The actress and entrepreneur opens up about building her business and why the inclusive hair-care line is "inherently political."

By Holly Carter
Aug 10, 2020 @ 10:44 am
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Yelena Yemchuk/Trunk Archive

As one can tell from her social media feeds and candid interviews, Tracee Ellis Ross is a woman who knows who she is. On her Instagram account, she posts videos of herself doing everything from sweating through Tracy Anderson workouts to gobbling jumbo chicken sandwiches to swanning about in her pool. But her breezy confidence took time to manifest, especially in the hair department. She spent much of her youth attempting to beat her hair into submission, trying to get it to live up to an aesthetic that didn't match what she saw in the mirror. There were relaxers, weekly blowouts, irons (the ones for clothes and the ones for hair), and failed DIY bang chops. By the time Ellis Ross reached high school, she was ready to explore her natural texture. Since she is the daughter of Diana Ross, glamorous, gravity-defying hair is in her genes, but Ellis Ross required a plethora of products before she could discover the majesty of her own crown. "My mom would say, 'Your products are going to break the bank,'" recalls Ellis Ross, who recently played a famed R&B star herself in The High Note. "I spent all of my allowance on hair products."

Courtesy Tracee Ellis Ross

For the past decade or so she has been dedicated to the creation of Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross, a hair-care line made for 3B to 4C (corkscrew curls to tightly coiled) hair types. The company debuted last September with Ellis Ross as its CEO and founder, but her success was hard-won. Along the way she encountered more than her fair share of industry gatekeepers who didn't understand what an actress would bring to the conversation without the partnership of a professional stylist. Others did not see the value or economic opportunity of the textured-hair community. But Ellis Ross's innate sense of confidence didn't fail her. On the day Pattern launched, the site did almost eight times more sales than expected, and the brand's Instagram following grew to 130,000 in just a week.

"For so many years, there had not been products for women who wanted to wear their hair naturally and didn't want to put heat on it or hold themselves up to a white standard of beauty," says Ellis Ross, who works closely with the product development team to create every formula. "I wanted products that allowed me to take the guessing game out of a great hair day, that nourished and protected my hair, and that felt like they were for me."

Courtesy Tracee Ellis Ross

And not just for her: Ellis Ross, whose hair is a medley of four to six curl patterns, believes hair has no gender, which is why the brand's website features both men and women doing jazzy dance moves while the actress recites a spoken-word poem ending with the words "be free."

The line is intentionally centered around Black beauty. Ellis Ross says that the current uprising concerning racial injustice and police brutality against Black people only amplifies her ethos. "Pattern is inherently political because the celebration of Blackness in the face of racism in and of itself is a political act of resistance," she says. While Ellis Ross doesn't consider herself an activist ("I lean on those people to teach me," she says), she made sure that Pattern supports initiatives like the Crown Act, the African American Policy Forum, and United Way Worldwide, specifically for its initiatives that help Black communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Pattern's propensity for giving back is not surprising considering the brand's authentic origins. Ellis Ross's relatable starting point was wash day, and the initial rollout included shampoo; three conditioners (medium, heavy, and intensive); two nourishing serums; accoutrements (like a hair clip, shower brush, and microfiber towel); plus the hardest thing to create: a leave-in conditioner. "I really wanted it to be correct," she says. "Once you shampoo and condition your hair and have got it feeling the way you want it to feel, you can literally ruin it with what you put in after." Phase 2 consisted of styling products like hydrating mist, gel, styling cream, and edge control. Overall, Ellis Ross hopes to provide consumers with the right tools so that they can do what they wish with their hair, whether it's creating bouncy ringlets, two-strand twists, locs, or a slicked-back bun with perfectly swirled baby hairs.

Courtesy Tracee Ellis Ross

And she has big plans for the brand's evolution too. "Body care, skin care, beard oils, beard brushes, kids' products," she says. "I feel like the sky is the limit." She admits that everyone at Pattern is wearing several hats and that she does "a shit ton." Maintaining the clarity of the vision is important to her. "I get feedback from everybody, and it has become a really fun process because it isn't just my vision anymore. Our small but mighty team contributes ideas, and we also have a really wonderful panel of people with very varied hair types who test all of our products.

Courtesy Tracee Ellis Ross

And should she need to, Ellis Ross can always turn to her family for input. "We all have different hair in my family [so that's good], but it's hard with them because they don't give feedback fast enough," she says with a laugh. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Guys, come on. Seriously? [clap, clap, clap] Let's go!'?"

Get The Look

Pattern Edge Control

Courtesy Pattern

$12, ulta.com

Pattern Edge Tool

Courtesy Pattern

$12, ulta.com

Pattern Styling Cream

Courtesy Pattern

$25, ulta.com

For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 21.