Black Beauty History is an ongoing series here at Afrobella – click here to read some previous installments.
Think back to the very first black hair product you may have ever heard of – the first product you knew was intentionally made for our specific hair needs. For me, I believe that product was Luster’s Pink Oil. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the familiar baby-pink bottle on the counter at my first hairstylist and on my mom’s dressing table. I can still smell it. Pink was a family staple for us, all the way in Trinidad. I grew up knowing that the Luster brand made hair products intended for me.
When I first moved to Chicago, I became familiar with the Luster name in an entirely different way and learned a few things.
First of all, Luster makes many more products than just the world famous Pink Oil. According to their official site, “Luster Products’ brands include You Be-Natural, Pink Brand, S-Curl, PCJ, and YOU.” They make products for men, women, children and the stylist market. Their products are sold internationally, all made right here in the Chicago area: “Our main facility – corporate offices, plant and warehouse – is situated on 17 acres in Chicago’s Stockyard Industrial Park. An aerosol production plant is located in suburban Blue Island, Illinois.”
Second of all, I came to realize that LUSTER was in fact a family name, not just a description of what the hair products promised for hair. I soon learned that the Lusters are a HUGE family here, with deep roots in the Windy City. A large contingency of Lusters work for the family brand. It all began when Fred Luster Snr. founded Luster Products, Inc. in 1957. This year, the Luster company is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and the famous Pink Oil turns 50 – a landmark moment for any brand. It seemed like a perfect time to do a long-form interview to discover and celebrate the legacy of this internationally famous haircare brand.
I reached out to Jory Luster, President of the venerable family-owned company, for answers and perspective on their place in black beauty history, and the evolution of their hair care industry. Without further ado, let’s get into this interview!
Afrobella — Jory, I am fascinated by history in general, particularly black beauty history. The Luster story is black history, Chicago history. It is a story of longevity and family. Please tell me your memories of your dad’s barber shop, if you have any you can share. Where was it located? What was it like?
Jory Luster — Absolutely. Well, you know he had a barbershop on 47th Street. I think the address was 1038 E. 47th. It’s in the spot where they placed the Little Black Pearl workshop; in the spot leaning toward the western end of the building. That’s where it all started for them. Let me tell you when I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get to the barbershop. He had me doing odd jobs and things as a very, very young person; he had values and taught you how to work. But it was just fascinating. You got to remember, during the late 50’s, early 60’s in Chicago, it was just a wonderful time for us here. I mean… because we were in Chicago; we weren’t as much a part of the Jim Crow thing that was going on. Not that society wasn’t hard on black folks, but we had a pretty fair economic ecosystem in the black community. You know back then before all of the riots and all of that stuff, we had businesses and people were used to trading with one another So we traded with one another, and people were happy. People were prosperous. Plus, the economy was different. The steel mills were working. Everybody who wanted to work could work. An entrepreneur, if you had decent businesses and great products, you know, you were going to do ok, you know, in those times. It was fascinating. The microcosm of people that came in that shop, man, it was fascinating. You had everybody from the insurance executives, because, you know, you had Supreme Life that wasn’t that far away, to doctors and attorneys, to street hustlers. You had everybody coming through there… It was the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen in my life. In fact, 47th Street was fascinating.
Afrobella — Your father, Fred Luster Sr., became successful because he created products in his shop. Tell me about how that began.
Jory Luster — Basically (he created products) somewhere between his shop and his home. But he created them for his shop. What happened back then, products were available kinda like an erratic supply. And so I think he just decided, ‘How hard can it be? I’m going to make products so I have continuity of supply for what I need I need on a regular basis. I don’t have to hunt things down,’ because a lot of things he was doing, they were new. And back then products weren’t available in drug stores and things, they weren’t readily available. And even they had to hunt down the products they needed.
Afrobella — Can you tell me what his first product was?
Jory Luster — Well his first product, he had a range; his first product was what we call crème oil. And crème oil was followed closely by hair straighteners and a conditioner — actually a crème rinse. Crème oil — the significance of the crème oil — it was the precursor to the pink lotion. It was a white lotion designed to soften, moisturize and give sheen.
Afrobella — Is it still in production today?
Jory Luster — [It is not still in production] in that form. We do have pink lotion which is essentially the same thing, in pink.
Afrobella — Pink lotion is coming up on an anniversary, right?
Jory Luster — The company is celebrating 60 [year anniversary], Pink is celebrating 50 [years], because it was actually launched in 1967 as an afro product. Its origin was with natural hair…the whole afro craze, that was a product that was designed to soften and give sheen to afros. Man, we had barbers that were using 12 and 15 cases (of Pink Lotion) a week in different areas. But see a lot of people have forgotten that in the early days that that was an afro product. It was adapted to straightened hair because of the moisturizing properties, but it was initially conceived as an afro product. It was a part of a grouping called The Luster Natural 5.
Afrobella — I would love to see some of those vintage ads…
Jory Luster — Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any; we’ve been looking all over for that Natural 5 poster. Because it was basically a poster. You know, there wasn’t money to do a lot of advertising in those days for us anyways.
Afrobella — One of the more recent criticisms in the natural hair market has been focused on petroleum and oil. So Luster Pink is now petroleum and oil free, am I right? Can you talk to me about making that decision? What led to it, was it a difficult decision and how has the product improved?
Jory Luster — Right. All our newly released products – Luster Pink Shea Butter Coconut Oil, Luster’s Beard Line and Luster’s Pink Kids – are reformulated to meet the needs of consumers who prefer products without sulfates, parabens or mineral oils. What we’ve done is to meet the consumer where they are, and provide products with ingredients that address their needs. Our job is to provide products that are functional, that work, that meet expectations. And we do that day in and day out.
Afrobella — Luster Products have managed to stand the test of time, through 60 years of hair history and style evolution. How does a longstanding brand like Luster stay relevant and fresh in the face of change?
Jory Luster — You know that is a great question. We have to get out into the marketplace, we have to interact with consumers; we really have to try our best to deliver what our key target is expecting. We have to know what they’re trying to achieve. We have to help them to achieve what they’re trying to achieve. We’ve evolved from selling jars of product to doing our best to sell solutions. So we go out and try to understand, where is the consumer going? What are they trying to achieve? And to try to help them by delivering better solutions, faster solutions, in many cases, economically better solutions, but better is the operative word, better is our goal. If we can keep our thumb on that, and again, understanding where this target is going, and it takes a fair amount of research and a fair amount of interaction, then we can continue to stay relevant with our target. And that is the whole goal. And then we have to communicate what we’ve done. And that’s been a little tricky lately, but we’re getting our arms around that. The whole social media just kinda caught us by surprise, and so you know, we’re learning that and we’re doing what we can to expose ourselves. Because that is just another form of communication, expose ourselves that way along with the traditional methods of consumer advertising. But the thing is, you’ve got to interact with that target and you’ve got to understand what they want. It’s not about what you want to sell, it’s about what they want and what they’re trying to achieve. And as long as they do that, we’ll keep up.
Afrobella — It seems that it can be challenging for brands to navigate this new space that didn’t exist before.
Jory Luster — Especially brands that have been around, because you have a set methodology. What it says [is that] we all have to evolve. It’s evolve or die. No matter if you’re talking about communication processes or effective products to help people achieve what they’re trying to achieve. Nothing is the same. Computers aren’t the same, cell phones aren’t the same, and automobiles aren’t the same. Homes aren’t the same. And so a lack of evolution equals sure death.
Afrobella — Can you tell me the hero products and latest releases from each of your product lines, for Afrobella readers who are unfamiliar or becoming reacquainted with the Luster family of products?
Jory Luster — Well, with Pink, we have the Pink shea butter and coconut oil extensions with a heavy emphasis on shea butter and coconut oil, knowing that they are two vital ingredients for the moisturization and maintenance of hair. They do a wonderful job and we’re working at that. We picked those items for a reason to be the centerpiece of the product themselves, and they deliver. So that is our latest and greatest on the Pink side. On the S Curl side, we’re going after, beside the traditional no-drip curl moisturizer, we’re going after beards. And we’ve got some all natural beard grooming products that are just outstanding. We have the You B Natural Curly range… that is doing well. The ingredients list reads like an all star list of natural ingredients. So you know… that product line is not as popular as we’d like. Part of that is not because of efficacy, it has to do with lack of savvy when it comes to social media and talking to today’s consumer. We’re playing catch-up in a very fast way, so we’re coming at it, you know? We’ve designed web pages and engaged bloggers and we’re posting an ungodly number of times a day, in order to connect with our target. This is all new to us. We have to learn this stuff. Where have we been? Well, I used to be young and I’m not young any more. My siblings used to be young, and they’re not young any more. A lot of the people around used to be young and they’re not young anymore and that’s really what happened. So now that we’ve got the 3rd generation of Lusters coming in and some other young people, they’re taking us by the hand and saying, Hey guys, here is the path as we know it
. .’ And they know it because they live it… We’re working our way back in the game in a very relevant way.
Afrobella — The company has been around for 60 years, an incredible landmark in business of any kind, especially a family owned brand. Do you have a number of Lusters in the company? How many of you work together?
Jory Luster — I don’t know, I lost count. I’m serious! My dad’s two brothers are here. My siblings are here, and there are three of us. I’ve got three children here; my brother has one child here. Then, I’ve got a host of cousins that are here. We’re not a dominant number, but we are a very significant number. We might be 15 percent of [the] population here.
Afrobella — I know it can’t always be easy, but that is certainly a beautiful thing.
Jory Luster — You are right, it’s not easy. Weird stuff happens in family dynamics in general, so if you can get to a point where you can understand, and develop an understanding, you can anticipate and be tolerant of things that come up and you can deal with them. If you can find ways to get on the same page… The toughest thing in a family business is getting out of each others’ way. And if you can find ways to do that, you can find ways to really make it work. At the end of the day, one of the things that family brings – they’re going to really look out for the family business in another kind of way. That is important to setting the tone and the pace. We’ve been blessed; we’ve been fortunate. Our dad instilled certain values in us, and it’s our dad, or brother, or uncle, but he instilled certain values. Fairness and honesty were critical. Recognizing achievement is critical. Those are little things, but they go a long way. To treat everyone the way that you want to be treated, no matter if they are a vendor, or a customer, or an employee. To make them think they are part of something special, which they are. It goes a long way in creating the right kind of atmosphere, the right kind of attitudes, and the kind of thing that can cause you to go forward, or help you go forward.
Afrobella — The first time I met you, I thought Luster was a reference to the effect on your hair. I didn’t know it was a family name. I think a lot of brands could look to you as an example.
Jory Luster — And there’s another side to all of that and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it and acknowledge it. A lot of it is God’s will. I’ve been in organizations that were le
ad by very, very smart people that did all the right things, yet they might not still be here today. I think we are serving a greater purpose and we acknowledge that and respect that. Because we are still here, we’re supposed to be here and we know it is not just us. We are in the game. And we stay in the game. And we know it is not just us. But we have to get our inspiration and inspiration from on high and we respect that because without that you are not.
Afrobella — What do you wish that I had asked you, or what do you wish more people understood about your brand and the hair care business in general?
Jory Luster — The business in general, there is so much. That’s a story for another day.
The thing I would want people to know is a lot of our origin in this business is dealing with natural hair. Yes we have the relaxers because relaxers, what you have to understand, are the core competency of the traditional black hair care company. The thing that the Revlons and Clairols and people of the world didn’t do well initially, were relaxers. And so that’s where we hung our hat. We couldn’t compete in the shampoo side of things. First of all African-Americans don’t shampoo enough for that to be, it’s not a daily deal with African American consumers. So we didn’t have high volumes of shampoo, we had high volumes of relaxers. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t manufacture a great shampoo. The best shampoos in this industry were produced initially by African American firms. A lot of people don’t realize that. You take what was the #1 shampoo for 35 years was produced by an African American firm. And so, we are capable of doing all those things and the new generation is forcing us not only to develop those products but again, get in and understand what the consumer is trying to achieve so we could have not just a mouse trap but a better mouse trap.
I want the world to know our origin was with natural hair products and so this is not a stretch for us at all.
Thank you to Jory Luster for this interview!
Luster is currently looking for the “new face of Pink” an opportunity for a young lady to become a model for the brand. The competition ends JUNE 23rd, 2017 and Online Voting ends JUNE 30th, 2017. The details are here: http://newfaceofpink.com/.