From Russia With Dreams

Marina Levin, Lana Stanislavsky and Elena Kuuri came to the U.S. from Russia in hopes of making a better life for themselves. Today, the three women own a lavish salon and day spa and are making life better for many people in the Chicago area.

Clients who favor a no frills, in-and-out salon need not set foot into Natalie Alexander Full Service Salon and Day Spa in Bannockburn, Ill.. Tile floors, water fountains, crystal chandeliers, and a glass-walled foyer are just a few of the design elements that set Natalie Alexander apart from other salons in Chicago’s North Shore, a group of upper-middle-class suburbs. Adding to the grandeur are an ivory grand piano and a cafe where clients can sip a glass of wine and dine on healthy cuisine prepared by an in-house chef. During the summer months, clients dine at outdoor tables in front of the salon.

The environment at Natalie Alexander was designed to be as soothing as its services. Soft music, lavender-scented air, and heat lamps help to complete the total spa experience. At the body care center, clients can indulge in a relaxing spa manicure and pedicure, a therapeutic massage, or a refreshing body wrap. In addition to the spa, there is a full-service salon, nail clinic, barbershop, hair replacement center, and a jewelry counter.

A Collaborative Effort

The beauty and brains behind this grand operation is the team of Marina Levin (hair colorist), Lana Stanislavsky (hairstylist), and Elena Kuuri (skin care specialist), who have pooled their talents to make Natalie Alexander a veritable sanctuary.

“It’s never been my goal to run a factory, cranking out clients like an assembly line would parts,” says Levin. “At Natalie Alexander, we build relationships with our clients and I feel like I have grown up with them.

“Failure is not acceptable,” she continues. “If one approach doesn’t work, I don’t rest until I find one that does.” This simple yet effective philosophy helped Levin evolve from a Russian immigrant who spoke not a word of English to co- owner of one of the largest day spas in the area. A self-described “artsy sort,” Levin has always enjoyed creative things. She attended beauty school in Russia before moving to the U.S. with her family in 1979 to pursue a better life. “I graduated with an understanding of the basics and little more. Beauty school marked the beginning of my training,” she says.

After passing the state board exam in 1982, Levin started working as a colorist for a prestigious Chicago salon. Shortly after, she met Stanislavsky at a party given by a mutual friend. A year later, Stanislavsky joined Levin at the salon where she was working, where they remained until 1989.

“I didn’t feel that I was progressing enough,” says Levin. “As a colorist, I had reached the top. I was only 27, making lots of money, but felt that I needed to do more with my life.”

While working together, Levin and Stanislavsky had their own ideas of how they wanted to serve salon patrons and the type of personal attention to give them. So the Russian émigrés combined their resources to open Natalie Alexander Salon (named for Stanislavsky’s daughter Natalie and Levin’s son Alexander).

“Communication is vital to success in this business. It builds trust, and trust builds long-standing client relationships,” says Stanislavsky, who also came to the U.S. in 1979 with her family after leaving the Ukraine. Stanislavsky learned this important philosophy from her parents — her mother worked as a hairstylist and her father was a barber in Kiev. Her parents moved to the U.S. in hopes that their children would realize their goals and ambitions and find rewarding and successful careers.

“I used to visit my mother at work after school and sit and watch her make people happy,” remembers Stanislavsky. “Everyone was so appreciative of her. I said to myself, ‘I would like to make people happy, too. I want to make people feel better about themselves and I want to look forward to going to work every day?”

That passion stayed with Stanislavsky. “When I see people leaving Natalie Alexander with a smile on their face — looking at me the way my mother’s clients looked at her—it’s the best feeling,” she says. Ironically, her parents wanted her to become a computer programmer when they came to the U.S., so Stanislavsky took computer science courses in college but eventually dropped out. She immediately enrolled in beauty school and began pursuing the career her parents had left behind in Russia. Their licenses didn’t transfer to the U.S. and knowing not a word of English, they couldn’t pass the state board exam nor could they afford to go back to school.

It was a different story, though, for remaining partner Elena Kuuri, who left Moscow in 1988. Unlike Levin and Stanislavsky, by the time Kuuri came to the U.S., she had extensive knowledge in her field of study. She became a registered nurse and worked in plastic surgery at the Institute of Beauty in Moscow.

“In Russia, anyone working in skin care must be a registered nurse. The process is much more medical than it is in the U.S.,” says Kuuri, who enjoyed helping patients recovering from postsurgical skin rehabilitation feel better about themselves both physically and mentally. At age 25, Kuuri moved from Detroit to Chicago and took her skin care expertise to the same salon where Levin and Stanislavsky worked. When they opened up their own salon, Kuuri followed. In January 1997, when Natalie Alexander relocated and added a day spa, Kuuri became a partner in the spa, overseeing the body care center. “The spa services are about health maintenance as much as pampering,” says Kuuri.

The Nail Clinic

At Natalie Alexander, six nail technicians are on hand to tend to a client’s every need. Nail services range from the most basic — a $ 16 manicure — to the most luxurious — a $68 spa manicure and pedicure with a paraffin hydrating hand treatment.

Nail services play an important role at Natalie Alexander, says Stanislavsky, because proper hand and foot care are very important to many of their clients. You want your hands to look nice because everyone sees them and you’re on your feet all day long so you need to take care of them, she says. “It’s a matter of educating the customer,” she adds.

Levin and Stanislavsky both oversee the nail clinic, which includes making the schedule and informing the staff of continuing education classes or new products. They also meet with the nail technicians every two months to discuss how they can improve the services, what classes they should attend, and what they would like to learn.

Of the nail stations in the salon, three are individual nail stations in front of the salon, which are situated next to floor-length glass windows for a panoramic view of the outside. In the interior of the salon near the spa, are one individual nail station and two double nail stations. There are two pedicure rooms: One room has four whirlpool pedicure stations with throne chairs and built-in back massage, and the other is a private spa/pedicure room, which has one pedicure throne with a special attachment for the client to place her hands on so she can receive pampering from two technicians at the same time. For male and female clients who want to have their nails done while getting their hair cut, the nail technician is at their side with a portable nail table.

Secrets of Success

Years of building client relationships and knowing how to ask about client needs played a key role in deciding to relocate Natalie Alexander and add a spa. The partners chose to stay in the same outdoor shopping complex, and relocated from a 3,200-square-foot salon to a 6,000-square-foot salon and day spa. They wanted to remain in the same area because of the close proximity to their client base. “The complex is located in a wooded area, and its European country-style exterior reflects the salon,” says Stanislavsky, who describes the salon decor as a combination of antique, traditional, and European. “Many of our clients describe the salon atmosphere as romantic,” she says.

One of Levin’s reasons to open the spa was because she saw that both men and women are far too busy to go from place to place for pampering, or out of town to a resort spa. So she thought why not offer everything they want under one roof?

Stanislavsky says that her top priority for the past 15 years in the beauty business has always been to make people happy. “I love this industry so much because it’s really about making people feel good about themselves,” she says.

“With the new spa we’re able to make them feel even better. What could be more rewarding than that?”

“My career philosophy is similar to buying a home,” Levin says. “First you rent an apartment. Then, in a few years, you buy a townhouse. Later, after lots of hard work, you buy a home. And then, with still more work and a lot of luck, you buy your dream house. Natalie Alexander Full Service Salon and Day Spa is my dream house.”

At Natalie Alexander Full Service Salon and Day Spa, the hard work, dedication, and talent of three Russian émigrés, who came to the U.S. to pursue a better life, has culminated in each one achieving her own American Dream.

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