LIFE

AN ORDINARY DAY Lee Chun-suk’s Deft and Joyful Scissor Work

Anyone who is friends with their hairdresser is bound to be happy. There’s nothing more fortunate than having a lasting relationship with a good hairdresser. Lee Chun-suk is a hairdresser with a particular talent for turning customers into old friends. The way she does it is simple and ordinary.

Lee Chun-suk gets to her workplace in Imundong, eastern Seoul, at 10 o’clock in the morning. The sign out front reads “Lee Jeeun Salon.” The name is the one she chose for herself, not her given name. In the center of the 100-square-meter space is a mirrored wall with four chairs facing it on either side. The time it takes for all eight chairs to be filled with customers is different each day. Yesterday, there was a constant stream of customers from the time the doors opened and lunch had to be delayed. But today, the customers all came flooding in at around the same time in the afternoon.

Regulars Catch Up and Unwind
In one corner of the shop there is a large table. It’s set up as a resting place for customers. People waiting their turn, people with their hair all wrapped up in cling film while the hair dye takes effect, people with colorful rods of different sizes dangling from their hair; they all sit around this table, flicking through magazines, looking at their phones, or enjoying a sweet nap. On the table are snacks and refreshments like coffee, fruit, sweets, biscuits, and chocolate. Apparently, in the winter there is even a box of sweet potatoes kept in the corner and a small oven on the table to roast them in.
Lee Chun-suk, who turned 62 this year, began hairdressing as a profession when she was 26 and hasn’t stopped since. After setting up shop in nearby Seokgwan-dong and working there for many years, she had to move to Imun-dong when her old neighborhood was knocked down for redevelopment.

For decades, salon owner Lee Chun-suk has placed the greatest importance on keeping each and every strand healthy when styling her customers’ hair. She believes that making a good first impression relies on having healthy hair.

Despite the move, most of her customers came with her and have remained loyal regulars over the years. For them the salon is not just a place to get a haircut or a scalp massage, it’s a place to share the occasional snack, catch up on gossip, and de-stress.
“We’ve probably got more customers who come to our salon from far and wide than from our immediate surroundings. They come from places not far off like Uijeongbu, but also from cities as far away as Cheonan, Daejeon, and even Gwangju. You see, they don’t come just to have their hair done. They come to meet people, to talk about this and that....” Lee explains with a bright smile.
The Korean term for someone who works with hair has long been miyongsa, meaning “beauty technician.” Lately, however, a growing number of people in this profession are using the English term “hair designer.” But, for Lee, the Korean term with its meaning of “a person skilled in making the whole appearance beautiful” is still more appealing. In the same way, Lee’s real name “Chunsuk” feels warm and familiar now, though back in the old days, she felt like it was too old-fashioned to put on the sign outside her salon and so chose “Jeeun” as a more modern-sounding name.
With her robust body, agile movements, and radiant complexion, it’s difficult to tell Lee’s age at first sight. “I guess I have been so busy creating beautiful hairstyles for my customers over the years that I haven’t had time to age,” she jokes. “When I’m working with hair, I feel calm and at peace. And then, when I’m putting the finishing touches on someone’s hairstyle, I feel a certain joy — a profound satisfaction.”

What’s Even More Important than Style
The first thing she takes note of when she sees someone is the state of their hair.
“I’m really particular about the health of my customers’ hair. I won’t let them have a perm more than three times a year,” she says. “They’re my customers, so if their hair gets all frazzled it’s me who has to deal with the damage. The thing is, no matter how great their style or how nice their clothes are, unhealthy hair makes a person’s whole appearance shabby.”
Lee has plenty to say on the science of beautiful hair.
“Hair ages and gets worn down. If you look at it under a microscope, the core of each hair is full of holes. For hair to be healthy, you need to fill those holes with good proteins and keep it slightly acidic. If someone’s hair is healthy, all it takes is a good cut to give it a great look. The way hair is dried is important, too. The best way is to bend your head forward and towel dry, softly but thoroughly.”
When she was younger and seizing every opportunity, Lee even ran a separate salon inside a wedding hall in the well-off neighborhood of Gahoedong. She made so much money that she put millions of won in the church collection basket and enjoyed the luxury of being a VIP customer at her favorite department store. “With money, after a certain point, it doesn’t matter how much you earn because it has no meaning of its own. I realized that the only thing that remains is the moment of satisfaction when you have created a beautiful hairstyle for a customer. Most customers fall asleep while I’m doing their hair. Then, whether I’m cutting or giving a head massage or whatever, I feel totally relaxed too,” she says.

A Vocation Discovered at an Early Age
Lee Chun-suk grew up in a seaside village near Gangneung. She already enjoyed styling other people’s hair as a high school student and would always be combing her friends’ hair. “Most days, Chun-suk would re-do my pony tail for me. It would always look prettier and more stylish when she did it,” recalls a customer and old high school classmate. Another friend from her home village says, “I just couldn’t forget Chun-suk’s skills, so since we were young she’s the only person I’ll have do my hair.”
Lee explains how she started out. “After graduating from high school, I was working in an office when a relative brought me a set of electric hair tongs as a gift from a trip to Japan. If I styled my hair with them in the morning, people would tell me all day long how amazing my hair looked. It got to the point where other female employees would come to the accounts department where I worked, asking me to do their hair. I wondered if it might be a better way for me to make a living, so I took evening classes after work. Back then, the list of candidates who passed the hairdresser certification exam was posted on the notice board outside Seoul City Hall. Two-hundred people took the exam and only 11 got through. The competition was that fierce.”
Lee opened her first salon in 1981 and the years have since passed by in a flash. Women who frequented her salon when they were pregnant would show up again as mothers with their babies in tow. The babies would cry, but it didn’t bother Lee because she had also raised her own two children in the salon. Her daughter, now a university student, stops by whenever she has time to lend a hand.

Always Learning
“Including the assistants, we have seven employees. Three of them have been with us for over 20 years. They all have their own regulars,” Lee says. “I don’t pay them a salary, but I simply provide the tools, products, and the space. They operate like individual businesses and contribute a small part of what they earn to the running of the salon. They’re experienced and good at what they do, so they probably take home about 3.5 to 4 million won a month. I earn much less than that. I’m not as young as I was, so really I’m grateful when regulars come in asking for me to do their hair. That’s what keeps me at it.”
When Lee first opened her salon, “Yoon Si-nae hair,” the sphinx-like disco hairstyle sported by the popular singer, was the most coveted look. Whether the hair was permed or set, hair styling was all about creating volume, and the skills of hairdressers were judged accordingly. It was a time when just a perm was not enough; it had to be a perm that emphasized the curls for maximum effect and kept its shape for as long as possible. People walking the streets with naturally straight hair were considered completely lacking in style. Gradually, however, preferences have been changing towards a more natural look, and a growing number of people these days avoid the perfectly styled salon look. Of course, Lee’s preferences have changed with the times, too.

“Being a hairdresser isn’t just about working with hair, it’s about touching people’s hearts. Whether customers chatter while they’re having their hair done or stay completely silent, the hair salon is a space of healing.”

Lee talks with a first-time customer about how she wants her hair done. With each customer, Lee’s task begins by listening carefully to their ideas and considering what will work best.

“If we are not to lose out to the big name salon franchises, small independent salons like ours have to be one step ahead of the trends. You have to cut your customers’ hair the way they want it, but at the same time, the results have to exceed their expectations. Even with perming, new techniques and technologies are being developed every year. Cutting techniques change even more often. You have to keep learning and mastering new skills to give your customers a new and fresh feeling every time they come by,” Lee says, adding that just recently, she attended a seminar to learn the hairstyles that are popular in Italy this year.
She goes on, “Most of my customers are older women, so it’s important to make their hair look lightweight. ‘Light and youthful!’ That’s the motto for this year. The more conservative a customer is about her hair, the more important it is to cut it with the latest techniques. That’s the only way to make it look somehow attractive when they style their hair at home. For customers who don’t like change or following trends, it’s the subtle gift of a slight change. Even with the same short style, the way you cut it makes a world of difference.”
The proportion of customers who simply entrust their hair to the hairdresser’s hands and those who ask for a particular shape or style is always about fifty-fifty. Many people come in asking to have their hair done exactly like that of an actress or model seen in a magazine. At such times, if it’s a style that won’t suit the person’s features or facial shape, the hairdresser needs to know how to gently persuade her to go for something else.
Just by feeling someone’s hair, Lee can now tell whether that person is the stubborn type or can embrace a new style. “Being a hairdresser isn’t just about working with hair, it’s about touching people’s hearts,” she says. “Whether customers chatter while they’re having their hair done or stay completely silent, the hair salon is a space of healing. It’s for the same reason that I set up such a big resting space and lay on plenty of snacks. For a perm or color treatment, customers have to spend two or three hours in here. At least for that time, I want them to be able to relax and feel like, ‘Ah! This is the most comfortable place in the world!’”
Tomorrow, Lee Chun-suk will again begin her day opening the doors of her salon at 10 o’clock in the morning and laying out snacks for her customers.

Kim Seo-ryung Director, Old & Deep Story Lab
Ha Ji-kwon Photographer

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