“This is the golden age of freedom in beauty.”
The bustling sidewalks of Harlem's famed 125th Street double as pedestrian marketplace, awash in vivid scents and vibrant patterns that reflect its place as a cultural hub of the African diaspora in New York. Home to the Apollo Theater and the ashes of famed Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, "Black Manhattan" also boasts the humble 1990s beginnings of Sundial Creations, the parent company of Nubian Heritage and its wildly popular sister brand, Shea Moisture.
Shea Moisture's popularity as a natural haircare brand has skyrocketed in recent years, evidence of the rising power of a consumer base previously overlooked by mainstream retailers and beauty brands alike. The brand's rise to prominence, which has spawned memes and meet-ups, is a fascinating case study in consumer power and cultural capital, a story made possible by the digital era and the tools it offers. Whereas even 10 years ago, black women couldn't effectively lobby national retailers to carry products beyond damaging chemical relaxers, now drugstore shampoo aisles in most major cities feature a healthy array of conditioners and black-owned product lines advertising ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter, and aloe vera.
"When we first started to approach retailers in the early '90s, they didn't understand what we were doing," Sundial CEO Richelieu Dennis told BuzzFeed Life. "Customers were demanding it, but retailers weren't connected enough to their consumers to understand that need."
What changed? The emergence of the internet and interest-based forums, which allowed space for loosely configured groups like the burgeoning natural hair community to share resources about healthy haircare and build collective power.
"As that has happened, retailers have woken up and said, 'Hey, now is the time to go out and understand who we are not serving and serve them,'" Dennis said. "The shift in the mindset of retailers and in the accessibility of [products like ours] to consumers has resulted in a seismic shift in the demographics that now drive the current marketplace — and all of those shifts have led to a seismic shift in the beauty landscape overall."