What do actress Vivica A. Fox, rapper Rich the Kid and singers Ari Lennox and Deborah Cox have in common? Celebrity hairstylist LeAna McKnight.
McKnight built a career helping Hollywood stars look camera-ready, but a recent move back to her hometown of Las Vegas has her focused on pursuing a different path selling hair extensions.
“I needed to slow down so I could really focus on the business,” McKnight said. “The cost of living in California was just taking up a lot of my brain capacity because I was thinking more about money versus more about growing (my business). And I wanted to come back to something that’s familiar — I did live here for 13 years as a child — and we needed more space for our inventory and Las Vegas was able to provide that for us.”
Like many in the salon business, the COVID-19 pandemic and its mandated shutdowns devastated stylists including McKnight, who was forced to temporarily shutter her West Hollywood hair salon on top of losing on-set gigs for major TV networks and fashion brands.
The time at home helped her refocus on her hair extension business, SL Raw Virgin Hair, and last month she launched her products nationally including a new line of glueless wigs. There’s also plans to sell her line of human hair extensions internationally.
Hair extensions and wigs — whether used for beauty or to help mask hair loss — are a growing industry. The North American market is expected to reach $2 billion by 2026, according to research firm Reportlinker. It also reported North America made up more than 40 percent of the global hair wigs and extensions market in 2020 with the highest demand from 35- to 44-year-olds.
“The growing popularity of wearing hair wigs among celebrities, models, and social media influencers has a ripple effect among individual consumers. New and evolving fashion trends in the industry have also always influenced the market growth among individual consumers and entertainers,” according to the report.
‘Wasted thousands of dollars’
McKnight grew up in Las Vegas but later moved with her mother to New Orleans, where she attended a career academy high school. It was there that she discovered her love for beauty and hair.
“You had to pick a vocation … so I chose what I thought was the easiest vocation, which was cosmetology,” she said. “All my girlfriends were taking nursing (classes) but I’m in cosmetology and I’m really having a good time.”
The courses counted as credits toward her state board license, but she faced a major setback when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her family’s home. She moved to Houston, and it was then that she decided to finish her training, working her way up from a shampoo tech to opening up her own salon studio in 2010 in Houston then relocating to West Hollywood, California, in 2014.
“I was selling hair (extensions) to my customer base so I was only focused on selling hair to them to enhance their service and experience,” McKnight said. “All those hairstyles came out nice, but it just didn’t have the same movement (as real hair). I would notice that the hair would get very stiff after a couple weeks.”
McKnight wanted access to hair that would look natural and undetectable on a client so she found a supplier offering a better-quality product.
“She was willing to sell (to) me at a discounted rate, where I can resell it to my customers,” said McKnight, adding that she didn’t make a profit. “So that’s how I started getting my feet wet and getting more involved in selling hair extensions, but of course, you get to the point where you don’t want a discounted rate, you want to make a profit.”
McKnight spent nearly four years researching manufacturers — “wasting thousands of dollars” testing out products she described as trash — before finding a company offering authentic human hair.
“I found a manufacturer who was willing to work with me and meet my needs when it came to providing me with virgin human hair extensions, sourced from temple donor hair from India,” she said.
Ramping up online business
Armed with a supplier, McKnight began focusing on building her online store. While she first created her hair extension website in 2011, it sat largely untouched as she juggled clients, her salon business and a move to Southern California.
But when the pandemic forced a temporary forced shutdown of businesses in California in 2020, McKnight saw it as an opportunity to grow the online business.
“The first two months of the pandemic was just me eating and watching TV because I don’t usually get time to watch television and by month three I was like, ‘I need to do something,’ ” she said. “I kind of just locked myself in my office and revamped the whole store … and as soon as I restructured the store, we started getting visitors and sales.”
Sales grew more than 500 percent in seven months, and now, McKnight said she is 100 percent focused on building her online business and no longer styles hair. She shuttered her West Hollywood store before moving to Las Vegas. Even her husband, Gregory Alexander, quit his job at Coca-Cola last year to help run SL Raw Virgin Hair.
“She always had a drawn-out game plan. She’s the person who actually talks the talk and walks it,” said Alexander, who recalled meeting McKnight when she was still working toward her cosmetology license. “It’s great to see because at the start she had no clientele. It wasn’t even a shop yet and just to see it grow like this — I’m just amazed. I’m glad I’m part of it.”
SL Raw Virgin Hair offers a number of textures, colors and lengths such as its natural wavy sew-in hair, fusion or micro-link hair as well as various wigs. Prices range from $90 to about $1,000.
McKnight said if customers maintain their extensions like their natural hair, such as regular washing, deep conditioning and proper storage, the extensions can last for years.
While some products such as wigs can be worn by customers with no help, McKnight recommends shoppers visit a salon professional especially for extensions such as micro links, adding that many of her sales are to hairstylists.
“A lot of our customer base is on the East Coast but I’m trying to spread that (demand west). And if we can go international like the U.K. or Dubai, who love hair extensions, that would be great,” McKnight said. “I think knowing that it’s a celebrity hairstylist behind the business, it should give customers that level of comfort knowing that it’s a hairstylist who actually worked with the product and knows that it has been vetted.”