Business Profile: Tran Wills & Base Coat

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Base Coat’s front desk and pedicure space

by Julia Cardi

This profile has us talking with Tran Wills, founder of the super-hip new all-natural nail-salon-slash-gallery Base Coat, on Tennyson. The ultra-modern space, all clean lines and avant-garde art pieces, makes it clear why Base Coat is the hottest new nail salon in town.

Tran has had collaborators in the many businesses she’s owned, but she is a one-woman powerhouse in her own right. Her conviction and clarity in her own sense of self make you realize you are undeniably in the presence of someone great, whose perfectly quotable musings on her rich life experiences are well worth setting store by. Read on for Tran’s thoughts on the merits of collaboration between female artists, falling on your face, and turning Base Coat into a fashion hotspot.

Talk a little bit about how your career background and how you came to want to open your own salon.
Well, I owned Fabric Lab for seven years. That started because I didn’t feel like there was much of a market for local fashion [in Denver]. I think Fabric Lab was successful for those seven years because we filled that niche and carried only local designers.

But then after I had my fourth child, I decided to see how I did not owning any businesses for a while. EBags actually started courting me during this period – I was initially recruited for their sister site,, which was more of a fashion brand than eBags. They wanted someone with a fashion background. I had also really embraced social media for my other businesses when it exploded as a marketing platform, so they also hired me for my social media experience.

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Waiting area

Base Coat came along because of my mom. She’s done nails for a long time, and recently she had the money to open a salon and decided to go for it. So Base Coat is our project. The salon’s niche is being fashion-focused and all-natural. I don’t think there’s another salon in Colorado that is truly all-natural. I did a lot of research; the products we use are really important to me. To tie the salon to fashion, the collection of products is curated, right down to each shade of nail polish and the removers. I buy different colors every time to keep customers from falling into a rut and always choosing, say, the same shade of red. I mean, even I get stuck in a rut – I wear black nail polish all the time. Our customers really like that I get them to try new things.

What got you onto the natural and organic kick?
I think having kids. Of course Colorado is very much into natural and organic foods, and it’s mostly that as a mom I’m concerned for my family’s health and what goes into their bodies.

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Nail polish selection & wall art

It’s very important to me in the products we carry at Base Coat as well. People tend to think that the all-natural trend is for hippies, but the products we have don’t sacrifice their long-wearing qualities or anything for naturalness. RGB and NCLA, two of the nail polish lines we use, pull out five of the most dangerous chemicals usually in polish, and they last longer than any other polish I’ve ever seen. People think a lot about what goes in their bodies, but not really about what goes on their bodies. I mean, do most people know there are two kinds of formaldehyde in most removers? Probably not.

Base Coat seems to be a little bit of a gallery as well.
I look for only female artists, because I really want to support this whole community of us. I source the art through friends of friends and on the Internet. I do a lot of research. I found [nail polish brand] RGB on Instagram – RGB and NCLA are actually both women-owned as well. I want to help spread awareness that these amazing artists are all out there, whether they’re painters, photographers, whatever.

Close-up of wall art

Close-up of wall art

What made fashion important to you?
I think I picked up my first Vogue when I was about five, and just loved it since then. I’m the oldest of seven kids, and my mom made a lot of our clothes, so we had a hand in what we wore – choosing the fabrics and styles. My mom had a big role. Obviously, she was the one buying Vogue, and taking us to thrift stores. Going to thrift stores really helped me form my own sense of style because I could see all the styles and decades of clothing in one place. I’ve also never really cared what other people think of how I dress.

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Part of Base Coat’s retail space

I started making my own clothes in high school. I had a baby pretty early on, so I started selling clothes I made to Buffalo Exchange. The people there told me I should be in fashion for a living. I took fashion classes all through high school; I think it’s a shame more schools don’t offer that kind of thing.

Talk a little bit about your other current business, Super Ordinary.
I have four partners for that. It’s in this place called The Source, at 33rd & Market. It’s a European-style marketplace, with a coffee shop, restaurants, and little independent retail spaces. The space owner originally asked my husband and me to move in about eight months ago. We initially declined because we felt we were way too busy. But my husband’s and my initial vision for Super Ordinary was for it to combine a gallery and retail space. The owner asked us to move in again, and the new space in The Source has helped us expand the gallery and make our vision come true. We carry a lot of art books, design, jewelry – that sort of thing. It’s been going for about two weeks.

And Tran’s thoughts on owning a business and taking failure in stride…
People have this misconception that owning a business means you get to set your own hours and do whatever you want. But that’s not how it is. You’re the janitor, the accountant, the marketing manager. (Laughs) Your hours are 24/7 and you don’t necessarily get a paycheck. I don’t remember the last time I got a full eight hours of sleep. I just now interviewed a bookkeeper after 2 months because I just didn’t get around to it before. People think that when you start hiring, that means you’ve made it. But it brings a whole other level of stress – you now have to manage the people you hire. And pay them.

I think the biggest thing I’ve taken from all the businesses I’ve owned is the experiences with the amazing people I met who have helped me and I’ve learned from. And I’m OK with failing. I think everyone should fall on their face, because you learn so much from it. Even if I’m not making any money, at the end of the day, I’m doing what I always said I was going to. I hope people read my story and keep pursuing what they want.

–ALL PHOTOS: Kelsey Bigelow Photography–

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