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Indigenous hairstylist putting Thunder Bay on the map (11 photos)

How a local hair professional is bringing gender inclusivity to her styling chair.

Kristyn E.M. Schmerk is doing things a little different than what we’re used to in Thunder Bay. In July, during the midst of a global pandemic, she and her business partner Jillian Cronk opened their salon ALTR Hair Studio and life hasn’t been the same since.

“The community has just embraced us, and everything fell into place organically,” Schmerk says about opening ALTR.

From beautiful beginnings

Ever since Schmerk was a child growing up on Fort William First Nation she’s been in love with the beauty industry.

After high school she went the academic route, completing her honours degree in English and French and didn’t pursue this industry until just a few years ago after completing cosmetology training in Toronto.

“I always had the intention of moving back to Thunder Bay from Toronto and opening up a little hole-in-the-wall salon.”

Hole-in-the-wall is an understatement to what ALTR provides for its clients.

Situated in the Bay and Algoma neighbourhood at 320 Bay Street, the salon is a mecca of greenery and artistic beauty. With plants covering the walls and art made by local vendors, ALTR shows the beauty Thunder Bay holds.

Schmerk says this idea of a salon is doable here because Thunder Bay is so supportive of anything local. She had no doubt in her mind that this is what the community needed.

Bigger than hair

Schmerk and Cronk have initiated a gender-neutral pricing platform, the first of its kind in Thunder Bay.

Over quarantine Schmerk participated in a lot of online education and discovered the Dresscode Project, a global alliance that helps hair salons and barbershops provide gender affirming hair services for the queer community.

This is something largely known in the beauty industry throughout the world in larger metropolises and was foreign to Thunder Bay. But now it’s a new reality.

“Thunder Bay, as we know, has a horrible reputation for racism in the town and I think, just the fact that we have this awareness and we are doing our best to be an inclusive safer space we are finding that people feel more comfortable trying us out because they have experienced forms of racism elsewhere.”

By keeping gender and pricing neutral Schmerk has allowed anyone to walk through the doors, sit in her chair and just be themselves, especially clients from the Indigenous and LGBTQ2S+ community.

Leveling up standards

Schmerk plans to continue keeping inclusivity at the forefront of her and Cronk’s business and it’s a fresh moment for Thunder Bay to welcome gender neutral proving as its new, beautiful norm.

She has noticed a more relaxed breath from her clients who sit in her chair, knowing they’ll be listened to and understood when it comes to their hair and what that means to them.

With the simplicity, smaller space and artistic design through her salon and social media, Schmerk is giving her clients, new and old, a place that allows them to be themselves, whoever that may be.

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