VAIN turns 12 years old tomorrow (look out: pre-teen years!) and it wouldn’t be a party without a true VAIN original, former VAIN hairstylist and ever-singular tour de force Shaun “Surething” Cottle. Shaun has graciously agreed to share his VAIN history for the occasion, and we couldn’t be happier about it since his unmatched style and creative sensibilities are such an indelible part of ours.
It’s a Surething: Shaun Cottle at VAIN, 2005.
As the 12th anniversary of VAIN Beauty World approaches, I was asked to write a little celebratory something or other, in honor of the special day.
So much to say, so little time.
I came to VAIN in search of work on the recommendations of a few friends from the queer/arts community in Seattle. I had just returned from a two year stint in NYC, working at a small West Village salon called Seagull. And what seemed, at the time, a two year stint of stagnation and a rather dark moments in my life. I was looking for something fresh, new and innovative in my work and in my personal advancement…two things that have always been inextricably entwined for me.
Having heard some interesting things (good things) about this Victoria character [VAIN owner + styledriver Victoria Thomas Gentry], who everyone seemed to know, and her being VAIN’s headmaster, I thought I would check it out.
It was January of 1999. VAIN was not a brand new business at this point, but still a rather small outfit, a small beauty supply store and a three chair salon operating out of what I’m guessing was about 110 square feet. Cool, just my style; small and intimate in a way that could promote cross-talk conversations between stylists and clients. Small and intimate enough that I could impose my larger than life persona/person on everyone who sat down in a styling chair… But there was a hitch. I had to get past this Victoria person, who after three days of personal interviewing and seven hours of hair auditioning, I still had yet to even SEE. On my third and final day of this rigorous process, I was informed that I would be called up to Victoria’s office. Some might find this process daunting and even elitist. I took it as a challenge and thought “Wow. This lady must be really fucking serious about the quality of staff she takes on.” No problem.
When the moment came where, finally, I was ushered up into the offices on the second floor of VAIN’S original Belltown space, I was actually a little nervous. Quite unlike me as far as jobs go. I was seated in Victoria’s office and with her back to me, she gave me a little wave that she would be with me in a moment. She was scheduling appointments and brainstorming with a women’s safety organization I had not yet heard of. I would imagine now that it was Home Alive.
When she finished up on the phone and turned to greet me I was surprised to to see such a youthful, beautiful face, with a mop of soft pink and fuschia hair. She was punk rock. I had expected someone more stern and hard after all of that cajoling around just to get to see her… This was gonna be a breeze, I thought… And then she spoke. For the next two hours she grilled me about my political sensibilities, cultural positioning and generally who I was in the world. This was no longer an interview, rather it became sharp and fast paced speed dating-like, get to know you situation. I loved it. Never had any potential employer taken such a keen interest in all of these facets of my life. Then came VAIN’s legendary final question: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Are you kidding me lady?! I’m a fucking Riot Grrrl! … I believe a gave her the best earful of an answer she had ever received applying feminism to queer rights and gender identification, long before it was the norm to be tossing these questions around. This was a shoe in, she loved me. She said I would be a great fit and that the hair coloring and cutting I had done on my audition was superb… And then, that she was not hiring. And that was that.
Well, needless to say, that was not that and she did, in fact, hire me…. She didn’t need me, VAIN didn’t need me. THEY were all doing fine. I think, in retrospect Victoria realized that I needed VAIN. She was taking a chance on a somewhat unstable kid with a past mired down in addiction and compulsive behavior. Smart; sure. Cool; Absolutely. Dependable; Maybe not so much.
But I decided to show up for this one. Somehow I felt it was big; bigger than me and bigger than VAIN as it was then. Over the next couple of years the larger picture started to unfold. I worked closely with Victoria as she organized events for women’s shelters, the rock camp for girls, and other nonprofit organizations in the Seattle Area.
Ultimately VAIN outgrew its four small walls and we moved from a three chair, hole in the wall salon, to a full-fledged beauty hot-spot on First Ave. with independently designed clothing, jewelry and other accessories in a boutique at the front, an art gallery where outsider artists’ could show their work and two floors of artist studios. Not to mention a sleek, practically-designed 15 chair salon space.
Shortly after grand opening for the new VAIN the tech bubble burst. What were we gonna do with this new 10,000 foot space with money falling away like leaves? Perseverance was the answer. We trudged through the dot-com burst, flourishing even then as the city-wide economy collapsed. Victoria encouraged me to take part in the World Trade Organization protests and I happily obliged. Artists of all persuasions moved in, working in the studios upstairs. We hosted parties and community organization meetings. I met Gloria Steinem!
After three or so years in this new space, VAIN had become a cultural hub of the Seattle and inarguably the most innovative larger salon in the city and (in my opinion) the entire country.
In my time working with Victoria, I came to understand what a “Salon” was in the truest sense of the word; A large room. A large room for visual arts, beauty and social gatherings. VAIN has a lot of room; a lot of space for all happenings to come together, ideas exchanged, lessons learned and un-learned… communities built.
That is was a salon should be, and what VAIN is today.
From my seven years with Victoria and VAIN, I was able to work alongside of some of the best artists I’ve known. I learned through VAIN’S pitfalls and triumphs how a successful business is founded, then, maintained; With integrity, focus and dedication to one’s craft, an eye kept on the larger issues surrounding all of us, and filtering them into our salons’ environment. Being accountable for our actions in this world and our own personal communities.
I was able to parlay this experience, provided in part by Victoria, VAIN, and myself into a career as the owner of my own little salon in the West Village of NYC called Seagull, the same one I had worked at years ago.
In short, VAIN helped me understand my short-comings and provided a space where I was able to express my true self and overcome them. Ultimately linking up my past feelings of failure and low self-esteem to my future success and strong sense of self worth in a world where, I had once felt, held no place for me.
And for that I thank VAIN and the time I spent in that large room.
Shaun Surething’s salon Seagull is located at 240 W 10th Street (between Bleeker and Hudson) in New York City. Check it out online at www.seagullhair.com.