The African-American hair care industry is worth over $2.5 billion. Let that sink in. If you browse the beauty department of any local store, you’re likely to find an array of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products for curly and coily hair prominently displayed on the shelves. The access we now have to thousands of products formulated for our textured tresses is unprecedented.
But at the start of the 20th century, products made to meet the needs of Black hair were not widely available. Madam C.J. Walker is one of the earliest African-American haircare innovators who worked to change that. In 1905, Walker began making products that addressed the hair dilemmas she and other Black women were facing such as, dandruff and hair loss. The newly-released Netflix series Self Made provides a glimpse into how Walker grew her beauty empire into a million-dollar enterprise. The four-part special highlighted how Walker paved the way for future generations of female beauty entrepreneurs.
One woman who has continued Walker’s mission of innovating African-American hair care is the founder of Camille Rose, Janell Stephens. After hearing about the Netflix biopic, Stephens put a plan in motion to execute a limited-edition product release and photo campaign inspired by Walker. I talked to Stephens to learn more about how she and her brand have been motivated by Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy.
On the similarities between her and Madam C.J. Walker’s journey…
For Stephens and Walker, several dots connect their stories. “I’m from Louisiana, and so is she. I’m very proud of that,” Stephens said.
Like Walker, the Camille Rose founder began making homemade products to solve a problem. Stephens began concocting treatments when she could not find remedies in the store that soothed her children’s severely dry scalps. “We both created our products out of necessity. I researched ingredients and made my products in my kitchen the way she did,” Stephens said.
The driving force behind Stephens’ beauty brand also parallels that of Walker’s. “She was a huge advocate for women’s economic independence. The same goes for Camille Rose,” Stephens said. “There is something to be said for me being able to turn my hobby into a worldwide business. I hope that I am inspiring many other ladies out there. I want to let mothers know that you can be a mom, work out of the home, and still be successful,” Stephens stated.
On recreating Madam C.J. Walker’s "Wonderful Hair Grower"…
“Our brand did a photoshoot as a dedication. But, I wanted to take it a step further and recreate her original hair product, the hair grower,” Stephens said. For Stephens, staying true to the roots of the scalp treatment was of the utmost importance. She describes her brand’s version of the product—which comes in a tin similar to the original packaging —as a modern take on hair grease.
“Sulfur is a key ingredient in her product, and it’s a key ingredient in ours. Sulfur is known to help with many different issues like dandruff or itchy scalp, and it’s known to help grow the hair,” Stephens said. “She also used lavender oil, which is good for the scalp. We definitely kept that in there," Stephens added. While she included many of the nourishing ingredients from the original recipe, Stephens made the decision to remove ingredients like petroleum, which clog the scalp’s pores.
Falling in line with Walker's version, Stephens' “Hair Grower” remains a multi-functional product. While the product’s primary purpose is to decrease the occurrence of psoriasis, dandruff, and eczema, it does much more. “It’s also a moisturizer. It can be used even if you don’t need assistance growing your hair or with scalp issues,” Stephens said. She noted that the product can be used to style children’s hair or to refresh the scalp when wearing protective styles.
On what people should take away from Madam C.J. Walker’s story…
With the recent release of ‘Self Made,’ Stephens hopes the world takes a pause to unpack Walker’s life and legacy. “I want people to know that she paved the way for so many women, and she showed that women can be business owners. She altered women’s place in America and in this society,” Stephens said.
“She also gave back and created jobs for not just men, but women as well. She realized that women have power, and she claimed it. She brought all of that into existence and brought others into the fold with her. So, that is a lasting lesson for people,” Stephens noted.
On Camille Rose’s legacy...
Thinking about the indelible mark Walker made as a beauty mogul has encouraged Stephens to reflect on the impact she wants her business to have on the world. “I want Camille Rose to be more than just hair care,” Stephens said.
“When I started, I didn't just start with creating a hair product. That wasn't my primary focus. It was about creating a better lifestyle for myself and my family. Our brand has an array of great products in many different categories. We just launched Camille Rose Beauty. We're working on Camille Rose Home," Stephens expressed. Currently, the brand's beauty offerings include a lineup of skincare products while the home section boasts an all-purpose cleaner and soy candle.
"Our goal is to sit in many different areas of a retail store. There’s not an African-American owned company or female-owned company doing that right now,” Stephens remarked.