Like most of us, Nirvana Pakravan never really gave wigs a moment's thought. Because wigs are, well, wigs. A product of limited usefulness, a diversion on holidays. A way to show support for the home team. The perfect topper for a Nehru jacket and filthy Levi's.
But that was before she got married, before she moved to America, before she ever set foot in her first wig store. Long before she found herself willingly, but unexpectedly, selling hairpieces to chemo patients in the Skyline Center strip mall on South Colorado Boulevard. Before she ever tried styling unruly, synthetic strands into a 'do grand enough for the flounciest drag queen. And certainly before she found herself locked in a bitter price war with her ex-employer.
Sandwiched between a Bally Total Fitness center, a Chili's and an Office Depot, Nirvana's Wigs is a surprisingly bright, appealing space stuck in a foam-molded environment. The large sign out front, in a conscious spasm of wig positivity, spells out each letter of "Nirvana's" in a different primary color. Inside, Pakravan has couches for tired customers ("A lot of people who are sick want to lay down, and we always try to offer some food and drink"), islands in a sea of realistic and extravagant wigs. She acts as friend and confidante to anyone who walks through, whether they're seeking glamour or anonymity. She also offers a generous serving of hope.
"You need to be sensitive," Pakravan says. "I always tell them when they leave, 'I hope this is the last wig you have to get.' I always use positive talk, because that's the last thing they need, is someone to be negative."
Nirvana's markets heavily in the gay community, offering complimentary makeup recommendations for would-be drag divas. "I try to make them comfortable. I'll recommend a nice lipstick, invite them to parties," says Pakravan, who believes gays are underserved by the average wig merchant.
And by that, this thick-maned Persian-Malaysian woman means her upstairs neighbor, Kim's Wig Botik, the largest wig retailer in the area -- and her former employer.
There isn't much to suggest sensitivity at Kim's, a tiny, funereal block of a store lit by enervating fluorescence. An aura of inevitability pervades, compounded by a distinct lack of merchandise. And what is there leans to the conservative side of hairpiece design. Whereas Nirvana's feels more like a beauty salon for the disenfranchised, Kim's resembles the opening scenes of Joe Versus the Volcano. The only thing missing is the Hawaiian lamp.
It's exactly the type of place that Pakravan, an urbane, educated woman who's lived on four continents, would never have imagined herself in. But, as she says, "Destiny brought me to America" -- which also meant the wide world of wigs.
It started with Sunee's Wig Botik (a member of the Kim's Wig Botik family) in Castle Rock, when Pakravan stumbled upon the store during its grand opening. She was curious enough about the idea of fake hair to walk inside, and a friendly employee soon had her in various hairpieces, then filling out an application. Before she knew it, Pakravan was a wig saleswoman of the first degree, transferring to Denver to run the Colorado Boulevard store that her shop now sits directly below.
She liked that she could brighten a "mostly sad business" by bringing her belief in karma and relentless positivity to wig buyers, especially chemotherapy patients who battle stares and whispers in addition to their disease. She liked that wigs are both a way to shout and a way to hide. And she appreciated the seeming irony inherent in such a business, at once a playful celebration and a solemn ceremony. But she and Kim's general manager, Alex Bae, had a difference of opinion on the philosophical nature of wigdom. Names were called, accusations of mismanagement made, he fired her, she quit, and Pakravan found herself seeking wiggier pastures, a place where she could provide the human warmth she felt was lacking at Kim's.
A few months of looking turned up nothing except for the space below Kim's Wig Botik. Pakravan had no intention of starting anew beneath the site of her wig education, but when Kim's lease had been written nearly four years before, no one had bothered to insert a no-compete clause. (Who would open two wig shops in the same strip mall?)
"I didn't want to be here," Pakravan says. "I wanted to be able to do hair and makeup" -- something she can't do because of a no-compete clause with Paparazzi, the salon upstairs.
"Our ex-employee in the same building, that's not really good," Bae says. "It's okay; everything is for a living. But it's not comfortable."
But real estate is real estate, and last year patrons noticed the previously stable cost of false hair dropping precipitously on the 700 block of South Colorado Boulevard, signaling the start of a price war that would make Dealin' Doug soil himself.
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Thirty percent off, one store's greasepainted window would offer. The other would go to forty. Fifty. With five Kim's and Sunee's in the Denver metro area and Castle Rock, it would seem that the larger company would have had the obvious advantage. Nirvana's, though, had the strength of conviction. That, bolstered by Pakravan's less-than-joyful opinions of her rival, kept her lowering bloodlessly. "When I worked [at Kim's], they never had any sales. They wanted to get every penny," she says. "As soon as I moved here, they started."
Fifty percent off at Kim's. Fifty-five percent off at Nirvana's. Sixty off at Kim's. Unafraid of wrecking her profit margin, Nirvana's went to 65 percent. Her most expensive wig, normally $225, sold for $78.75. That was the bathtub through the floor. "After that, they just gave up," she says.
Bae claims no hard feelings between the two stores or with Nirvana's personally, but he talks about the toll the relentless price reductions took on his business with the quiet realization of a man awaiting the executioner. "Both of us are going to be gone pretty soon," he says. "Both of us are losing money. They're losing theirs, and we're losing ours."
Speculation swirls around the future of Denver's center of wigginess. Some in the strip mall say the two-foot platinum beehive is killing the Republican upsweep. Others think the B-52s are getting schooled by Don Ho. Either way, Colorado's very own bona fide wig war is over. Both sides are at a draw, their windows blank, waiting for the other to blink. Because in this business, tragedy and comedy share the same address.