When Isoken Igbinedion was 10 years old, she had a “very dangerous encounter” with chemical relaxers that caused her natural hair to fall out. She spent the next 20 years using extensions to give her hair a chance to regrow. And in that time, she realized how much friction there was in the hair products and services market.
“In those 20 years, we’ve seen very little innovation used to improve the hair buying and installation process for customers or the manufacturing process,” says Igbinedion, 30.
And so the vision for Parfait came into focus, a direct-to-consumer platform leveraging AI to better customize wigs from head size to the tint of the lace front.
Cofounded by Igbinedion, together with her sister, Ifueko, Marlyse Reeves, and Simone Kendle, Parfait is coming out of a beta with a waitlist of more than 10,000 customers. The company recently announced $5 million in a Seed round led by Upfront Ventures and Serena Ventures that will go toward increasing production and automating its supply chain to better gain footing in the wig and extensions market that’s expected to grow nearly 15% to $13.2 billion by 2026.
“In an era where technology began making the lives of everyday people easier with driverless vehicles, smartphones, improving our ability to connect with people, there’s little attention being paid to solve problems for marginalized communities,” says Isoken, now the company’s CEO. “And that problem is deeply felt by Black women, especially in the beauty industry.”
The other problem, as it turned out, was the very data Parfait was trying to use to serve its main demographic. As the team tried to account for factors like skin tone, existing open-source data sets for facial recognition simply weren’t inclusive enough.
“Even the algorithm to recognize a face in an image is biased as a nature of the data set,” says Ifueko Igbinedion, Parfait’s CTO. “It doesn’t really have a large quantity of Black women represented.”
Over recent years, biases in AI have come under intense scrutiny, particularly facial recognition software. Wrongful arrests and discriminatory job recruitment illustrate how communities of color are routinely at the whims of technology touted as agnostic but with little regulation in how the code is being written—or if the code even considers them at all. Organizations including Timnit Gebru‘s DAIR and Joy Buolamwini‘s Algorithmic Justice League are pushing for more equitable AI across Big Tech—and Parfait aims to do the same in the beauty industry.
“A lot of times we think that the uses of AI aren’t really valuable in our community, like our community does not deserve this type of technology,” Ifueko says. “But we are really showing, not only does our community deserves it, our community needs it.”
Parfait customers choose the texture and cut of their wig, and then they’re prompted to take several selfies at different angles to get a proper sizing and skin tone match. From there, an in-house, human stylist accesses the AI’s prediction before customizing the wig, e.g., plucking the hairline, tinting the lace front, etc.
“I think it’s hard to ever say that any AI is going to be perfect,” Ifueko says. “And so we are really focused on having that human interaction within the loop, such that we do have an accurate prediction.”
In terms of pricing, Simone Kendle, cofounder and CMO of Parfait, notes the quality of Parfait’s wigs would typically run upward of $2,000 but, because its DTC and they’ve automated elements of production, the wigs cost anywhere between $400 and $800.
“We’re bringing that price down quite a bit—and we’re also speeding up the time frame,” she says. Instead of possibly waiting months for a wig, Parfait’s turnaround time is in five to seven business days.
Parfait is working toward having visualization capabilities on its site, similar to how, say, Warby Parker allows customers to virtually try on glasses. The company also has plans to scale its manufacturing process.
“Manufacturing in this industry is so archaic,” Isoken says. “Our vision right now is to create a fully automated manufacturing pipeline. We’ve already done feasibility tests that have shown us that we’ll be able to use computer vision technology and robotics to actually start creating these [wigs] from the source.”
As Parfait’s data sets grow, there could be an opportunity to have a broader impact across the beauty industry.
“We can expand [our technology] to all other types of beauty or fashion problems where existing data sets are not getting your lip shape features, or your cheekbone features, or your ear shapes,” says Marlyse Reeves, cofounder and COO of Parfait. “We have found solutions to some of these problems, and I think we’ll continue to find solutions to some of these problems. And I hope it can be an example that if you just change your thinking, apply more diversity to the data that you’re using, solutions do present themselves.”
That said, the question of data security is always valid, particularly with something like wig buying that historically customers haven’t needed AI for. Knowing Parfait may be a hard sell for some customers, Isoken is doubling down on transparency and the message that this technology is working for, not against, them.
“We are using this data to build products and experiences for our community,” Isoken says. “There’s been this notion that technology is either too dangerous for Black people or it’s not made for Black people, or Black people should not engage with technology.”
Of course, Parfait isn’t exclusively for women of color. The company is launching with a campaign illustrating the wide array of women who wear wigs and the wide array of reasons why. However, as Isoken notes, “we want to continue to use our data to be able to continue to create products that starts by solving for more marginalized people, because internally we believe if we solve for margins we’re solving for everybody.”