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Kai Hong

The traditional barbershop concept evokes dark leather seats, aggressively-scented aftershave, and walls of 1950s paraphernalia. For Kai Hong, these have never been the most inclusive spaces.

“There’s a lot of people out there that want to come into a space and not have to feel hyper-masculine,” Hong said. “I wanted to be very, very neutral — like anyone could walk in and get good service.”

As a first-generation Korean-American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Hong is no stranger to issues of inclusivity. Drawing from those experiences, she’s now on a mission to provide a safe space for all — one haircut at a time. 

Hong is the owner of Sunday Barber Co., a sleek new barbershop in Briargate that prizes expression of self and “Sunday vibes.” Born in Aurora, Colorado, but raised in Detroit, Hong earned her bachelor’s in music and communications at Spring Arbor University in 2008 before moving to Colorado Springs in April of 2013. After holding a “random” assortment of jobs, graduating from barber school in May of 2019, and cutting hair in her garage, Hong finally opened her own shop in February. 

Everything about Sunday Barber Co. exudes acceptance and expression. The open, Scandinavian design of the shop is splashed with personality. Say, one of the barbers, sports a mullet and a smile. Emi, Hong’s Shiba Inu puppy, trots around greeting customers. In the break room, the large screen TV and the Nintendo Switch aren’t just for show. 

“What a space is and what it looks like, and the people in it, and the design of it — it really matters,” Hong said. “It makes a difference on what kind of people would feel comfortable [there]. That, I was very mindful of.”

The steady rise of independently-owned barbershops in Colorado Springs indicates a consumer return to the basics: quality first, people always. Hong seeks to serve that need, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. She’s all too familiar with what they endure at the clippers of cosmetologists whose suggestions enforce gendered haircuts.

“You walk in and you want a mohawk, and you go in being second guessed, like, ‘Are you sure you want that? Are you sure you want to look like that?’ That doesn’t make the person in the chair feel good about themselves,” she said. “We’re here to just see people for who they are and what they want.”

Today, Hong employs five barbers and is looking to fill three more stations soon. Her fiancée, Alexandra, an esthetician and masseuse, hopes to eventually take clients at an in-house massage room adjacent to the barber stations. 

Hong spoke with the Business Journal about the power of self-expression, her commitment to the Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ community, and the freedom of running a local business. 

You grew up in Detroit. How did you end up in Colorado Springs?

I was kind of soul searching. … After living and working in Detroit for a couple of years, I decided I really needed a change and some space. I’ve road tripped down here before and I was born [in Aurora], so I felt a connection to Colorado. And I thought, ‘I’m just going to try it. I’m just going to go on this little adventure and figure out who I actually am and what I want to be about.’ I didn’t feel like I could do that fully in Michigan. I was very immersed in Christian ministry and Korean-American culture there, so I didn’t feel like I had the space or freedom to explore other things.

[When I first moved in 2013], I did a bunch of jobs. I worked at Starbucks, worked at Zumiez in the mall, worked a couple different random jobs … ended up working at Loyal Coffee [starting in July of 2017] for a couple years right before barber school, and it was there that that environment connected me deeper with myself. It brought me back to life, just interacting with people and being more out and about in the community, and serving them in a way that didn’t have to do with ministry. It’s a very humble, very simple thing. … That’s kind of how it started for me. 

So why barbering?

The hair cutting aspect of it happened because I had a friend come over, and he would just bring over some beer and bother me so much about cutting his hair. He was like, ‘You’re gonna cut my hair today.’ And I told him no so many times because I said, ‘I don’t cut hair!’ and I truly didn’t. I had no experience whatsoever. 

Eventually, I had a pair of clippers that my mom gave me — my mom used to cut all of our hair — and so I took that, cut his hair, and did that a couple times. And it was so much fun. I thought if I could do this and just cut short hair, and hang out with my friends, and make them feel good about themselves, and just have awesome conversation and connection, then I could really do this. This meant a lot to me. And so I just looked into barbering, and there was a barber program over at TONI&GUY and I decided I’d give it a shot, and here I am. 

What was your vision for Sunday Barber Co. from the start?

I wanted it to feel safe and open and welcoming and peaceful. I wanted it to be peaceful, that was probably the biggest thing. Just clean and minimal, and a place where people can come hang out and make connections and leave feeling 100 times better than before they came in. 

A lot of the barbershop trend now, as barbershops have been coming back, is that they want to go into the past and make it more traditional, like the traditional, hyper-masculine shop. There’s a lot of pictures everywhere, a lot of clutter, leather chairs all around — and all that’s cool, but that’s not me. A barbershop to me is more than just getting a good haircut. 

Can you talk about how your shop serves the LGBTQ+ community here in the Springs?

As a Korean-American, seeing the Korean-American community out in Michigan and being a part of that, and then also coming out here and seeing the need for that here for the LGBTQ+ community was important to me. 

I want anyone to be able to come in here and feel like, ‘I don’t have to be a certain way. I don’t have to look a certain way. I don’t have to have my hair cut a certain way.’ The barbers and stylists here have an understanding of that. 

There’s been a lot of times in my experience where I’ve just wanted a shorter haircut, but I didn’t want a pixie. So I’d walk into a salon … and go, ‘I want a two on the sides,’ and the cosmetologist wants to give me a more feminine [cut], and I didn’t want that. I’m not the only one that’s had an experience like that.

We’re here to just see people for who they are and what they want. I’m not going to sit there and go, ‘Are you sure you want that?’ I want you to feel more like you. And that’s important to me, because a lot of what you do with your hair, whether you color it or cut a certain way, it’s an expression of who you are and how you want to present yourself in the world. That’s important, and we prioritize that. 

How has the community support been?

On day two of opening, Arley, the owner of Ladyfingers Letterpress, comes in, gets a high fade. And as he was leaving, another lady was there waiting to get a haircut for her son, and she saw him and wanted to pay for his haircut. That was just like icing on the cake. He came in, had a great experience, and then a person in the community was like, ‘Hey, let me pay for your haircut.’ 

That sparked a whole thing of, ‘Let’s raise some money and give it as a donation for other people in the LGBTQ+ community to get gender-affirming haircuts, or whatever they want, in a safe space.’ In less than 24 hours, they had helped to raise over $3,000. People are still donating. People are hearing about it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, can I donate to that?’ So I’m still getting Venmos from people for that.

I’m still blown away by the response from the community. Just the Colorado Springs community at large, just the support and the welcome, and the expression of, ‘Yeah, we really needed this, so we’re glad that you’re here.’ I didn’t expect that! I’m just like, ‘Oh, doo-dee-doo-dee-doo, just want to cut some hair, make people feel good and do a good job at how I cut hair.’ 

It’s become something bigger. It’s also made me think, it’s not just for the clients. I could have just kept doing garage cuts, but to be surrounded by other barbers and other stylists who have a safe place to work is important to me. I wanted to create a safe space for everyone to work next to people and to serve people.

Any plans to expand?

Not yet, honestly. Even if this is my only shop, I want to do this really well because I think my ultimate dream isn’t necessarily to [own] a bunch of shops which, you know, maybe in the future I may dream of doing that. … Right now, putting my heart and soul into this one place and doing it really well is really important to me.

 For me personally, I feel like anyone can do that. I feel like anyone can start a business and go, ‘I want 10, 20 shops; I want to keep growing.’ But to really serve a community well where you are, I feel like is harder.

I chose to be here in Colorado Springs. There’s a reason for that, instead of moving to Denver or going somewhere else. There’s a need here, and I felt that. Even when I [first] moved here, I felt that. Because of that, I committed to the idea that whatever I’m doing, I want to do it really well here because there’s a need here. 

[In the future], I may want to expand or grow or whatever, but that’s the beauty of doing hair or owning your business. You can really take it wherever you want. So I’m open, but I’m also just really focused on this right now. 

How do you feel you fit in as a new businessowner in Colorado Springs?

I’m just doing what I can, the best I can.

I think the biggest thing is not hiding, not being ashamed. I’m here and we’re all here, and I’m important and you’re important, and we’re all human. I think every decision I make and everything that I do and envision is going to hold that belief. 

We’re all human. Personally, I have hidden and I have been ashamed for a long time, and I’m not doing that anymore. And anyone that comes in here, we’re not doing that anymore. In this place, we’re gonna celebrate who you are, even if you might not know 100 percent who you are quite yet, because everyone’s on a journey. But whatever, come as who you are. We’re here to celebrate you.