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A Black Cosmetic Company Sells, Or Sells Out?

Real Housewives of Atlanta star Lisa Wu Hartwell gets a hair treatment at a "Curl Party" hosted by Carol's Daughter and theYBF.com in 2010. (Landov)

Correction:

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that Carol's Daughter filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was actually Carol's Daughter Stores LLC that filed.

Cosmetics giant L'Oréal purchased Carol's Daughter, a beauty company that sells natural hair and skin products for black women, earlier this week. It may seem like an unlikely chapter in the story of a business that began in a Brooklyn kitchen.

That story began in 1993, when Lisa Price began blending body butters, oils and natural fragrances in her Brooklyn home. At her mother's urging, Price brought the goods to craft fairs and began to sell them. Those products sold well and did even better when she added hair care for black women who, like her, wore their hair in its natural, unstraightened state.

Two decades later, that kitchen-born brand has a devoted following among African-American women. Carol's Daughter items now sit on shelves at Target, Sephora and Ulta and are sometimes sold on the Home Shopping Network. At one point, Price even expanded to seven brick-and-mortar boutiques, where customers could get advice and demonstrations on how to use the products. Carol's Daughter earned an estimated $27 million in sales last year and claims celebrity fans including Jada Pinkett Smith, Gabrielle Union and Mary J. Blige.

A Beloved Brand, A Troubled Business

Somewhere between 2010 and 2011, Carol's Daughter began to struggle. Sales were down in the boutiques, and a passel of competitors also began to flourish by servicing the burgeoning natural hair care market. According to BusinessWeek, Price eventually sold to Pegasus Capital Advisors, although she remained the face of the company.

Still, store sales faltered. In May, five of the seven boutiques were closed and Carol's Daughter Stores LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Fans worried that their favorite products would disappear.

Then on Monday, company founder Lisa Price posted a video that quickly got passed around on Facebook.

In it, she explained that Carol's Daughter would be "joining the L'Oréal family." Price said the French cosmetics giant would "take what I built and solidify its place in history and beauty and I don't have to wonder if in 20 years from now, 30 years, from now, if there'll still be a Carol's Daughter brand." In a statement, a L'Oréal spokesperson said that "Lisa Price will remain in her role, serving as the creative visionary and spokesperson for the brand and will continue to lead product development."

Will Customers Follow Carol's Daughter?

Even if the Carol's Daughter brand moves forward, some wonder if the customers will follow, since it's no longer a black-owned business. Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell University specializing in black women and image and gender issues, says the intense interest in the future of Carol's Daughter comes from customers' deep emotional attachment to the brand — and that the attachment begins with Price.

"Her love for that community, and love for black women and economic possibility for black people is as much a part of her creation story and her narrative as whatever her products would do for your hair," Rooks says.

Rooks points out that Price founded Carol's Daughter at a time when many black women were starting to wear their hair in its natural state, and many had difficulty finding products that would work for their hair's unique texture.

Now there are several beauty bloggers posting how-to videos using homemade products that mimic Carol's Daughter. Hair care companies like Mixed Chicks and Miss Jessie's, both founded by biracial women, serve curly-haired women of all ethnicities. Carol's Daughter has also vied for customers outside the black community, leaving some of the company's early fans feeling alienated.

A blogger who goes by the name Honey Bii noted one Carol's Daughter ad campaign that featured several racially ambiguous women — as opposed to the African-American ones who helped to launch the brand.

"I'm not fair-complected," Honey Bii says, "and by no means do I feel that they [the ads] have to have this Afro-centric feel to it. But I feel like she sold us out." The thinking was that, in reaching for a broader demographic, Price was overlooking her original base.

"She really was, specifically, aiming at black women, who have a variety of hair textures," Rooks says. "But I'm not sure that's a niche that's as lucrative today." Hence the multicultural approach.

Ken Smikle, president of Chicago-based Target Market News, which monitors black consumer patterns, says the sale of Carol's Daughter to L'Oréal makes sense: "Cosmetics is tough," he notes, "and it would be more logical for a company already engaged in the market to want to make a purchase and extend their ability to serve black customers."

L'Oréal has a mixed track record with that.

Missteps In The African-American Market

On one hand, in 1998, L'Oréal bought the "SoftSheen" line from Carson Products, a black-owned hair care firm, and it has maintained the line without a problem. On the other, in 2008, it featured Beyonce Knowles in its Feria hair color ads — and endured a storm of outrage on black social media sites. Bloggers were convinced the company had lightened Knowles' skin to appeal to a more mainstream aesthetic. L'Oréal emphatically denied that, saying in a statement that "it is categorically untrue that L'Oréal Paris altered Ms. Knowles' features or skin tone." But suspicion continued.

Smikle says L'Oréal will have to master its learning curve as it reaches out to new customers, but — to paraphrase the company's motto — it'll be worth it. There are women of color here and beyond the U.S. who are just waiting for cosmetics made with them in mind.

"This is a good deal," Smikle asserts. "It's a good deal for the industry and it's certainly a good deal for those who are loyal customers of Carol's Daughter."

And probably a good deal for Lisa Price, who, L'Oréal says, will still have a role in the company. Now the brand that she started in her kitchen will reach women around the world, and her products will be on shelves for a long time to come.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hair care is a multibillion dollar business in the United States. The biggest share of that - sales to black women. Products for black women with natural hair are an especially fast-growing segment in the industry, so there are plenty of customers with a stake in the news that broke this week. Carol's Daughter, a beloved line of natural hair and body products, was sold to the cosmetics giant L'Oreal. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Carol's Daughter was born in the Brooklyn kitchen of Lisa Price.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA PRICE: I started with butters and bath oils. And I took them out to craft fairs. And I was selling them to people. And people were interested...

BATES: She added hair care by popular request. Eventually, her products became so successful they were carried in seven stand-alone boutiques in chains likes Sephora and Ulta and in megastore Target. The Wall Street Journal said the company had 27 million in revenues in the past 12 months. But the brand struggled after it expanded, some said too quickly. In May, Carol's Daughter stores filed for bankruptcy protection. Fans worried about the future of the company. Then, on Monday, this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRICE: Hi, this is Lisa Price, founder of Carol's Daughter, and I have some exciting news for you. Carol's Daughter will be joining the L'Oreal family.

BATES: But will its customers see themselves in this new family? Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks teaches Africana studies and specializes in black women's image and in gender issues. She says the devotion to Carol's Daughter goes beyond Price's product.

NOLIWE ROOKS: She came out of a black community, and love for black women and economic possibility for black people was as much a part of her creation story and her narrative as was, you know, whatever her products would do to your hair.

BATES: Rooks says Carol's Daughter pioneered serving the increasing number of black women choosing to wear their hair in natural styles at a time when options for that hair care were limited.

ROOKS: Carol's Daughter was certainly at the forefront of bringing about certain kinds of products that would make it possible for black women to style our hair.

BATES: Now there are several other companies, like Mixed Chicks and Miss Jessie's, serving curly-headed women of all ethnicities. Carol's Daughter has broadened its product line and the spectrum of its models, which left some longtime fans, like beauty vlogger Honey Bii, upset.

HONEY BII: I'm not fair complected. And by no means do I think that they have to have this Afrocentric feel to it, but I feel like she sold us out.

BATES: Ken Smikle disagrees. He's the president of Target Market News, a Chicago research and news firm that monitors black consumer patterns. Smikle says if you're an entrepreneur, you want to get offers from bigger companies.

KEN SMIKLE: At the end of the day, there's got to be a certain amount of maturity on the part of us who are African-American consumers of products, particularly those from black-owned companies, to realize that growth is inevitable.

BATES: And he says the L'Oreal acquisition makes sense for both parties.

SMIKLE: Cosmetics is tough. And it would be more logical for a company already engaged in the market to want to make a purchase and extend their ability to serve black customers.

BATES: L'Oreal already owns the SoftSheen line, which was purchased from Carson Products, a black-owned company in 1998. But it's had a bit of a learning curve in other areas. It came in for a lot of heat on black social media when it used Beyonce to promote a foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERICAL)

BEYONCE KNOWLES: There's only one true match for me. And I'm worth it.

BATES: The singer's image, many claimed, had been lightened in the print ads to make her more appealing to the mainstream. L'Oreal denied it, but the controversy endures. Ken Smikle says there will be missteps. But to paraphrase L'Oreal's tagline, it'll be worth it.

SMIKLE: This is a good deal. It's a good deal for the industry. It's certainly a good deal for those who are loyal customers of Carol's Daughter.

BATES: And, hopes company founder Lisa Price, it's a deal that will keep Carol's Daughter on shelves for years to come. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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