A legacy reborn: Madam C.J. Walker hair products are back

INDIANAPOLIS — More than a century after her “secret formula” turned Madam C.J. Walker into a self-made millionaire, her iconic brand of beauty products is back. But this time the hair care line is reaching a broader group of consumers.

From millennials to men, Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture has developed an eclectic following since it exploded onto the scene earlier this year.

Sundial Brands, a New York-based company that owns Nubian Heritage and Shea Moisture, re-established the brand that now includes gels, oils and cremes as well as shampoos and conditioners. Sundial CEO Richelieu Dennis teamed up with Sephora to put Walker's name on store shelves, as well as making the products available online.

Sundial Brands purchased Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises in 2013. Dennis then met with Walker's great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles, to discuss the direction of the line.

The pair agreed that the products had to honor Walker's legacy while meeting the needs of consumers.

Their formula is working.

Soon after debuting in March, Harper's Bazaar called the line’s “curl reviver” one of the best coconut oil hair products on the market. The Los Angeles Times, Allure and Marie Claire also praised the line inspired by Walker’s story.

Walker built her empire by selling hair care products to black women at a time when women of color had few options.

But Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture wants to reach men and women of all backgrounds and hair textures.

"Hair is hair," said Devon Ginn, who works at the Madame Walker Theatre in Indianapolis. "Your hair can look one way being a man, and another way being a woman. Either way you want it to be tamable and manageable."

Beauty blogger Victoria Davis took notice of the line’s potential to desegregate the industry.

“Hair care aisles have been divided between the mainstream brands and 'ethnic' brands for so long,” said Davis, who has more than 5,000 followers online. “The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products, no matter the collection, are made for a diverse audience.”

The line has collections for different hair textures: tightly coiled, curly, wavy and straight.

Prices range from $14 for coconut oil to $32 for a deep conditioning masque. A bottle of shampoo costs about $24. Dennis expects the product line to grow as more consumers try the products.

Bundles is helping spread the word.

Combing through her history

The legacy of her great-great-grandmother's original product line inspired Bundles to write three books about Walker's life and how she built an empire.

Walker created marketing schemes, training opportunities and distribution plans that continue to influence hair care companies nationwide.

Sundial is focused on its customers having healthy hair, Bundles said, the same goal Walker had 100 years ago.

Walker's first products, Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower and shampoo, were vegetable-based. The current line is enriched with shea, coconut, Jamaican black castor and murumuru oils.

"She was very clear that her primary goal was to have healthy hair and to grow hair," Bundles said. "Hair straightening was a part of the overall system if women wanted to straighten their hair."

Walker opened a laboratory, manufacturing plant and beauty school in Indianapolis. The building, a National Historic Landmark, has since become the Madame Walker Theatre Center.

Employees at the theater, along with Bundles, are determined to keep Walker's legacy alive by promoting the products to a new generation of consumers.

Embracing natural hair

Bundles says European culture has influenced beauty standards for decades.

Skin bleach, chemical straighteners and hair extensions remain on the market, but more products for natural hair are popping up.

Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture is competing against popular brands such as Carol's Daughter, Miss Jessie's and Curl Junkie. Mainstream hair care companies such as Clairol and Pantene now offer options for natural hair, too.

"There is nothing wrong with our hair as it grows out (of) our heads," Bundles said. "Why is it that we have to make our hair look like someone else's hair?"

Bundles and Sundial Brands hope the new line of products eases the pressure for men and women to conform to popular beauty standards. Bundle also hopes the spirit of Madam Walker helps young women and girls, in particular, feel good about their hair.

"Inner confidence is what makes us successful," Bundles said. "What grows from our head is something that we should love. The larger society can love it or not, but it's not their decision to make."

Follow Cara Anthony on Twitter: @CaraRAnthony.


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