Gothic

An Entrepreneurial Idea

The arts, I have long believed, are all interconnected, and, in turn, the great web of interdisciplinary arts is inextricably entangled with history, religion, technology, and science.

Another way to put that is to say: Everything relates to everything else.

Another way for me to put it is to tell you a story; and perhaps to inspire you to take an entrepreneurial leap into a previously unexplored business proposition that unites the beauty industry to art, music, coffee, and culture.

Back in February, I was getting a manicure at the local cosmetology academy. I like to keep conversation going with the stylist, and usually start by asking her or (less frequently) him about post-graduation plans. As they all do, this young lady dreams of opening up her own salon.

Now, this particular student manicurist has a bit of a difference in her dream, which is what got my own ever-busy idea-machine cranking. She sports a few tasteful tattoos, a couple more than your grandmother’s piercings. Nothing ostentatious; and that’s kind of her edge: she wants to open a salon that caters to the bodily ornamented as well as the upwardly-mobile corporate femmes anonymized by the requisite platinum blonde hairdo and frenchified fingernails. She doesn’t want to alienate the lady CEOs; just to invite in the artsy, black-laced, torn jeans, purple-headed crowd as well. She has a personal mission to ease acceptance of visible tattoos into the mainstream workplace. And if her own professional-plus-a-touch-of-henna look is any indication, I think she could succeed.

And then I had an Archimedean moment. As happens about, oh, every couple of days, I got a compelling vision of a completed project, standing complex and vibrant in its future existence.

I saw her salon. And it was stylish, let me tell you.

This new salon has two rooms: the kind of long, narrow rooms that occur behind the storefronts of every shop in Manhattan, where we crowd ’em in along the street, then reach way back into the unnamed alleys behind. The two rooms open into one another, sharing the generous sunlight of their double window-fronts. One is the typical hair-cuttery setup: mirrors, chairs, sinks, etc. But the décor side is unique. The mirrors have heavy gold scroll-work for frames. The chairs are fancy faux-Georgian. The walls are dark maroon, with gilt crown molding. The ceiling boasts intricate plaster scroll-work and an impressive Victorian central medallion.

The other room is where this all gets wild. It’s a combination of waiting room, café, art gallery, and music venue. There’s a tiny raised area at the back, set in triangulation to the room, with all the amps and cords and pedals and jacks and sound board just waiting for a band to appear and plug in. And the walls are heavy with art.

Every month, this salon-gallery-hall hosts a “First Friday.” The staff has gathered over the previous few weeks to choose from among the many local artists and musicians who have submitted their work for consideration. The hair stylists and manicurists and the one tattoo artist have joined with the owner and the full-time cultural consultant on staff to discuss, debate over, and vote for their favorite painter or photographer, the best musical acts. Then they brought in the part-timers who help take down last month’s show and hang the new one. The curator of the local art museum volunteers a couple of hours to give her professional opinion. The top band is called. And then the place opens in full swing!

For three or four hours on a Friday evening, then, the cultural elites join the beatniks and punks at what has become the most unlikely hot spot in town: the barbershop. The band plays. It’s a different style of music every First Friday, carefully chosen to complement the visual aesthetic of the new-hung walls. Grungier rock for some black-and-white war photographs. Classical guitar with portraits of deceased politicians. A string quartet with abstract renderings of dancers in flight. An a capella Gospel choir with metal-and-glasswork installations. A dark flock of moaning youth on exotic instruments with haunting close-ups of drug-ravaged celebrities. Travel photography, still lifes, action shots, 2-D sculpture, piano recitals, operatic solos, Broadway renditions, barbershop quartets. Each is tinged with the darker colors of its genre, easing towards the melancholy, the macabre.

The music goes on during the week, too, of course. That’s the whole idea: you look at the art while you wait for your haircut, listen to the music between clacks of the shears, stay and have tea for another song or two, and maybe bring home an original oil painting along with a new look.

And there’s one aesthetic that binds it all together. When I call it “emo” or “goth,” don’t get scared away. Don’t think drugs, knives, and suicide: think Gothic architecture. Think Gothic literature—well, maybe not, since there are plenty of drugs, knives, and suicide there! Stick with the Gothic arches, columns, stained glass, and flying buttresses. To make more sense out of this, come on down another tangent with me.

My local art museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania has a fascinating exhibit at the moment. It’s tiny: just one room. It’s called Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side. The largest items in the room are Victorian mourning gowns: black, lacy, elaborate dresses worn by young widows. There are paintings, fans, jewelry, gloves. Some are from the middle of the 19th century. Some are brand-new. And I defy you to tell the difference!

It was a pair of gloves that struck me. There, in a glass case, was a pair of gloves I would have sworn were bought last week at Claire’s or Hot Topic. But, nope, there on the tag: they were tatted in the 1840s. As the exhibit’s website explains, in the 1780s, “As literature with macabre gothic overtones gained popularity, emotional expressions of sentimentality, melancholy, and even horror and terror became commonplace” and then “the late nineteenth century became widely known for its prominence of elaborate and ostentatious mourning fashion. Almost a hundred years later, the silhouettes and styles of Victorian mourning wear made a vigorous reappearance with the emergence of the Goth subculture in the late 1970s.” This subculture, it goes on to explain, has now become mainstream—has become, I would argue, beautified again. Beautiful again. Beauty again.

And that’s what binds together the music, art, and fashion in my imaginary salon: the Victorian Gothic. Whether you are a hard-working corporate woman who wears Victoria’s Secret under your business suit, or a tattooed guitar player masquerading as a barista, the Gothic has a kind of beauty to enrich your own. One of the designers from whom the museum borrowed items advertises “Darkly Elegant Designs for Femme Fatales and Decadent Gentlemen.” Another announces “Fine Jewelry Finally Has A Dark Side.” Lace and laces; eyes with long lashes; gloves or garters; button-down blouses; blue notes and sad songs; gilted and guilty; chokers and chocolate; beads and body art; coffee and tea. Come and visit.

Now, let me close off by saying that it turns out I did not invent this idea. Like Chesterton, who independently imagined an entire system of doctrine, then discovered that the Catholic Church had been teaching it for centuries—OK, so not exactly like Chesterton at all, really—I googled “hair salon and art gallery” and found out there are plenty of them. There’s EDO Salon in San Francisco, which “merges fashion, design and art. One part boutique hair salon, one part speakeasy gallery.” There’s Mogi’z in Nashua, New Hampshire, where “hair meets art,” where “hair styling and art found a home together.” There’s EXO Salon in Allen Park, Michigan that “features art work from various local artists as well as pieces of some of the most prominent figures within the art community.” There’s Right Angle in Oakland, California, where “the salon walls become a fabulous stage for displaying the art works of local artists seeking space to show their work.” And

San Francisco's EDO Salon

there’s Zion Hair Salon & Art Gallery in Madison, New Jersey, “combining a hair salon and art gallery.” This one even has a “first Saturday” opening night, “where collectors, friends and family …can come and enjoy an evening out and meet the artist.”

So it’s a new idea, an old idea, a fresh and hot idea. Wouldn’t you love to tie together yet another set of arts—hair, art, music, and coffee? Wouldn’t you love to get a haircut while you’re sitting at a concert? Wouldn’t you like to drink tea and look at paintings while you wait for your wife to get her hair done? Or wouldn’t you like to take this entrepreneurial idea and run with it in your hometown? I hope my young manicurist does it here soon. And I hope you try it out in yours, too. Let me know if you do!