girls are just being coerced into selling their hair but Ukraine is a very civilised place,” he said.
“In Ukraine wages are still very low. Some people work all month for two hundred dollars a month. So if you sell your hair and make a hundred dollars, or even fifty dollars, that’s huge. In US terms, that’ll be someone earning 500 bucks. You know some people in America would do all kinds of stuff – they would go and become guinea pigs for lab experiments – for $1,000 or $1,500 or so.”