Sin Chun sculpts hair and plots world domination from his new Grand Rapids salon, Sin Republic. Zinta Aistars has the story.
To walk into Sin Republic
at 1140 Monroe Avenue NW, Suite 2103, is to enter another country. That’s how Sin Chun sees it, and no one coming through the doors is arguing. Enter and you become a citizen.
Sin Chun approaches, his smile bright. He is slight and quick, and he seems to move in complete silence, as if on air. He wears a few bangles on his wrist, a red leather wrist band, and an array of earrings. His hair, dark today with a few mauve streaks, is pulled up and back, a few sprays coming loose, and surely it was intended that way. Nothing is an accident with Sin Chun.
Sin Republic is a hair salon, opened in December 2013, but for its owner, it is home, it is his domain, and it is just the beginning of his global take-over. He has planted his flag here.
“Everything I do, there’s always a reason for it. I am always planting a seed for the future,” Chun says. He takes a seat at the table in the front of the salon, and behind him, his staff bustles about at their ten portable stations (designed by Chun and built locally), where clients come in to have, no, not their hair cut, but sculpted.
“I have had a plan for Sin Republic for seven years,” Chun continues. “It has been a vision in my mind. I saw where I wanted to be, and from there, I go backwards to where the fun begins.”
The fun began in South Korea. Only it wasn’t always fun. Sin Chun lived with his sister and parents in South Korea until he was 10 years old. That was 24 years ago.
“I am one-quarter American, and back then there was a prejudice against mixed blood,” he says. “I got picked on. Kids teased me.” Chun shrugs and smiles, and there is no sign of a child’s suffering on his face. He continues: “Teasing made me stronger. My parents came here for us, my sister and me, but I got picked on here, too, for being different. I was quiet at first—it took me about two years to learn to speak English—and then other kids got interested in me, in who I was.”
Chun’s wish for a “country” of his own begins to make sense as he tells his story of being an outsider in all places. At Sin Republic, he has even created his own currency: a dollar bill with his own image at its center, with the words at top: “The United Allies of Sin Republic,” and a detailed drawing of the interior of the salon on its back. It is a gift certificate.
Chun learned about hair and beauty supplies growing up, when he and his sister worked at their parents’ business, Hair-n-Mart in Plainfield.
“I worked in the shop up to 20 hours a week while I was going to school,” Chun says. “People asked style questions, and I learned about the ingredients in hair colors.”
Chun’s major in college, however, was a far cry from hair styling. He majored in physics and minored in philosophy. When he went on for his master’s degree, he ran out of money.
“So I decided to go to beauty school to learn how to cut hair,” he says. “The instructor told me I shouldn’t cut hair. What I was doing was too different.”
It was so different that Chun gave his cuts a name all their own: Vortex. He doesn’t cut hair, he says. He sculpts hair. Leaving home to work in expensive Chicago salons and sharpen his scissor skills, Chun developed his style and his dream.
“But it didn’t matter where I went, the cuts were all the same. Everyone was doing the same thing. They teach you how to cut on angles; I can do that in my sleep. In Chicago, the cut would cost $200, and in Grand Rapids, the same exact cut costs $55. That made me very uncomfortable.”
So uncomfortable, in fact, that Chun left the big city and returned to Grand Rapids, breaking his contract early, willing to pay the penalty to do so.
He turned down job offers in big cities like Las Vegas and San Diego, where big-name stylists had noted Chun’s unique skills, and returned to Grand Rapids with $300 in his pocket and his vision clear. Banks, however, turned him away. No collateral. Chun was not dissuaded.
“I believed in Sin Republic. I scratched together everything I had,” Chun says. “I invested everything.”
Chun sought the right location for more than a year, seeking a place near downtown, yet far enough out to offer easy parking. Sin Republic, with 3,200 square feet, is in a strip mall near the intersection of Leonard and Monroe streets.
He hired seven employees and is hiring more. John Ra, his creative director, designs the currency, runs social media, and posts YouTube videos
of Chun at warp-speed working on a client’s hair. Women’s cuts range from $30 to $55, men’s from $25 to $40.
“Plan on 45 minutes when you come in, although I take about 10 minutes to sculpt hair,” Chun says. It’s the bonding experience, he explains. He invites his client to sit a while, share his or her story, while he listens quietly. “I want to get your vibe, who you are, while I see your face shape and how your hair falls. I’m not out to change you. I enhance you. I don’t cut with razors, just scissors and combs. I will give you three options of what would fit you perfectly. If you’ve got hair, I can do it.”
And that’s only the beginning. Sin Republic will conquer Grand Rapids, then Chun plans to open a second place in Chicago within the next four years. “Then San Francisco, then Naples, Florida, and then New York City. In Asia, it will be Hong Kong first, but another place in Hawaii, too. Hair, then apparel, and by the time I am 40, I plan to open my own rum factory. It’s my favorite.”
One might think Sin Chun is kidding. He’s not. He smiles with a calm self-assurance that erases all doubt that Sin Republic will conquer the world and leave it sculpted and beautiful.
Visit Sin Republic at www.facebook.com/sinrepublic
or call 616.717.3202.
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
Photography by Adam Bird