beauty

Gabrielle Union on Taking Back Her Beauty Brand

Gabrielle Union and hairstylist Larry Sims, co-creators of Flawless. Photo: Courtesy of Flawless by Gabrielle Union

While some spent the first quarter of the year baking bread and heating up beans, Gabrielle Union and her longtime friend and hairstylist Larry Sims have been cooking up natural concoctions for her natural curls for months. We now have the juicy fruits of their labor: a complete revamp of Union’s 2017 hair-care line, Flawless by Gabrielle Union.

The brand is back and better than ever: It’s now majority Black-owned; it’s wearing a new look; it’s full of new, natural ingredients; and it boasts a lineup of 12 products designed for textured hair, protective styles, and wigs (with not one retailing over $10) that are available on Amazon as of this week. In the lead-up to the launch, the Cut caught up with both Union and Sims to talk big chops, hormonal hair loss, and curls in quarantine.

What are the main differences between Flawless at launch in 2017 and Flawless now, in 2020? What spurred them all?
Gabrielle Union: When we first launched in 2017, I had just finished rounds of IVF that left me with bald spots in the front of my head that ultimately connected — so I had a band of baldness right at the time they were launching the company. I wasn’t able to authentically promote a brand called Flawless when I felt anything but. I felt like I wasn’t being listened to when I asked if we could delay the launch so I could grow my hair back; I was sort of being forced into it when I wasn’t at my best.

Throughout that process, I quickly realized that not being a Black-owned company was a problem; not being a Black-led company was a problem; not being Black-marketed company was a problem; not having Black publicists was a problem. Even though the business of it all was fine, I wanted to restructure the whole thing. By adding Larry to the team, to the ownership, and in the lab with the chemists, his decades of experience with textured hair made all the difference.

We changed the ingredient story from start to finish. We took out all the silicones, parabens, and the phosphates that were strongly encouraged in the first iteration. Those ingredients create an effect on the hair that traditionally we have desired, but it hasn’t been the healthiest thing for our hair. We’ve leaned into the new innovations, technology, and ingredients to give you that same quality, result, and efficiency, which is the Flawless that you see now.

Larry Sims: What’s been great about my partnership with Gab on this relaunch is, we were able to nurse her hair back from all the rounds of IVF. It definitely took some TLC and time to figure out what ingredient story would work on her specifically, and once we started getting results, we were like, Wait a minute, there’s something here.

We used a lot of the things that were in our kitchens and in our refrigerators, like avocado oil. We have butters in the products that give the slippage the silicon gave, but in a healthier way. We have creatine and biotin in a lot of our products because we found those worked really well for strengthening her hair. All of that experimentation was a huge part in creating things that were accessible and super affordable, and we’re really proud of that.

GU: We were in the kitchen, you know? With grandma’s recipes for getting your hair back after pregnancy. Literally just bowls of avocado and big-mama recipes. I have family members who were kind enough to be our guinea pigs. We saw some real significant results with the bacury oil and the avocado oil and the rice-oil complex.

But it really started off with this: How do you take out a lot of the legwork and still incorporate all that, while reducing the profit margin so it’s affordable for the people that you’re trying to reach? It’s kind of pointless to figure out what actually works and be like, But hmmm, not for you!

One of the things that’s awesome about the new partnership is that Larry and I are aligned on not wanting to gouge or exploit our own community. Part of that is asking, How many checks do we need? You can minimize the profit margin and create an amazing line that is affordable, while giving back and making sure other Black-owned companies are also a part of the company’s success. Whether that’s using our platform to highlight other Black-owned businesses or helping salons that have gone under during COVID-19. We have so many different initiatives in place to keep this a symbiotic, circular business.

What was your relationship with your hair like growing up? Is there any advice you’d like to give your younger self as the now owner of a hair-care line?
GU: Oh God. “Don’t.” “Don’t, just no.” And, “Stop.” I would literally bring pictures to the salon of people who were not Black! I’d be like, “I wanna look like this! Just leave the relaxer on long enough!” And my cousin was like, “Are you trying to turn yourself into a non-Black person? Because that’s what you’re asking me to do.” I’d literally have lesions because I’d be like, “I can leave it on a little bit longer if it means my hair can be straighter!” You know what’s not cute? Lesions from relaxers. Larry, how about your Jheri curls …

LS: I wanted to be one of the members of Ready for the World so bad. I would overprocess my Jheri curl. I’d be like, “Just a little but longer!” until it was stringy, not curly. Now I’m bald, so I’ve leaned into that.

We have way more representations of what natural beauty is in our community, versus when Gab and I were growing up. I hope that this newer generation, and people who’ve been stuck in those old theologies of what beauty represents, just look around and see how many people have embraced their natural beauty.

One of our models is Gabrielle’s sister, Tracy. She has this head full of natural, gorgeous hair, but she always wore protective styles and never really embraced her hair being out. That’s intimidating for a lot of people. But she’s been able to test out Flawless, work with her texture, and embrace it in ways I don’t think she had before. It’s great to see the shift in what we deem beautiful.

I love seeing Kaavia and her curls on Instagram. What’s your philosophy in terms of styling and caring for her hair? And is she unimpressed during the process?
GU: Oh, she’s been very consistent … from birth. She has very strong opinions, and some days she’ll hand you her little brush and she’s like, “Okay, what we doin’ today. I want you to do it,” and she wants her little ponytails and all that. Some days she’s like, “No, it’s gonna do what it do.” And we, for the most part, just respect her little wishes.

We wash it, and we treat it, and we use very kid-friendly products, which Flawless is by the way! But I try not to impose respectability politics on my child and how little Black girls are supposed to present to the world. I am in the process of unlearning some of those things that I was brought up with.

Normalize letting Black girls exist how they want to. Sometimes that’s gonna be with perfect pigtails, and sometimes it’s afro puffs, and sometimes that’s gonna be a head full of curls that do what they do, and all of it is okay. I’m in the process of not attaching so much to how Kaav’s hair looks. If she wants to switch it up, which she does already, at 20 months, the world is not gonna end. And I’m having to make peace with that. Every time I get a damn comment of “How come ya’ll never do her hair?!?” I’m like eeeek

LS: I love how free she is.

GU: She is a free child. And she’s got healthy hair, she’s got great curls, and that’s my main focus … I say as I’m shaking right now [laughs] … that’s part of the humility of parenting. With Flawless or with my own child, a lot of it is just being humble and transparent about the unlearning that you have to do. Some of the traditions that we’ve passed on have been harmful, others are helpful. It’s about discerning which ones work for your life.

Back to your hair! Of all the hairstyles Larry has created for you, which one stands out the most in your memory and why?
GU: For me it’s always the last thing that he’s done; it sounds crazy to say but there are just so many. I actually just posted that cut you did, was it two years ago? You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t Pat Benatar. The one thing about growing out your hair when part of it is bald is … the rest of it keeps growing! So again, kind of like with Kaav, it’s a slow process of unlearning not wanting to let go of the longer parts of my hair, even though whole sections were like a cue ball. It was a process of cutting it along the way, so that was my first big chop, and I loved how that one looked. I loved how I felt. I thought I would feel like Quasimodo, but I felt like a rock star.

LS: [Laughs.] It was really hot. And I just have to say, in terms of overall journey with Gab’s hair, to see where we were a few years ago and to see where we are now, it makes me feel like it’s my hair; it really does. I’m committed to her hair in a way I’d say is probably unhealthy for me. But I can see the hard work, the tenacity, and the dedication to this regrowth, and it looks amazing. I am so in awe at where we’ve been able to land with her hair. I just love it.

Gabrielle Union on Taking Back Her Beauty Brand