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Vain rehomes its freak-flagship salon on Capitol Hill

Some recent Vain color (Image: Vain)

A Seattle institution for adventurous and colorful hairstyles, and some truly legendary parties, boutique salon Vain has moved its downtown flagship location to new Capitol Hill digs on 1121 Pike Street. Cozied down between Black Sparrow Tattoo and Club Z, Vain opened for business earlier this month. The move signals the company’s rebirth of sorts from the pandemic, and a new chapter in Seattle’s coiffed counterculture.

Growing in the Belltown building left behind by the move of legendary Seattle club The Vogue to Capitol Hill, Vain was born into the city’s changing punk ethos. Vain owner Victoria Gentry remembered that neighboring businesses didn’t exactly appreciate The Vogue’s noisy shows, but with a salon, “You still get all the freaks without the noise.”

The move to Capitol Hill has been in the works for a while, Gentry said. The former location — in downtown, or Belltown, depending on who you ask — is part of 1st Ave Seattle history, an area now unrecognizable from when Vain first set up shop in the late 1990s, Gentry said.

They already had many clients from Capitol Hill, and the fact that downtown business had significantly slowed during the pandemic all factored into the decision to move. The new location is just on the other side of Boren, still within a mile of the old space for dedicated downtown and Belltown clients.

“I had already been planning on [moving] for quite a while. I had been waiting for the lease to run out to make a move. It got delayed a little bit because of COVID,” Gentry said. “Our connection to the Capitol Hill community has always been really strong. In a way it does feel like [coming home]. I’m excited to reconnect with arts groups and artists.”


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Gentry is proud to have retained all Vain employees in spite of the pandemic, including those at Vain’s two other locations in Ballard and West Seattle. The company took a $450,200 forgivable PPP loan for 45 jobs in April of 2020.

Beauty has been somewhat pandemic-proof as the Capitol Hill hair economy that was thriving pre-pandemic and that has stubbornly held its ground has added new businesses and new locations during the economic fallout of the crisis. On Broadway, the massive retail space formerly home to Urban Outfitters will soon reopen as the 58-studio Mosaic Salon, the largest location in the company’s array of spaces for independent hair and beauty pros to work.

Weathering the initial closures last March, Vain reopened in June with strict COVID protocols, and no reported outbreaks at any of their locations to date. Moving to Capitol Hill, Gentry is excited to offer bold cuts and colors to a clientele who, for the most part, has probably already visited Vain before.

Founded by Gentry in 1996, Vain’s first incarnation was on Capitol Hill, as a small counter selling beauty supplies and hair dye out of Penny and Perk, a shop that sold old Atari games, sci-fi paperbacks and ephemera. Originally from New York, where she was used to going to stores like Ricky’s, Gentry noticed there weren’t any retail places in Seattle where consumers could get bold hair dye like Manic Panic. The positive community response led her to open her first one-chair salon and beauty supply store between Blanchard and Bell at 2222 Second Avenue.

Vain’s second move was in 1999, when Gentry signed the lease to rent out the entire building at 2018 1st Ave, starting the next installment of the building’s mythic history.

The three-story brick building had been a brothel around the turn of the century, then a gay leather bar called Johnny’s Handlebar in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it became the WREX, a club that bridged gay, punk, and New Wave scenes. As gay clientele slowly made their way to other clubs like Neighbors and The Brass Door, WREX became a venue for live music, including punk and grunge bands. The next incarnation was The Vogue, where Nirvana played their first big show in Seattle (although the location of the band’s first Seattle show is debated). After the height of grunge, The Vogue became a goth and fetish bar, with rotating events like reggae nights sprinkled in, before eventually moving to Capitol Hill, closing in 2007.

The countercultural history of the building was a huge draw for Gentry. “Every band from the grunge era played there. It’s in the EMP. It’s on the rock-n-roll tour. It’s definitely a thing,” she said. “It has a cool history. We’ve heard so many great stories over the years of people walking in, ‘Oh this is The Vogue,’ and fill-in the blank: ‘The first time I ever—’ Whatever. danced on stage at a bar, made out with my now-significant other, did drugs, we’ve heard so many crazy stories.”

The move into a 3,000 square foot space was admittedly biting off a little more than Gentry could chew at the time. The company renovated the upstairs which had been “just full of pigeons and garbage,” into artist studios. “We were just naive enough to be like, ‘This is gonna be great!’” she laughed.

Vain featured a retail boutique at the front of the salon, including wares from local designers, and sometimes a live performer if there was an event. The famed outer graffiti wall stayed intact. Their launch year also coincided with the height of the dot com crash, and then six months later, 9-11 happened. Gentry said that until the pandemic, it was the roughest year the business has ever faced.

Once Vain hit its stride, it became a premier Seattle destination for edgy hair and beauty expression.

Billie Eilish and other celebrities have sat in the salon’s chairs. Vain’s retail offerings also included lashes and make up, attracting drag performers, or anyone into brightly-colored transformations. Vain was an active participant in arts happenings downtown, hosting events, as well as some legendary after parties. Their iconic, 30 inch disco ball that hung in the space was a gift from someone who attended one of their Paradise Garage parties in the early 2000s. For that event, they closed off the alley behind the building and rented out a whole floor of a hotel that used to be directly behind that. The floor was taken over by performance installations, and the salon itself converted into a huge dance party. Gentry was gifted the disco ball shortly after the party.

“They were like, ‘You need to have this, and I really hope you’ll have another party because that was great.’” she remembered. “We kind of went all-out. I love throwing parties. I’m definitely looking forward to doing that again.”

Saying goodbye to Vain’s headquarters for over 20 years without an official party or farewell seemed strange to say the least. Moving from a 3,000 square foot space to a 1,200-square-foot space was challenging, but since the new site was formerly Red X Hair Salon, the buildout was minimal.

Gentry said the two spaces are like night and day, even though both buildings were built around the early 1900s. The new space, on the ground floor of the Wintonia Apartments, has large windows and white walls, in contrast to their former site’s dark brick walls, and as a side note—is probably a little less haunted.

Since the new location is less than half of their old, sprawling square footage, Vain has had to rein in their retail offerings, but they definitely brought the signature style that sets them apart as contributors to Seattle’s artistic, and freaky, community. Including the disco ball.

“We brought the giant disco ball with us. That’s an iconic thing,” Gentry said. “We brought some of our history along with our attitude.”

Vain is now open at 1121 Pike at the base of Capitol Hill. You can learn more at vain.com.


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Edward
Edward
18 days ago

Welcome to the neighborhood! If you only did doggies, sigh.