Luxury salon Corps d’Elite sits in the very same location that once housed bustling Black Broadway’s Eaton Barber Shop, but the presence that these spaces once held on historic U Street has changed.
Shun Pittman, owner of the boutique beauty parlor, celebrated two years of business in March, albeit with a rapidly changing neighborhood, demographics and consumer trends that leaves the salon struggling to meet its financial mark.
“I’ve been in the beauty industry for over 23 years and worked for the world’s largest salon chain, training hair dressers all over the world,” Pittman said. “The chain that I worked for had 12,000 salons, so I went into that network every week for 15 years training hair dressers.”
Pittman decided to take the plunge, leaving a secure career to start over as an entrepreneur.
“Most of us get to a point where we are not being challenged in work, or life becomes routine and redundant,” she said. “I like to be challenged and that’s what I needed.”
After traveling for 15 years, Pittman said the time came for her to come home and start her next chapter, opening Corps d’Elite.
She started out with a partner, but business dealings took a turn for the worse, leaving Pittman holding the bag.
“Initially having a partner and then having to go at it alone, it was crushing,” she said. “When she left two months after opening, I had a decision to leave or stay knowing I didn’t have the money to go forward.”
Pittman said that it’s been the community that kept her doors open.
“No matter what we see on television and in the news there are way more good people than there are bad,” Pittman said. “Most of the people that have rallied for me are people that I didn’t even know two years ago, people who willingly wrote me a check for $5,000 or $10,000 to help pay rent or electricity.
“Two years later, I’ve survived with only six clients, no staff, and 50 percent of my working capital out the door,” she said.
Pittman, also a survivor of domestic violence, dreamed that Corps d’Elite would be a place of refuge, a safe haven that makes people feel good.
“My granddaddy would always say, ‘Shun never met a stranger,’ and this is correct,” she said. “I have a love for humankind, and I’m able to do that through validating people.”
Pittman’s newest venture, a nighttime Beauty Bar on Friday and Saturday nights, allows her to offer customers a fun beauty experience where they can get a blowout and makeup application with her very own line, Corps d’Elite Beauty.
“I have this incredible makeup line,” she explained. “I started working on my makeup line 10 years ago. I created the line just so clients can touch up in between their hair services not knowing they would want to buy it. But I didn’t have money for inventory, so I created the Beauty Bar.
“D.C.’s first nighttime Beauty Bar is the ultimate pregame spot for men and women who love makeup, they can come get their face made up, get a blowout and a quick style,” she said. “It’s a place they can come before networking, a gala, hot date or girls night out, we have a guest DJ and we serve cocktails.”
In a neighborhood that’s turning whiter every day, Pittman wants customers to know that all races, hair types and textures are welcome.
“The thing that I found super surprising to me is that salons in D.C. are still segregated,” she said. “Unfortunately white people go to white salons and black people go to black salons if there is a such thing. I’ve worked with all hair types and textures — it’s not about race.”
Black hair salons in the past several years have faced new challenges with black women turning away from relaxers and no longer dependent on hair stylists to maintain their hair.
With the advent of YouTube, protective styling and extensions, some believe black hair salons have lost their cultural relevancy.
“I love Youtube and I love the YouTubers it supports what this industry was founded on, skill, but those YouTubers don’t know the science of it,” Pittman said. “There’s a science to cutting hair. It’s the texture, hair type and skeletal structure. Cutting hair is about distributing weight. You’re not going to get that on YouTube.
“Our demographic is an image conscious consumer,” she said. “These are people who understand the importance of that polished image in the workplace. So no, we will never not be relevant.”
While Pittman has been able to keep the doors of her establishment open through sheer tenacity, she insists she still needs stylists with clientele who are willing to learn and support from the community.
“I still need funding. I’m just making overhead, so I’m still not paying myself,” she said. “I feel like in time we’ll be exactly where we need to be. It’s been two years and people are still discovering us. I need the community to tell everyone they know about us.”