Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Lincoln Park stands a stoic building that has stood the test of time, with a bit of a modern touch. Surrounded by historical buildings, it is almost as if you are lost in time within the confines of Chicago’s historical district. Once you step inside, you’re swept into a beautiful minimalistic yet rustic setting: White brick walls against beautifully aged and repurposed wood floors. The salon is filled to the brim with sustainable and recycled materials that are eco friendly and energy efficient. Even the hair coloring, hair and trash get recycled. They use a private company: Green Circle Salons, whose mission is to make the North American salon industry sustainable by 2020. They are doing this in a way that is affordable and achievable and most importantly, impactful. Obviously, Custom Hair Lounge isn’t your typical Chicago Salon & Spa and Nevena Zee and Tania Gilbert aren’t your typical business partners. They are the epitome of girl power and truly have a Cinderella story. They’ve built a salon and team from the ground up that focuses on the customer and takes pride in having a staff of incredibly talented employees.
Nevena is from and studied in Bulgaria prior to making her way to the states. Both of her parents were architects, but when it came to her own career she wanted to go down a creative, interesting and fulfilling path. She started off in modeling, but after some time she yearned for the creative control she witnessed that belonged to the stylists. It was at this time she began beauty school and after 4 years of hard work she landed herself a spot on the National Team in Bulgaria. She went on to become an International All Star for American Crew, which is a coveted title at one of the industries fiercest competitions.
She eventually found her way to the states and continued to flourish in her field. It was here in Chicago that fate led her to her business partner Tania Gilbert. They both worked in a salon together on the North Side of Chicago while Tania was attending fashion school while Nevena was in school for business. Nevena was living in Naperville and was going through a divorce. At a time when life seemed to be most difficult she saw an opportunity and pursued it. She was searching for a new place to call home and she yearned for the urban setting she worked in daily, but she wanted to still be surrounded by history and meaning.
She landed in Lincoln Park. In a small space behind a storefront, she found home. This is where Nevena began her home-based salon. She focused on creating a beautiful space that was inviting, suitable for business and didn’t leave such a huge carbon footprint on mother earth. She was seeing clients in her home, she’d hide her bed and created a lux minimalist feel and her following started to grow. She eventually partnered up with Tania and the duo jumped the gun and took a huge risk to launch a business and never looked back. Years later, they’re still partners and still friends. Nevena dubs Tania the yin to her yang.
They complement one another in friendship as well as in business. Where one has a weakness, the other has a strength to build off of and they have helped each other to grow. Nevena always knew she didn’t want to do this alone and Tania was the perfect person to balance this dream for Nevena. Their sisterly bond and the trust they have built over the years has helped them overcome many of the challenges they face as business partners. Nevena and Tania are both incredibly hard working. It’s inspiring to see two women working so diligently to make the American dream happen. Tania has found a way to balance being a business owner and mother to her 9 year old son that works for her and still allows her to follow her dreams. Nevena started with just a small apartment to work out of and now they own the building the salon is in outright. 7 years of hard work has truly paid off for these creative entrepreneurs.
This family feel is engrained in their staff. Nevena states that, “the team is so well grounded, there’s not much of that typical drama you often hear of.” When you visit the salon, egos are checked at the door. It is a welcoming and inviting space and the people at once make you feel at home. There is no snooty receptionist looking at you like you don’t belong. Rather, there is Sergio, a sweet faced charmer who is ready to help at a moments noticed. Yet, he is not your typical service coordinator, he is a product expert who is there to not just upsell you, but provide you with products that will help ensure you can recreate your salon style at home. It is a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by so many people who are passionate about what they do.
The team consists of Nevena and Tania who act as Co-Artistic Directors, Ina their aesthetician who is consistently booked, Jennifer their senior stylist who specializes in modern cuts for women, Reanne a stylist who is a genius with keratin treatments, Alena another stylist who loves to stay up to date on runway trends and translate them into beautiful wearable looks. Angel is the 3rd stylist on staff who is incredibly versatile; when Halfstack visited he was working with a variety of clients that ranged from a 2 year old to hot 20 something’s. Juan is a senior stylist who is known for his natural feminine cuts, there is also John a senior stylist who is a pro at extension, colors and cuts. Then there is Richard, a senior stylist they recruited from New York. His love for advanced coloring and precision hair cutting have built him a loyal clientele, many of whom travel all the way from New York to visit him in Chicago. There is also probably the fact his vivacious personality keeps people coming back for more. Finally, there is the magical Milena – the salon & shampoo assistant. She has hands from God. This spunky young thing gives the most amazing deep scalp massages. It was like receiving a spa service prior to getting a hair cut and style. She also is quite knowledgeable on the products she is using and takes the time to explain what each one is and how it will help ones hair.
What was most encouraging about Custom Hair Lounge is the variety of people walking through the doors; young and old alike sitting down for custom services and being treated with the utmost respect. When asked what she was most proud about her team, Nevena explained that she loved, “the fact that everyone is so creative and comes with a wide variety of skills and is able to pitch in from every angle of the job, but they still put the customer first and don’t get blinded by their personal vision.” Senior stylist, Richard, chimed in an explained that, “typically people come in with an idea of a style and we are here to help them realize whether or not that style can work for them and offer it to them in a way that is customizable to their personal needs.” Rather than focusing on their creative vision and pushing that on clients, they assess the client’s needs and find a way to make it work for them, which often times takes a lot of creativity in of itself. This is quite evident as last year the salon was voted as best hair coloring in Chicago 2013 by City Search and Google+!
Yet, it is important to Nevena for her team to be able to creatively express themselves outside of the confines of the clients needs. With this in mind, the team completes custom trend challenges throughout the year. They concept out an idea for a photo shoot and style it, do hair and makeup and finalize it into a trend look book that they can share with their clients. This allows them to go outside of their comfort zone and push the limits. Nevena and the team are also constantly collaborating with local Chicago creatives and international talent than run the gamut from designers such as Borris Powell all the way to EDM musicians. She explains that, “supporting each other and our creativity is important to our growth and success.” This is such an important aspect of the Chicago industry in general. Rather than segmenting off, it’s the innovative business owners who connect and are able to grow from it. It’s this type of mentality that broadens the perspective of business owners and keeps them relevant. Nevena and Tania both understand the need to expand and grow. Tania put it best, “I get bored if I’m not doing something. So, I have the skillset as an MUA and we saw a great opportunity to offer on location services for shoots and really grow our bridal side of the business.” This team isn’t putting all their eggs in one basket and has plenty of side projects in the works that compliment their salon.
When talking trends, Nevena shared some of the hottest in hair and some faux pas to stay away from this year. With Global experience, she has seen it all. She explains, “I’m a huge fan of the pastel colors, they can be classy and cool when they are done right, but when they are overly done or too flashy they look so tacky!” She’s also has a love of “natural looking styles, things that are complementing to the skin and style of the person because it can really make a huge difference.” Nevena also highlights that, “Long bobs are definitely the trend right now along with texture and beautiful velvety colors like burgundy and interesting shades of violet and red.” With the guys, “you are very classic looks, beard and crew cuts that have a definite throwback feel, but it is important for guys to be able to maintain them!” These trends are really showcasing how people in the US are becoming less scared about experimenting with their hair. Coming from Europe, Nevena can see the challenge US clients pose when experimenting with hair, but over the years people have evolved their look; especially here in the Midwest.
When it comes to color the team steers away from the toxic chemicals typically used in salon settings by using top of the line, natural products. As stylists, the team makes it a point to try everything that is in the salon. This way, they better understand the features and benefits of the product and can make much better suggestions to their clients. Neuma is one of her favorites due to the sustainability factor. The brand was founded with beauty, health and sustainability at its heart – Their philosophy is simple. NEUMA believes that professional performance hair care, health and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive. For the guy clients, she always suggests American Crew, but explains that suggestions are always based on the needs of the clients.
They differentiate themselves as a salon by offering each client a special plan that includes services and products that works for them. They’re not just about making the sale, but actually helping the client have the healthiest hair possible. Another way the salon sets itself apart is by focusing on specialty cuts and interior hair cutting. Basically, it helps give your hair extra body and weight without having to chop the hair on the outside. As a stylist, Nevena truly believes in continued education. Being a lifelong learner is so important to people in the beauty industry as it is always in flux. Many young stylists do a lot of learning on the job as an apprentice, but they need to continue to gain knowledge year after year in order to stay relevant.
When asked for what kind of advice she would offer young people who are entering the field she had the following to say: “Be persistent. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Learn from everyone around you. Don’t give up. Try to be dedicated and try to be your best self. You also have to be willing to put pride aside sometimes. This is an industry based on people and you have to learn to understand those people and give a lot of yourself to those people. It’s a lifestyle; it’s not just a job or a way to make quick money. You won’t be successful if that’s the mindset you are in. Finally, be self-responsible. I think that is the most important thing. In a profession where we can go anywhere and be free, it requires a lot of responsibility on our part to take action and take charge of our consequences rather than blaming our faults on others. Self-disciple is crucial to get to where you want to be.”
You can learn more about the salon and book services at: www.customhairlounge.com