From Hair to There, a Cut Above

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From Hair to There, a Cut Above

When Kim Hyun-tae graduated from high school in 1989, he got a job sweeping out a little hair salon in Inchon. Small in size and not much of a student, he lacked self-confidence and didn't even consider college.

All in all it was an inauspicious beginning for a man who would go on to become one of Korea's most highly praised hair stylists.

Mr. Kim swept that salon every day for a year for a monthly salary of 90,000 won (about $75). The money and the uninspiring duties didn't matter. Each night, instead of going home, he would stay late and practice washing the hair of other workers in the salon. Some nights he would try cutting their hair as well. In time, he found he really liked the work.

One day, the manager of the salon conducted a small contest among employees, and Mr. Kim volunteered to take part. To most people's surprise, he came in first, and the impressed manager finally allowed him to give perms to clients.

Filled with a new confidence, Mr. Kim decided to attend a local beauty school. In 1991, he moved to Seoul, but had trouble finding work because managers worried that his slight stature (162 centimeters tall) might somehow turn away customers.

He didn't stop looking for a job, and eventually he found a shampooing position at Hair News, an upscale salon in the central part of Seoul. The job was far down the ladder, but Mr. Kim put his all into it. One day, the owner of the Hair News chain noticed Mr. Kim's positive attitude and gave him a shot as a hair designer.

It took him four full years to become a certified "designer," about twice as long as most people.

Ambitious, he quit Hair News and left for Osaka, Japan, to study more, taking private lessons from anyone he could. When he returned after six months, Mr. Kim immediately went to work with Lee Kyung-min, a celebrity make-up artist in Korea. Mr. Kim's innovative hair styling for the actress Koh So-young gained him attention in 1994 and 1995. During those years, the actress's hair was one of the most talked-about styles; casual yet glamorous, simple yet sexy, the look created a huge following among young Korean women in the mid-'90s. Major fashion magazines beat a path to do interviews with the man who came up with the ideas.

Mr. Kim's life should have been golden, but suddenly he turned greedy: He signed on to work with another beauty salon, Cloe, in Gangnam, and at the same time arrogantly shunned the media and artistic projects for two years. He thought he was going to make a lot of money, and it did not happen. Then he fell into a slump.

In 1998, a top make-up artist, Cho Sung-ah, who owns Cho Sung Ah Beauty Form, was looking for a partner to run her upscale beauty salon in the posh district of Apgujeong-dong. She asked Mr. Kim to join the company. There, his talent came back. He made Korea's most familiar faces more glamorous than ever, and the salon was soon crowded with clients who wanted the creative touch of Hyuntae (who now used only his first name.)

When L'Oreal Korea was preparing to select Korean designers for the Professional Paris Portfolio Group, Hyuntae sat at the top of their list. L'Oreal Professional Paris Portfolio Group's international 2001 fall/winter trend is a forum for presenting hairstyling techniques from major trendsetting countries around the world.

Since 1945, organizers of the biannual international event have invited top hair designers from the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Italy and Japan; this year, Korean hair designers were added to the world's top designers' list for the first time.

In addition to Kim Hyun-tae, L'Oreal chose Park Sea-nae from Juno Hair, Oh Min from Hair Amigo, Lee So-young from Lee Ka Ja Hair Salon and Jean-Pierre from Jean-Pierre Hair Community.

Last spring, the hair products company invited the five Korean designers to the firm's Paris headquarters to demonstrate their work and to sit for interviews with the European press.

It was the first time Korean hair designers demonstrated their techniques on an international stage. Their hair designs are to be published in Estetica and Coiffure de Paris, in a special edition that will introduce the Korean beauty industry and designers.

In addition, Dong-ah TV, a Korean fashion cable channel, televised the program earlier this month.

On a recent Friday evening, the portfolios that the five designers created in Paris were presented to the Korean press and fashion and beauty professionals.

Hyuntae believes in naturalism, in going strong against cold, artificial looks. He chose to present an Asian look that he says is "wild and natural." The idea behind his design was "A Daughter of the Khan." To create it, he combined bleached-white strands of hair with dominant browns to make a natural warmth.

In France, Hyuntae understood why Paris had become the world's center of fashion and art. He told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "Architecture, painting, performance - all forms of art seemed to have a sense of unified culture. I envied that kind of support, coming from the environmental and national level."

Hyuntae was also deeply inspired by many places and people, those connected with famous beauty salons in Paris. While observing Parisian designers working, he often thought, "I can do better than that!"

Pierre-Yves Arzel, the president of L'Oreal Korea Ltd., said, "Korean stylists are by far more talented in terms of individual technique and creativity. I was particularly impressed with Korean designers' coloring technique and ability to work with speed under pressure." He also emphasized the importance for talented Korean stylists such as Hyuntae and others to feel inspiration from European culture and trends.

It's a long way from sweeping the linoleum floors at a beauty parlor in Inchon to designing hair for the actress Song Hye-gyo or the supermodel Lee So-ra, which Mr. Kim does regularly. First of all, the floors at the Cho Sung Ah Beauty Form are marble. And then, of course, someone else there does the sweeping.

by In? Cho

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