Madam C.J. Walker would be smiling if she were alive today.
The nation’s first female, self-made millionaire made her fortune selling beauty and hair products she’d developed to African-American women, beginning in the early 1900s. Now a new line of products—Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture—is bringing her legacy to a new generation.
“I’m very excited,” said historian A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter. “I’ve been preparing for this moment all of my life!”
“This moment” is the product launch by Sundial Brands, known for its SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage lines. But instead of being available at drugstores such as CVS, Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products will be sold exclusively at beauty giant Sephora and Sephora.com. The four-collection, 25-product line will be part of what the global market-research firm Mintel called in 2015 the $2.7 billion black hair-care industry.
“It is a statement to be in a place like Sephora,” Bundles said, and she is pleased that Sundial is the force behind the new line. “They have been wonderful about wanting to make sure that the legacy is part of the overall story that is going on.”
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. Widowed at the age of 20, Breedlove began losing her hair, and in 1905 she developed a system involving scalp preparation and lotions that revolutionized black hair care. She took the name Madam C.J. Walker after marrying her third husband, Charles Walker, and her treatment became known as the “Walker System.” She first sold her homemade products directly to African-American women. By 1910, when she moved from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, Walker had a fleet of more than 3,000 workers who sold her product line of nearly 20 hair and skin items door to door and by mail order.
“Her immediate focus was growing hair,” said Bundles. “She created a system to cleanse hair more often in an era where many had no indoor plumbing and a lot of women were going bald. … Her initial product was a shampoo and ointment with sulfur. … The Walker System was meant to address hygiene and healthy hair and hair growth.”
Walker used her fortune to fund scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and donated huge sums to the NAACP and the Black YMCA, among other charities. The charter of her company provided that only a woman could serve as president. When her daughter, A’Lelia, inherited Walker’s sumptuous New York City mansion, it became a gathering place for members of the Harlem Renaissance.
Walker died in 1919, but Sundial Brands CEO Richelieu Dennis is focused on continuing the legacy of this entrepreneur whose achievements he has always admired.
“The story means so much to so many,” Dennis said. “And I felt it wasn’t right that the most relevant and cultural icon of beauty and the beauty business, and the representation of what beauty means to our community, was not represented in the same way as Estée Lauder and Coco Chanel. It’s not like we don’t have that [Walker] legacy to look up to.”