An hour with: Lauren Gunn of Colleen

Interviewed by Adam Bryce

Lauren is a freelance hair stylist, makeup artist and the owner of her own salon, Colleen and its great online store.

Adam Bryce: For you, it’s not just about cutting someone’s hair, it’s about your relationship and that level of communication and understanding what they need.

Lauren Gunn: Yeah, it’s highly relational and a lot of that is about the feedback that you get from those relationships. Whether it’s a five-minute interaction with someone and the feedback and the energy you gain from that or an hour of cutting someone’s hair and chatting to them throughout that process.

Adam: It’s a collaborative process and it’s about communication. Without that throughout the whole process, it’s never going to be as strong as it can.

Lauren: Absolutely, every moment that you are shooting — the models that you are shooting — you’re giving feedback to the models and they’re giving feedback to you, the hairstylist, the makeup, all these people are feeding back to each other during a shoot. It’s the same in the salon doing haircuts. The collaboration doesn’t end, it’s ongoing throughout the whole process.

Adam: I remember, when I was a kid, I’d take this photo out of a magazine and show it to the hairstylist and that was it. You never said a word and then you left. It never really felt like a special experience and, I guess, that’s the difference between a good haircut or experience and a bad one. It’s that continuing connection throughout the process. Hopefully, you’d want people coming back again and again, and that would happen through a genuine, two-way relationship.

Lauren: One hundred per cent. That’s the same with all creative projects. You want it to be a great experience for everyone so people return. I imagine that goes for any creative process whether it’s film, architecture, hairdressing, music… whatever it is.

Adam: I think about the fact that I like to work with the same people a lot of the time. It’s because you build these teams and these relationships that take time and you can’t have a relationship with everyone. Every time you start with someone new, you have to start that process again in understanding how each other work. We’re not talking about ‘repeat customers’ we’re talking about proper relationships that enable better work.

Lauren: I agree with you, there’s a real mis-belief that creative people click and the magic happens. That does happen sometimes but a lot of the magic actually comes from years of relationship — building and creative collaboration. Learning to speak each other’s language and understand what someone’s visual vocabulary is.

Adam: I tend to harp on about it a bit but I always think about those relationships like (LIFE PARTNERS) Juergen Teller and Venetia Scott. Relationships that went to another level and, because of it, the outcome is phenomenal.

What I want to ask is, how it all started for you. How did you end up doing what you do? How did you get interested in beauty? How did you become Lauren Gunn?

Lauren: It’s kind of cute. I grew up in a really small town in the Waikato and I had a crush on a hairdresser. This guy, who was tall and handsome and had great hands and he made me feel amazing when he did my hair. I guess, that was the first time I thought, that’s what I would like to do. This person makes me feel really amazing and it would be a really cool thing if I could do that for other people.

Adam: That’s incredible, not what I was expecting you to say. So, once you became passionate about giving people that feeling that you received — are you that sort of person that, when you decide to do something, you put everything into it? Or do you feel as though everything just organically fell into place?

Lauren: I’m a very pragmatic person, by nature. When I got into hairdressing, I set myself a list of goals of what I wanted to achieve. I was 17 at the time, so a lot of these goals were incredibly lofty for a girl in a small town, in New Zealand. I wanted to be working at the top salon in New Zealand and to travel overseas to international fashion weeks. I definitely had strong and clear goals for the kind of hairdresser I wanted to be. I wanted to be the best hairdresser in New Zealand and I wanted to work internationally.

Adam: Coming from the Waikato, and a small town — were you aware, particularly pre-internet, that those big fashion shows existed?

Lauren: Everything was incredibly analogue at the time. Pre-internet and pre-cellphone. The only true portal that I had at the time that was newspapers and magazines. Print media was pretty much the only access to anything else that was happening internationally. Actually, not the only thing — the other thing was MTV. Essentially magazines and music videos were my entryway into what was happening in the rest of the world, fashion-wise. We didn’t have imported clothing, we didn’t have Levi’s or Dr Martens. I could see these things that were happening around the world but, at the same time, I didn’t have access to it. Which probably made it all the more alluring, to be honest.

Adam: I was a this conversation with my friend a couple of years ago about Supreme, the skate label. If you lived in New York and Supreme was just your corner store, it’s not that big of a deal. But, if you come from New Zealand, Supreme feels like this land far far away. You’re likely to research and become more knowledgeable because that’s the only way you can become involved, as opposed to just going in and buying it.

Lauren: That’s very true.

Adam: Going back to MTV. I think we forget how influential it was for all of us from our generation.

Lauren: It was huge. I probably spent around 10 hours a week watching that show. In terms of visual language, fashion and my pop culture knowledge, a lot of it started around music television.

Adam: I’m probably very similar to that. I remember recording all my favourite videos so that I had this database of all the best videos and songs that I liked. I think for a lot of people, MTV and music videos were this amazing thing you wanted to be a part of.

Lauren: Absolutely and I don’t think that’s changed either. I still love watching music videos, I find them very inspiring. There’s another thing that had an influence on me which would have been though print media too, which is advertising. Even now, I find that advertising can be a lot more interesting to me than fashion editorial.

Adam: The interesting thing about that is, that if the creative direction allows for the freedom to do so, then advertising is editorial on another level.

So, tell me about your salon, Colleen. I remember you telling me once that you wanted it to have this barber feel to it. As opposed to the traditional salon, where you go in and almost feel like you didn’t dress properly for the occasion.

Lauren: Well, to talk about Colleen, I’d like to go back a little bit in time. When I first started hairdressing, it was perceived as something you did if you couldn’t make it to the end of high school. It was considered not so much as a career, but more as a job if you weren’t smart enough to go to university. Or you dressed funny or you were a specific sexual orientation, so you became a hairdresser. So, when I first started hairdressing, it didn’t have the perception that it has now. Over time, as I worked my way through, we saw the perception of hairdressers shift from dummy high school dropouts to a little bit of a more rockstar reputation. That’s where names like Eugene Souleiman and Guido — people who were becoming well known for their work — began to emerge and, as a result of that, hairdressing was elevated into being seen as a craft and a career. There was a big shift and that happened in the 90s and 2000s. With that shift, came a real move to make someone feel super fancy and elite. Hairdressers were trying to prove that they were classy and chic. That’s when we saw the rise of really expensive haircuts in New Zealand and the experiences became a little bit more… I don’t want to say the word…

Adam: It’s not necessarily a bad thing because that’s just how it took place.

Lauren: I think we realised that we weren’t just high school dropouts. The majority of hairdressers are really smart. A lot of hairdressers do experience disorders like dyslexia, which, you know, can be seen as being stupid in high school. But the thing is, hairdressers are very good at relationships and often very bright. I think it was lovely for that shift, that movement to happen. Then, where it got taken was into the realm of elitism — ‘we’re the smartest we’re the best, we’re going to take this and make it perfect’ — it became a little bit snobby, to be honest. But, I think you’re right, it was a natural movement. It was a great movement and I’m grateful that it happened because the outcome is that hairdressers can be proud of what they do again.

Back to your question about Colleen. I felt the field of hairdressing that I was in, had deviated from what the original intention was — to make people feel really good and our ability to do that. It had become about having espresso coffee and expensive magazines and serving olives and expensive wine. What was perceived as a good hairdresser had all these trappings attached to it. What I really wanted, for Colleen, was to acknowledge the pride of the craft and really take my work to that. I’m proud to have a craft. Hairdressing is a trade, you get a trade certificate to become a hairdresser. I felt like we travelled too far away from the fact that we were tradies. Our pride should’ve been coming from being really good at our trade, not sort of offering wine and cheese and those kinds of things.

So, that’s what I really wanted for Colleen, I wanted to pull it back to ‘we have a craft, we’re really good at it and let’s do that really well’. That was the thing that barbers already had and that’s why I look to barbers for inspiration for Colleen because they nail their craft, they’re proud of it and practice that trade without any pretension.

Adam: Yeah, you’re dead right. There’s never a time when you go to a barber when they don’t take huge pride in what they do and, at the same time, they’re always humble and friendly.

Lauren: A barber haircut is a really simple thing. You walk in, you get your haircut, there’s a proud exchange of what they do and then you leave. I love that and that’s what I wanted to introduce to Colleen. Because as hairdressers, that’s what it boils down to. I wanted to pull back on all the fluff with Colleen and be proud of doing our trade.

Adam: I agree with that. I come from a generation or industry, where I’m very influenced by anti-fashion. Our hair is important but, sometimes, we don’t have time for that part of the routine to become a lengthy experience.

Lauren: Yeah, I don’t want to waste anybody’s time to indulge my ego when I’m cutting their hair. There are a couple of features about barbershops, that I really love. That is no reception desk — you walk in and you’re in it, you’re included in everything that’s happening in the room. We work really hard to make our interactions inclusive in the salon. We try hard to make sure that we aren’t sitting in our own little bubbles. Yes, our clients want to sit back and want some privacy and that’s totally cool but we work to make sure it’s an inclusive environment. Make people feel part of the whole room, rather than just sitting in a chair.

Adam: You’re more likely to feel as though you want your own space if intimidated by the space. But if it’s inviting and the people are welcoming, then it’s great.

Lauren: Hopefully. The intention is to put people at ease as soon as they walk in the door and make them feel included in something that’s greater than them.

Adam: That’s the feeling I get, everyone that works at Colleen gives you a smile rather than a ‘look’.

Lauren: There are so many elements of Colleen that are really considered and strategic. That’s just two of them. Having no receptionist and no reception desk means that your stylist is engaging with you from the moment you walk in the door to when they open the door for you and say goodbye. That’s no accident, that’s strategic. We want people to feel really looked after and to understand that their stylist or team that’s looking after them is considering every aspect of their experience at Colleen, rather than just passing it on to someone else.

Adam: That takes away a sense of hierarchy as well. Everyone who works there is on the same sort of level and you’re also on that level. Everyone feels more comfortable.

Lauren: I absolutely agree with you. I think, when things are on a level, people can relax. When they’re not and there’s a system for people to go through, the cues for how they should behave can be really tricky for them to read.

You know, walking in and walking up to the reception desk can be a really stressful thing for a client. Just walking in a salon door can be a stressful thing. When there are systems in place, sometimes they can help people know how they’re supposed to behave but, sometimes, that can also be like, ‘oh what do I do at this stage of the service’.

Taking some of those things away, people can feel that ‘I’m here and I’m going to be looked after’ and it becomes seamless. We definitely have systems in place but people coming to Colleen don’t experience the system as such. They just think, ‘oh I’ve come to Colleen and I’ve had a really great haircut.’

Adam: I want to ask you about this idea of a ‘creative entrepreneur’. You’re definitely a very creative person and there’s this notion that people are either left-brain or right-brain — you can be creative or you can be good at business. I don’t believe that’s the case and you’re showing that you’re able to do both.

Do you have to make conscious decisions to balance those parts of your work or does it just come naturally for you? Or is being creative just an asset in running a business, because you’re creating and you’re problem solving?

Lauren: Running a business, being successful financially, leading a group of people is a creative act. It’s all about problem solving, identifying obstacles and finding workarounds. It’s very much a creative process, whether you’re doing a haircut or running a business, the two things are the same thing for me. It’s like, ‘what do I have in front of me, what outcome do I want, what are the things between that outcome and how do I get around them?’ I just apply that to everything in my life.

Adam: I think a big part of it, is that people have created these moulds for themselves or others, where that they’ve made this assumption that they can be either a creative or business-minded and that they are separate. Where, actually, they’re both problem solving and there’s no need to pigeon hole yourself or others. If you’re good at problem solving, you’re good at problem solving. No matter the difficulty thrown at you.

Lauren: Absolutely. One of the key skills of problem-solving is identifying that, if you don’t have the skill needed to get around that obstacle, you need to find people that do have the skill and bring them on board.

Adam: Creatively, it’s the same. You may have the ability to come up with the idea but there’s no way that you have the skillset to be able to execute all of those ideas yourself. It has to be a part of that team process.

Lauren: Yeah, I think, with regard to the idea of  ‘the creative entrepreneur’, maybe what we need to do is reframe what ‘creative’ is. An entrepreneur is creative, a hairdresser is creative, an accountant is creative.

Everybody is looking at problems, coming up with solutions and that’s a creative process. Whether you’re building a website, building a house, building a haircut, building a cake, they’re all creative processes. My industry has changed so much over the last three decades and I really want to address the self-talk that hairdressers have around whether they’re smart or not. Because they’re creative and that creativity can be applied in so many different ways. It doesn’t make them smart or not and that self-talk has been really damaging in our industry.

Adam: It’s funny because, in the industry I’m in, I never think of a hairdresser not being smart. But I do remember being a teenager and there was this stereotype about the type of people going into that role. I do remember that.

Lauren: I had co-workers lie about what their career was, at dinner parties, because they were ashamed.

Adam: Wow, really? I get it because it was seen as this drop-out-type job. But now, at the forefront of my mind, I think of hairdressers as rockstars or business people.

Lauren: I don’t think it matters if you’re a hairdresser in a small town, it’s just you and the salon’s is at your house. I don’t think it makes you any ‘less than’ the top hairdresser in the biggest salons. We’re doing the same job.

I’m just really keen to do great work, provide a place for other hairdressers to do great work and have a place where people can come and feel really at home. Where they can get what they came for, which is a great haircut or great colour.

Adam: In terms of strategy, tell me about your online store. You’ve created something really new and different in the industry. And, I guess, e-commerce is something new for you too and brings about a whole set of different problems to solve.

Tell me about the online store, how it came about, and some of the challenges that you’ve faced so far.

Lauren: The purpose of the online store is to reach a wider audience and share industry knowledge with more people. The purpose of colleen.nz is to give people access to great products with the instructions and the knowledge to get the benefits from those products. And, with those benefits, make a difference in their day-to-day life.

Adam: I think that’s really cool. Giving people access to things, as well as knowledge. I gave someone a camera and they said how do I use it? And I said what do you mean? But, of course, they wouldn’t know how to use it. It’s easy to forget about these things when they are part of our daily lives.

Lauren: When I was setting up colleen.nz, I obviously looked to see what was happening in the e-commerce market for hair. I didn’t find anybody who was supplying hair product who was doing a really good job of educating and informing their customers, engaging with them and finding out what people were wanting to know and responding to that.

Again, it goes back to collaboration, with colleen.nz, we’re very in touch with our customers about what they want, what they don’t what and what they’d like to know. For me, it’s no different to sitting in a salon next to a client and talking to them about their hair. It still feels like a one-on-one engagement to me, it has the same relational aspect as being in a salon and doing a haircut.

Adam: What you said is the key to successful e-commerce. When you think about all those companies that have done well, it’s about being able to create that same level of experience and professionalism in the transaction. It’s still a part of the collaboration.

When you’re working in the marketing world, one of the ways we tend to sell content strategies into brands, is to sell it off the base that it’ll bring return customers and there’s a return of investment. But that’s not the biggest strength, the actual strength of it, is that you are creating the same experience as you would in the actual world.

Lauren: I would really love to achieve that with colleen.nz.

Adam: You’re already doing a good job and it’s still early days, right? How long has it been around?

Lauren: Four months. Such a baby.

lauren gunn

Lauren Gunn.

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