When Fabian Lliguin, a hair stylist in New York, returned to Ecuador to rediscover his roots, he stumbled upon women in the middle of the Amazon jungle, grooming each other, applying oils to their hair. He asked about the oil and was told it was hungurahua, or rahua for short, and that it made hair grow hungurahua, or rahua for short, and that it made hair grow.
As a hairdresser, he was curious about the oil and the women of the Quechua-Shuar tribe allowed him to observe their ancient beauty rituals, from the harvesting of the rahua nut, to the processing and the grooming. Harvesting the nut is a family undertaking.
The young men would climb the tall trees with machetes to knock down the fruit, bundling the harvest with long blades of grass. Traditionally, only women are allowed to handle the rahua nuts. Before they process them, the women of the tribe cannot consume salt. The seeds are cooked and broken down over a period of time.
Lliguin brought a bottle of the oils back to his salon in New York and tried it on his customers. It worked like magic. “People who came in with dry and damaged hair, even really processed, bleached hair, the oil made their hair stronger,” says Anna Ayers, Lliguin’s wife and partner in the business. Ayers was also a former client. “My background was in fashion design and trend forecasting, and I had just moved to New York and needed a stylist. A friend recommended Fabian and we hit it off.”
At the time, Lliguin and Ayers both saw a change in the haircare industry. People who came into the salon didn’t merely want to have their hair cut off. People wanted to grow their hair. Together, the pair discovered a business opportunity in rahua, creating Amazon Beauty in 2008, and delivering their first hero product, the Rahua Elixir.
For Ayers, it was natural to go from fashion into developing Amazon Beauty and its hair products in the Rahua brand. “I’m from the country, from Georgia, so I have a passion for nature. When Fabien eventually invited me to go back to the Amazon with him, I got to see how life is there and I got back in touch with my passion too.”
The elixir, created from 100 per cent rahua oil, was a success and people started asking for shampoos and conditioners and other hair products. It wasn’t an easy process developing the product. Lliguin and Ayers wanted to keep the products entirely handmade and natural and it took them years to finally get the formulas right.“We knew early on that because the oils are really potent and beautiful, we wanted to make natural products to really do justice to these beautiful oils,” says Ayers. “People don’t usually think about performance when they think of natural, especially in haircare. We had to do a lot of testing and trials to get the performance up to the standards of the salon, at the professional, high quality level. It changed the industry.”
Amazon Beauty and rahua was a way for the duo to share the secrets of the Amazon to the world, but it was also a way for them to protect the area and its people. Sustainability was built right into the business model. Ayers stresses that they deal with the makers of the oils directly, flying to Ecuador regularly to work with the tribes and paying a competitive price for the oils. “The oils are handmade and it’s a delicate and long process. It’s an art and it needs to be appreciated. We pay top dollar, so the pride is there, and the next generation is there. We have many families and communities producing the oils and we hope with the people staying there, they protect the forest.”
Lliguin and Ayers also work closely with the leaders in the communities and give them ongoing support with projects throughout the year. “It could be as simple as, ‘They need machetes,’ or ‘Salt needs to be taken on the next trip.’ It’s very basic but it’s the way it works,” says Ayers, who says merely giving them money and proceeds from the products Amazon Beauty sells isn’t efficient because the money won’t go where it needs to go.
From the elixir and the classic collection of the shampoo and conditioner, the rahua line has now grown to include a volumising set, styling products, dry shampoo, hair masks and body treatments. “The voluminous set is great for daily care and perfect for humidity. The formula is about building volume, but is also clarifying and it deep cleanses,” says Ayers. Fans of the new trend of co-washing, which means to skip a shampoo but continue to condition the hair, would find this product a great alternative. There’s also a detox and renewal treatment kit that Ayers loves. “We made this product for people who are looking to transition into natural hair care. With traditional synthetic shampoos, a lot of build up is left on the scalp and hair. This product is designed to remove all of that and give you a fresh start.”
The latest products launched this year are Rahua Color Full shampoo and conditioner, which softens and tones damaged hair follicles and help preserve the colour with a plant-derived colour complex. Also new is Rahua Enchanted Island Salt Spray, a product Ayers describes as “fun” and “inspired by the Galapagos Islands.” The cocktail pink spray is guava, hibiscus and passion fruit scented, with a touch of pink salt, to give the hair natural beach waves.
“This product is super special for my husband and I,” says Ayers. “This year, we’re celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary and we decided to do a product to celebrate. Ten years ago, Fabien took me on our honeymoon to the Galapagos and this product is celebrating that. We just went again this year to start a new project to clean up the flamingo habitat and proceeds from this product will go and help that effort.”
Be good to your hair and do good for the environment, what more can you ask for?
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 print issue of #legend magazine.