Thousands of hair stylists, make-up students and beauty professionals crowd around the Milky Way stage at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta to watch the Battle of the Baddest Hair Weave competition. Master of Ceremonies Glynn Jackson croons into the microphone: “I need eight big girls. Come on up, big girl Number One! You sure are pretty honey. OK. We’re gonna see big girls doing big bodacious things. Do your best Tyra Banks impression.”
The uninhibited girls cavort and catwalk – one does the splits, some gyrate their behinds and others do sophisticated rap moves. The place erupts when the DJ blasts Flo-Rida’s “Shorty Go Low” – screaming men, women and children dance in the aisles. Jackson dances with the big girls on the stage where the competing hairdressers have an hour to create a winning hairstyle. It takes another hour of shouting and dancing to declare the winner, who will then go on to the Golden Scissors competition.
The Bronner Brothers International Hair Show is unlike any other trade show. Industry consultant and president of Segmented Marketing Services Lafayette Jones has attended for 35 years. “What you see here is the sparkling point of a much larger industry.”
Bronner Brothers is the world’s largest ethnic hair show, attracting 45,000 consumers and industry professionals. Part Ringling Brothers carnival, part Baptist church service and part QVC infomercial, this 61-year-old event makes millions of dollars in retail sales over a weekend and offers a glimpse into the exploding ethnic beauty business.
Held twice a year in February and August, the atmosphere inside and outside the trade show is downright boisterous. Attendees wearing purple and red spiked mohawks breathe life into beige corporate downtown Atlanta in their silver thigh-high boots, leg warmers and glitter eyeshadow. The three-day show includes a church service by the Rev Charles Elijah Bronner, “young, fly and flashy” after-parties, comedy, a fashion show and hairstyling competitions.
Dr Nathanial Bronner Sr and his brother Arthur started Bronner Brothers beauty shows in 1947. Their motto was, and still is, “Keep God first, family second and business third.” Dr Bronner’s six sons worked in the business. One son, Daryl, died in 2000, two became ministers and in 1993 son number two, Bernard, took over the now $35m (€24m) empire that includes the shows, two worship centres, Upscale magazine, a spa and motel in Alabama, and Nu Expressions, African Royale and BB products.
About 15 per cent of attendees are men in their twenties who are here to model and are decked out in Gucci messenger bags, attention-grabbing sunglasses and elaborate hairstyles. Many travel with their personal barbers. On the first day, hair model Antoine Wright, sporting a feathered rainbow style, tells me, “The point is, you want to come to this show wearing a hairstyle that is different.” His barber, Travis White, works at BT’s House of Style in Sumpter, South Carolina, where it took him one and a half hours to create Wright’s look. “I’ve got to be able to do it in 60 minutes,” says White. “Then I can get on the Milky Way stage.”
Milky Way, the world number one company for artificial and human hair, is the only one at the show not selling anything. Instead, Korean owner Mike Kim uses the event to “give back to the African American haircare community” and distributes over $100,000 in cash prizes each year.
Otherwise, pressure to sell in the 350,000 sq ft exhibit hall is fierce. Most companies will do a quarter of their year’s business here hawking hair products – everything from relaxer to carrot-oil hair strengthener, no-lye relaxer to humectants, as well as cutting capes, teeth whiteners, African shea butter, braid sealers and Japanese steel shears.
Most booths hire an MC to entice volunteers for hair demonstrations. There are classes in advanced weaving, tree braiding and fading (a barbering technique that shaves the hair into different lengths and patterns that fade together).The biggest crowds form around the Major League Barber stand, where stylist King McLaurin of Delaware is razoring an image of Daffy Duck on the back of a kid’s head and colouring in the skin with eye pencils. On the next aisle, teenagers and twenty-somethings gather around a large man in a furry sombrero wearing fur pieces like Bamm-Bamm in the Flintstones. He’s Big Bad D, who designs his own clothes and whose secret to success is to “never give up the dream”.
Big Bad D’s product line includes Stretch Growth Creme that stops hair breakage, and his Glass Curling Creme, that smoothes the frizz and makes hair shine like glass. The latter, according to him, “is the hottest thing happenin’ now for wavy hair. Diddy uses my glass.”
The salespeople at the hair extension booths seem the most frazzled. Young Kwon at the Korean-owned Onyx shouts to me above the music while cash is thrust at him, “This market, they need hair. Ninety per cent of black and Latino women have extensions.”
The hair extension market is grow-ing at more than 10 per cent a year and Koreans own most of the hair extension companies in the US, as well as 7,700 of the 10,000 over-the-counter beauty retail shops where hair is their main business.
Krishan Jhalani, managing director of Indique Hair International, has no time to chat: “Business is unbelievable – but I can’t talk, I’m trying to sell.” Juanita Barnes at Not Your Mama’s Wigs is kind enough to enlighten me on the hair extension hierarchy, “Remy hair means the cuticle is intact so the hair doesn’t tangle. If it’s not remy hair it will matt up.” The best hair? “Malaysian. Indian is the cheapest. Chinese and Malaysians can grow hair like no culture can. You can feel the difference. European hair is not as plentiful so it’s the most expensive.”
Bronner Brothers has 30 salespeople to sell its own haircare line, Nu Expressions. It will make $250,000 in sales over the weekend. Salesperson Dankeia Landon from Dallas says it’s the biggest selling event in his sales year.
In the lobby, the soft-spoken Bernard Bronner, president, CEO and show director, dressed in a khaki suit, says, “We were worried, considering the economy right now, but this is one of our best shows ever.” Janet Wallace, show manager, says, “Mr Bronner always told us the beauty business is recession-proof. People may feel bad, but they always want to look good.”
"Part carnival, part church service and part QVC infomercial, the event makes millions of dollars in a weekend"
Owned for four generations by the same family, Andis has been making razors since 1922 and has been going to the Bronner Brothers show since the start. One of the most popular brands in the US, it is likely to be found in every barber shop. Headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, it has offices in Canada, Germany and Hong Kong, and distributes all over the world. As well as clippers and trimmers, products include home haircutting kits and curling irons. In the barbering world, the brand stands for reliable long-lasting quality.
Big Bad D
Former weightlifter Big Bad D offers a line of professional hair products for hairstylists and barbers. Lucky winners of the Battle of Bottle hairstyling competition are featured on his product labels along with five of their winning styles. Big Bad D has a reality show in the works on US channel A&E called D’s House that will be about fitness, clothes and hairdressing. “Oh – and music. My brother and I will be playing the saxophone and the stylist has to dance to my performance,” he tells us. His bestselling products are the Stretch Growth Creme and the Glass Curling Creme for wavy hair.
Created in 1991, Milky Way is owned by Mike Kim. It’s the number one company worldwide for weaves and hair extensions. Their best-selling products are Milky Way Yaky and Saga weaves. Milky Way does not sell products at trade shows but hosts hairdressing battles that come with cash prizes. At this show, Milky Way gives away $17,000 in cash prizes to wannabe stylists over 10 battles. “We want to show that there is more to the industry than just buying. It’s really about having fun and inspiring people,” says Kamal Dorsainville, creator and co-host of the Milky Way Live on Stage Weave Battle.