How much training do I need to be a top hairstylist?
Hair Philosophy is one of our favourite salons, not just for the comfortable, loft-like atmosphere in a shophouse in Tyrwhitt Road, but because of the impeccable service and high standards of its co-owners, creative director Chester Wong and salon director Leo Teo. For this duo, staying on the cutting edge, means keeping abreast of trends while always having their clients' best interests at heart.
The salon also houses a small artisan florist called Whim and Prayer, where flowers can be ordered online and collected in-store, and customers can consult with the florist. Beyond offering the client a unique experience, find out what it takes to be a good hairstylist in Singapore and why you need to be updated on trends and have a keen interest in fashion, art or design if you are thinking of taking this up as a career option.
AUDIO EXCLUSIVE: Listen to our full conversation with creative director Chester Wong and salon director Leo Teo, co-owners of Hair Philosophy.
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What kind of training do you need to be a good hairstylist?
Chester Wong (CW): Personally, I feel that one needs to acquire both knowledge and experience. That comes in a lot of different ways — you can go to school; you can undergo an apprenticeship of sorts, but you need to gain both scientific knowledge of products and also technical, hands-on skills. That is very important training for any hairdressing.
Leo Teo (LT): Of course the basics are very important so we can learn that from school, but social media right now is very common, so we can actually learn a lot online from Pinterest, Instagram or YouTube.
CW: Those are very good platforms for us to get some insights, but for educational purposes, there are so many tutorials nowadays, and there are so many businesses that have started to go digital. Even top-tier academies like Sassoon Academy have gone digital — so content becomes quite readily available for anybody who would like to turn them on.
Even as a Redken Artist like yourself Chester, how important is it to upgrade your skills?
CW: Upgrading of skills is very important, even for the trainer (myself), otherwise I'll have nothing to share. I believe the moment you stop progressing is the time you start to regress. You cannot stop going forward. Although everybody thinks that many trends are just a manipulation of the basics, it's the same thing in fashion, we're always like "Oh, this year is the '70s, this year is the '80s"... but it's a cycle and all about how we make it new and modern again.
Everybody should invest a certain amount of their income and their time to upgrade themselves. Whether or not it's technical skills or just even looking at trend reports, that's very important for a hairdresser. As much as we would like to attend a lot of trainings locally, there are not a lot of places or institutions we can go to. Although there are a lot of academies in Singapore, I think what can be done for the local community and industry is to organise more of it and bring in more international colourists. If there is more organisation of such trainings, it will make it very affordable for the younger hairdressers here rather than them having to travel overseas. Once you decide to go overseas, courses are more readily available, but you really need a lot of resources to cover your accommodation, tuition fees and expenses.
In this competitive world, must you differentiate your hair salon? How do you make your business run successfully?
CW: For the flower business within our salon, it just happened. It wasn't planned for. Nowadays, it is difficult to create points of differentiation in the industry. As a consumer, you would've experienced a lot of different salons. so I think what would draw you to a new salon is most probably a certain expectation or understanding of the skill set of the hairdresser.
Secondly, you will also want to know that the hairdresser is updated on trends, and you go there because you want to try a certain trend. I think that's what makes a hair salon successful. It all goes back to the training, good grounding, good foundation in your skills, as well as your progression in trend updates and how you're able to replicate and follow them. I think being avant-garde is good but you need to be on trend as well. If you can't ride the colour trend and you are too far ahead of the curve, then people won't understand what you're doing.
What is your duty as a stylist when it comes to creating trends on clients?
CW: Of course, we have to advise our clients accordingly. So, we consult and if we really think that it won't suit someone, as a hairstylist with professional ethics, we have to be honest. People come to you for your professionalism as well. So, I think it is our duty and responsibility to give them a warning if something doesn't work for someone.
Do you think promotions and offers in the salon work?
LT: Yes. But I think that servicing the client is very important, as well as the after-service you provide. Sometimes you have to let the consumer know how long it will be before they need a touch-up so that they are informed and can come down more regularly.
CW: I do agree that the promos will help in some way, especially when you want to bring in a new crowd to let them try out your services and if they do like everything — down to the skill sets, the ambience, and the service, they'll feel that they want to return again. I think everybody will be a bit apprehensive when they go to a new hairdresser, so it's a good way to draw in a new, fresh crowd.
For a small hair salon that's just starting out, is there a lot of monetary investment that goes into it in terms of equipment and other costs?
CW: We started off very small. Actually we're still very small now — we're not like a big chain. We started with a six-seater space. We were just planning for a space where friends can just come and do their hair. It wasn't planned out to be a 'business-business'. Over the years, some things happened along the way and we thought that it had to become an actual business.
To start up a comfortable space and for it to make monetary sense you need to be a six or seven-seater salon. If you have stylists who are already very experienced and who have their own following, I'd say you need maybe about two to three stylists. I don't think such a small salon can accommodate more than three stylists as well. Based on the space you require to make a client comfortable, the floor area, you most probably need at least an 800 square feet place.
We started up as a small salon (because we're a boutique salon), but we wanted to differentiate ourselves a bit so we needed a bit more space to do some conceptual stuff. We started off nine years ago with $60,000. I think now, we can't do that anymore [laughs]. It was quite rough then and we were confident because we had our own clientele. We cut back on the décor. At the same time, you have to do a very basic calculation and find out if you're able to stay afloat. Otherwise, you'll be better off working and serving a little bit more time in someone else's salon.
What practical advice would you give people who want to go into this career of hairstyling?
CW: My advice is this: First, you need to like the industry and you need to like to do hair. I think with any other craft or trade, you need have a passion for it — that would be your very primary motivation. Secondly, you need to also like fashion, or the arts, or design because it will all be related to your work. Once you're not interested, you won't be bothered to go and find out what's happening and what's going to happen next. You won't even care for the principles of design, which is something fundamental.
If you do not have that, you would not care for the fundamentals and think that everything is purely 'magic'. As much as the hairstylist needs to let the client feel like there's magic going on, the hairdresser needs to be scientifically sound because there's no magic potion, you know, it's al ingredients put together. It's chemistry.
You must also want to earn money. If you do not want to make money, you will not be sustainable. Otherwise, you cannot go for your courses. As much as you can pick up a lot from the Internet, it's very different when you're doing things hands-on and you're there to experience it. All of it will come together.