Of course, the coffee shop that we walk up to meet in is adorable. Ipsento is small and a little cramped with cold-brew on tap and the kind of perfectly mismatched decor that only really great independent coffee shops have. Karen suggested we meet here for the interview and of course, she picked this place because well, it’s amazing.
Karen Marie is a really interesting person. Unlike a lot of hairdressers that we’ve met in our time, she’s quiet. You get the sense that she is observing the scene before taking any kind of action. Once she does, every word has meaning and every action, a purpose. She has a warm and solid presence that instantly puts you at ease. Honestly, it must be a yoga thing. Or perhaps it’s her dedication to sustainability and community involvement. No matter how she got the way that she is, we are glad to have had the opportunity to get to know her.
Here, we present a glimpse of the woman behind the Karen Marie Salon in Chicago, Illinois: Karen Marie.
What’s your story?
I was born and raised in Chicago, never left. Was raised in a household of five kids – me plus my four brothers. I fall right in the middle of everyone. I’m the only person in my family who went in the beauty industry. Growing up, my mom was in sales and my father was a printer.
The neighborhood I grew up in was on the Northwest side of Chicago. Very Irish Catholic. I went to Catholic school, all 12 years (1st – 12th). I knew in high school that after I graduated I was going to go right to beauty school. My family was very supportive.
I was pretty much a tomboy growing up with four brothers. I was really big into skateboarding. When we were kids we grew up on a hill so my younger brother and I would always set up cones and create obstacle courses.
When it came time to transition out of Catholic school and into beauty school it was actually quite easy. I didn’t ever really feel comfortable in the private schools. I didn’t really buy into it all that much.
What cast of characters make up your support system?
I have two really good girlfriends – Kylie and Kara. We’re the “Ks.” They are both artists. Kara works for an interior design firm and Kylie has her own business. She recovers furniture, so she takes old vintage pieces and gives them new life. She’s done some pieces in the salon. I hang out with them.
My boyfriend is probably my bestie. He’s in the service industry, he works at a restaurant called the BoeufHaus. We’ve known each other for about 10 years but have been together for three years. We met through a client, not as a setup, though. We were dating other people when we originally met, but over time we got to know each other more, got flirty and now we’re together.
What similar qualities do all these people share?
They are all free-spirited and very easy going. They are also very driven, fun and all very creative.
Have you helped each other out on a creative level?
I think that we collaborate all the time, in the sense that I’m always doing their hair or give feedback on a fabric or something. We’re all very supportive of one another and have lend advice and input on each other’s projects and outlets.
What makes you…you?
I’m a very good listener and very compassionate. When dealing with customers and people I take the time and listen. I have a very good eye and I’m overall pretty easy-going.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
What are your side gigs and hobbies?
I’m really into vinyasa flow yoga. I go to the studio that’s located next to the salon three to four times a week. I leave my mat at the salon and in between clients I can go over there. That’s actually been a total savior for me. It help keeps me very grounded. I’m also big into movies, more B-rated indie films that are creative, some foreign films, some action. It depends on my mood.
Do you speak a foreign language?
Not fluently. I took Italian in high school because my grandparents were born in Italy and my father was able to speak it up until the age of five. My grandparents made him stop and told him that he was in America now and that he had to speak English. We still have some family living there, in Tuscany, and I’d like to get dual citizenship, but the process is so difficult.
Let’s talk about how you have actively supported your community and why that’s important to you?
I feel like it’s the right thing to give back to those who have been supporting you all along. Giving back to the neighborhood and to the schools our clients have children in, we donate our services or support their benefits. We donate gift certificates and always try to give something.
What historical figure do you most identify with?
The identify with is the hard part. I can tell you who I most admire…The Dalai Lama. That’s a good one.
What’s your favorite quote?
“When in Rome.”
Where do you shop?
I do a lot of online shopping and I love going to Milwaukee Avenue to go shopping. Una Mae’s is great. I like Free People and sometimes I’ll go into Urban Outfitters. I have a bit of a shoe addiction so I shop on Zappos a lot. I have 50+ pairs of shoes.
If I had to describe my overall look in three words it would be “easy, comfortable and stylish.”
What are you listening to?
It all depends. Sometimes it’s Grateful Dead. I’m a big fan of Beck and if I had to pick a female musician I connect with it would be Stevie Nicks.
What did you have for breakfast today?
I had a smoothie (fruit, yogurt, coconut water, hemp seeds, chia seeds).
Ninja or VitaMix?
Neither. I use a Bullet
How do you keep your personal life and your work life balanced?
Tell us about your career path. Where did you go to school?
I went to Pivot Point in Evanston.
When did you know you wanted to be a hairdresser?
It was back in high school. I was always flat ironing my friend’s hair. And I’ve always had difficult hair so I wanted to learn how to control it.
What do you love most about being in this industry?
Making people feel good. Giving them confidence and making them feel pretty.
You walk into a room and there are two tables. One has a lump of clay and the other has a blank canvas and a paintbrush. Which one do you choose?
The blank canvas and the paintbrush.
What is your salon like?
All the furniture in there has been reclaimed or refurbished. It’s very warm and inviting. We have a big green mission – all our products are green and we stand behind that. When you walk in you feel comfortable. It has a very artistic feel to it. There are so many different elements of creativity.
The staff is very eclectic. Everyone has a strength to them and are all super creative. Just all around good, nice people.
As far as clients, we have a lot of neighborhood people. We do some classic work, and lots of practical, wearable hair. Not a lot of creative color.
What is the furthest distance a client travels to come to the salon?
I have one client who flies from Los Angeles to Chicago for me to do her color every four months. She has someone out there who does the cut.
What’s the best education you’ve received in the past year?
It was from Wella. We carry their color and they came in and taught us the Freelights technique. For me, that was the best.
How do you define success?
Growth help defines it. Standing behind the chair day in and day out and putting out great work and having those people come back and telling their friends, that’s how I define success for me.
What made you decide to open your own space?
I wanted to incorporate a lot of what I do at home like recycling into my workspace and I wanted more creative freedom. I’m a little bit of a rule breaker.
Describe your business as if it were a person.
She’s fun, easy-going, honest and a little bit rebellious.
What is it about you that makes you well suited to be an owner of a business?
I’m a good leader and easy to talk to.
What is about you that makes you well-suited to be a leader?
I’m a strong person.
What qualities would someone need to possess to be able to fill your shoes as the salon owner?
They would need to be diplomatic and strong. They need to be open to seeing both sides and not wavering.
What is the best advice you can give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Make sure you have a strong partner, especially if you’re going to be standing behind the chair. It’s hard to do both. If you are going to do it by yourself, just know that you’re not going to have a life.
How about someone who is looking to make a big life change or find a new direction?
Follow your passion and what you love to do. Follow what excites you and what your inner being is.
What’s one of your favorite quotes or stories from a client?
The best is when you’re doing a significant change on a client and you’re blow drying their hair and you can see their posture changing and this new confidence. That’s the best.
If you weren’t a hairdresser, what would you be?
I would do something health related. Who knows, maybe a yoga instructor.