Thumbnail graphic by Diane Zhao / North by Northwestern

Communication fourth-year Emia Musabegovic stares at a boy across the room, envisioning a better look for his overgrown eyebrows. She approaches her soon-to-be client, offering to sculpt the short hairs that frame his face for only $9 and 20 minutes of his time. This hustle is part of her beauty business, Pretty Boy Salon.

Some professional salons have jacked up prices as a result of services inflation, which rose by 0.5% in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and was higher than expected. In January, Erin Haggis, owner of the Evanston hair salon Fawn Studio, increased haircut and hair coloring prices by up to $10.

“Hair color costs more,” Haggis said. “Shampoo costs more, all of that.”

Abdul Murrar, owner of Elegance Salon and Barbershop located in downtown Evanston, stopped offering a 10% student discount instead of raising prices. He said business has been slower this year and is unsure why.

But Northwestern students can opt out of steep costs and enjoy a more affordable and convenient beauty service option: student-run salons.

About once a month, SESP fourth-year Abhav Soni gets his brows, nails and lashes done by Musabegovic, who is self-taught in all three services. Coming from a family of restaurant entrepreneurs, Musabegovic said turning her hobby into a small business came naturally. Her services are more casual than those at a salon, and she sometimes accepts alternative payments like boba or coffee from friends like Soni.

Although Musabegovic offers services to all customers, her business targets male clients, who she said are less comfortable going to professional salons – hence the name “Pretty Boy Salon.” Soni said he and his male friends have felt implicitly judged in nail salons for asking for a bright color or design, whereas Musabegovic gladly works with her clients to give them creative control.

Photo courtesy of Emia Musabegovic

“All these men at Northwestern at our age are starting to take care of themselves. Where are they going though?” Soni said. “She saw that gap in the market and she took advantage of it, and I think that's why she's just been having a lot of success.”

He continues to use Pretty Boy Salon because of its low prices and flexibility since Musabegovic offers to travel to clients’ dorms or off-campus homes.

“I can literally walk out of my room, and she’ll be at the door,” he said. “She’s super open to ideas, and she will not let you walk out unless you’re fully satisfied.”

Stylists at professional salons in Illinois must have a cosmetology license, which they can receive after fulfilling 1,500 training hours, said Ellie Agin, the receptionist at Steven Papageorge Hair Salon in downtown Evanston. Potential dangers can follow when uncertified stylists perform beauty services involving sharp objects and chemicals, she said.

Still, some students have received formal instruction in their services. Weinberg second-year Taylor* worked at a professional nail salon in her hometown and trained with her bosses as a high schooler.

Now she paints and designs nails in her dorm room, decked out with LED lights and music to imitate the salon experience. Since she makes a 50% commission on the total price at her home salon, she charges about half of the salon’s rate when she’s at school, earning a comparable amount.

“I was a very artsy person in middle school and high school,” Taylor* said. “It’s nice to have that aspect of my life through nails.”

Weinberg second-year Dune Zawadzki is a frequent client and close friend of Taylor*. After returning from an Evanston salon with “sore” nails last spring, Zawadzki said she started going to Taylor*, whose services are more intimate.

“You feel very cared about, very pampered,” Zawadzki said. “It's like a little hour, two hours of luxury.”

With access to professional supplies, Zawadzki said Taylor* can produce anything onto her nails, from Hello Kitty stickers to dragons. Zawadzki’s favorite set of nails featured a pink ombre faded from the center of each nail, which Taylor* used an airbrush to accomplish.

Zawadzki said she continues to go to Taylor* because of the high quality of the art and her accessibility on campus.

I’ve literally had people stare at my fingernails for 10 minutes, enchanted, just figuring out all the different details on each individual finger,” Zawadzki said.

Some other student-run salons on campus provide haircut, braiding and press-on nail services. They serve as a convenient option that capitalizes on student clientele, Soni said.

Musabegovic said there is a difference between people who perform beauty services largely for fun, like herself, and those who rely on them for income. She said her reasonable pricing strategy reflects how she genuinely enjoys doing brows and intricate nail designs, and how the income comes second. The ability to “make somebody feel more beautiful” makes her feel satisfied and proud, she said.

“It’s kind of like that labor of love versus necessity,” Musabegovic said.

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity and protect the privacy of our sources.