Cinderella story behind luxury beauty empire
Each spacious floor of the building is dedicated to beauty and luxury, from the swanky wedding boutique, the hair, make-up and nail salons, the private spa to the lounge, all are filled with sleek custom-made furniture by Korean-American interior architect Gene Park. The top floor, which connects a library, atrium and a rooftop garden, is also home to the headquarters of Juno Hair ― an empire of 40 salons that employs 1,300 people. Comprising about 3,000 square meters (3,950 square yards) in total, the Avenue Juno is said to be the largest beauty center in the world.
The woman behind this large-scale luxury is Kang Yun-seon, an affable woman with a pair of dark, intense eyes, who says her success in the Korean beauty business owes to her positive outlook in life. “When I meet people, I shower them with compliments,” she says loudly with both arms swinging through the air. “I’m always all ears. I listen to everyone, everything all the time. I had to ―because I started with nothing.”
Born in 1960 in northern Seoul, Ms. Kang’s family was very poor. Her parents, who sold rice and coal briquettes, could barely support their family, and right out of elementary school, the youngest of three children earned money running errands. But it wasn’t poverty that drove the young Ms. Kang into severe depression and an attempt at suicide at age 14. She was tired of hearing people tsk upon seeing her ― horrified at vivid scar tissue that covered the side of her face and much of her body.
At only two years old, Ms Kang said, she had stumbled into a firepit and was not rescued for four hours. Her tearful mother rushed the badly-burned toddler to the nearby Red Cross Hospital, only to be rejected by doctors who didn’t want to treat the dying child of a poor parent. They then went to Severance Hospital, where they were initially turned away once more. In a turn of luck, however, the pair were noticed by an American plastic surgeon who had arrived at the hospital just that day.
That good samaritan, whose name and whereabouts Ms. Kang has tried to discover for years, performed multiple operations on the child over two years, at no charge. The entire skin of her abdomen was grafted to the worst-burnt areas, which left her body with extensive scarring, requiring more operations in the years to come. In fact, it was only in the past five years, concerned that her children’s friends would react badly to the sight of her, that she underwent multiple surgical procedures to replace and lengthen areas of skin fused in the fire, both lessening the scarring and allowing her an improved range of motion.
For years, she says, when asked about her scars, she answered with a faint smile or silence. She was hurt deeply, however, when her first boyfriend, whom she thought she was going to marry, rejected her because of the scars.
“Women suing and complaining about sexual harassment? I wished I had that problem! That never happened to someone as grotesque-looking as me,” she says. “Because of the scar, I was rejected, so I thought I would never marry.”
Her interest in the beauty industry began when she noticed that, even when the economy was bad, the beauty salon business didn’t die, simply because human hair continues to grow and needs cutting or styling on a regular basis. While attending a vocational high school, she attended Mugunghwa Beauty School, the only academy available then.
She was fascinated by how hair styles complete a woman’s wardrobe, so upon graduating from the academy, she wasted no time contacting the best hairdressers in Seoul to learn the most important technique of that time ― to sculpt hair using heated tongs. She received a monthly salary of 30,000 won at a time when office workers in Korea averaged 200,000 won.
“The reason I couldn’t run away like pretty girls my age, was that no one would hire someone so ugly. Who would want an ugly girl to pour drinks? And my parents were so poor that they would never come and get me anyway,” she says. “So working was my way of getting closer to life.”
To open a small salon, which she named “Kkochujamjari” (dragonfly), in the poor neighborhood of Yeonsinnae, northwest of Seoul, she went to a moneylender. “I looked up, not my parents, but one ajumma I knew who had the most money. She lent me 2 million won, with no questions asked.”
The shop was a hit. “My salon was packed with customers every day,” she recalls. She says her most important skill was to do things in proportion. “I would never do or suggest a drastic transformation on my customers but always offer changes, and they would come back to me. I would communicate for months to get to a dramatic cut eventually.”
Five years later, in 1983, she moved to the more commercial Donam-dong and opened her first Juno Hair, with 17 employees. There was a tall and handsome male musician-turned-hair designer at Juno Hair, who to this day has never asked about her scar. The two married in 1984.
With her husband overlooking the business finances, Juno Hair was also a success. At the peak of her popularity, Ms. Kang had 60 regular customers. For her to expand structurally, though, she says, she decided to become a business operator. She could no longer rely on one-on-one apprenticeships but instead devised an intensive training course of 30 months, instead of a five-year apprenticeship. Soon, the Donam-dong area alone had five Juno Hair branches employing 250 staff members, who received incentives. To further instill inspiration and vision for the future, Ms. Kang offered senior designers the June Partnership program. While her senior designers won hair shows in Korea and abroad, Ms. Kang remained backstage supporting them.
“One of the hardest things for me was to address my young staff as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ at daily meetings. Having had no formal education, I had to learn how to speak formal Korean and practice for weeks,” Ms. Kang recalls. “In Korean beauty salons, everyone works and treats each other like ‘sisters,’ so my staff at first laughed at my nerve-wracked speeches. But, as we moved on, they appreciated such formality and respect from the owner.”
With the opening of Avenue Juno in March and the prospect of adding 10 more Juno Hair salons this year, Ms. Kang, 46, says she’s ready and charged for another challenge in the beauty industry ― to pioneer a luxury beauty market in Korea. To prepare the project, Kang has teamed up with Hwang Suk-ki, formerly the executive manager at CJ Group and credited with the opening of Namsan’s N-Tower. Its beauty experts include Park Jin-hyeon, who performed in London’s prestigious Alternative Hair Show in 2005, and Jun Hyeok, the Vidal Sassoon instructor who covers the Asia-Pacific region.
Ms. Kang believes Korean consumers are ready to understand value for money in luxury beauty services. Decades ago, she saw a neighborhood beauty parlor owner in Korea refuse to hold a customer’s shopping bag and determined to give better service. At that time, many Korean hairdressers got rich very quickly and opened fancy salons. The price for beauty services skyrocketed while the level of service remained unchanged, and many trendy salons shut one after another.
So is Avenue Juno exorbitantly expensive? A haircut costs from 35,000 won to 50,000 won, which includes washing with Aveda products and a 20-minute head and shoulders massage in a private washroom.
For Ms. Kang, the opening of the Avenue Juno further upgrades the value of the Juno Hair brand name by introducing a new concept to the highly saturated local market. To better understand luxurious beauty services, she and her team have visited upscale salons in New York and Paris. Next week, Ms. Kang is going to Dubai to observe the luxury beauty culture there and to better understand how her VIP clientele’s five senses can be satisfied at the Avenue Juno.
The outspoken president combines luxury and humility in herself. “I don’t come from a privileged background, so I don’t know much about the luxurious lifestyles of the high class. That’s a challenge for me, but I believe my dedication and research around the world will definitely make my plan come true.”
by Ines Cho