My hairdressing journey and discovery
Who I am is not important to a lot of people. I am not a famous hairdresser or an award-winning platform artist. I am a hairdresser like most of you, but have a story to share, my “roller-coaster” journey of seeking the truth (like a religion), searching for answers (like archaeology) and solving the mystery (like treasure hunting) of haircutting. It began as a personal quest to find out how to cut all those beautiful hairstyles I saw everywhere and how to keep most, if not all, of my clients happy.
I hope you will enjoy my story of how I survived and became a professional hairdresser, how I obtained the knowledge to write a Hair Design training manual, and what motivated me to publish it.
I will never forget the day my hairdresser told me that I should be a hairdresser because I was sociable and talkative. My immediate response was “no way.” At that moment, washing hair, cutting hair and putting hair in rollers was not what I wanted to do for a living, and doing that for the rest of my life was unthinkable.
But just days later, while I was driving, a person who was standing outside a building caught my attention. I looked up and saw a sign that said “ School of Hair Design,” and instantly I realized that I could be a designer if I learned how to cut hair. Since I was a teenager I had wanted to be a fashion designer, but I knew it would be a long shot to become a successful one. It was clear to me that I had just received “a sign” of my destiny, so I decided to give it a try and see if I could become a hair designer instead. I made a U-turn and enrolled as a part-time student.
Disappointingly, I found out not long after I signed up, the name of my beauty school was as close as I would get to “hair design.” I expected to do some drawing and learn actual design, but instead I was following step- by- step instruction to do basic haircuts. I felt as if I was learning to be a haircutter rather than a hair designer.
Little did I know, the enrollment was the first step of a long and difficult journey; I experienced all kinds of emotions along the way, from failure to triumph, and from great sadness to great joy. I had to find my own path from the valley to the peak, without a compass or road-side assistance. The journey was based on trial and error and I was counting more on my lucky star than the skill and knowledge I had learned from beauty school. Not until I learned hair design elements and hair- diagram drawing, did I start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Fromthe day I graduated, I knew I would be on my own starting from the bottom and working my way up. At that time, salon owners were too busy cutting hair, managing their staff, running a business and dealing with their personal lives. It was hard to find a salon owner who would and could teach me how to become a competent and professional hairdresser, build a clientele and rise up the ladder. I knew immediately then that I had to develop my survival instinct in order to make it to the other side.
When I got out of the beauty school, I looked for a salon that was promising, inspiring, motivating and nurturing. First, it would hire me as an assistant and pay a reasonable salary to survive on. Second, it would offer some kind of training that would help me to give haircuts that clients would like. Third, it would promise me a haircutting station after I had assisted for a reasonable period of time, so that I would not forget what I learned by the time I was put on the floor. Fourth, it would have a good walk-in traffic or good reputation that would draw people into the salon, so that I could start building my clientele and would not be sitting around. Fifth, it could show me a better future if I stayed loyal and improved. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to find such a salon where I lived at the time!
At that time, no matter how good I was in beauty school, no salon would hire me to be a hairdresser, because I had insufficient experience and no clientele, since I was right out of school. They wanted me to be an assistant to prove my loyalty and to see if they would like to work with me before they would invest any of their resources in me.
While I was in beauty school, I worked for a couple of salons as an assistant. However, when I graduated from the beauty school, I refused to shampoo hair and fold towels all day long. I started my career working as a hairdresser in the walk-in salons, which included a barbershop, a unisex salon in a mall and a French chain-salon in New York City. Those salons hired me as a hairdresser, because their haircuts were very affordable to the general public, their salons were in great locations, and they could afford to let their hairdressers make mistakes while getting experience, building confidence and making a living.
After working a couple of years in the walk-in salons, I wanted to move up the ladder. I got myself an assistant job in one of the elite hair salons in mid-town Manhattan, because I was curious to see how the high-end salons operated and how their hairdressers cut hair. After 3 months of washing hair color off all day long, my fingers had an allergic reaction; they were so split and cracked that I had to quit. The lesson that I learned was I should have worn gloves at all times working with chemicals. I ended up teaching in the beauty school that I graduated from while I waited for my fingers to recover, and it almost took a year for me to feel comfortable enough to touch hair again.
A friend of mine from beauty school recommended me to work in the salon where she was working. Like me, she was also starting out, so we both spent more time sitting around than cutting hair. The salon had no training program and would only pay me in commission. The walk-in traffic was minimal, so I had to count on my small amount of clientele from the previous walk-in salons where I used to work, while I build a new clientele from scratch. I barely earned enough to pay my rent, so I waited tables at night in order to survive and pursue my hairdressing career.
After about three months, I prayed very hard for wisdom, strength and direction to carry on this gruesome journey. One day, a salesman of a hair product company asked the owner of the salon if she knew any hairdresser who would like to work in a spa forty-five minutes away. When she asked me if I was interested, I said “yes” immediately, and it turned out to be the most significant turning point of my career.
The spa did not ask me for clientele because they had the clientele that was left behind from the hairdresser who had relocated, as well as the spa goers who need their hair done after spa services. They paid me a decent base salary that I could live on. Since I had learned a unique haircutting system and hair consultation skill from the French chain-salon in New York City, I secured myself a job in the spa as a hair consultant and designer. I was so happy to have found my first real job that paid and it made me proud. That was my first break in my career! Unfortunately, the leadership, training and management that I was looking for was lacking, so it was just a matter of time before I had to find my way out and hit the road again!
As I was working for the spa, I was recruited to work part-time as an educator for a hair product manufacturer and a sales representative for a couple of hair product distributors. My job was to go from salon to salon to educate and motivate hairdressers to use the hair products I represented by demonstrating haircutting, hair coloring and hairstyling.
I had the opportunity to do two platform works for two different manufacturers, one in a distributor’s hair show and the other one in a local National Cosmetology Association meeting. It was a very exciting experience to perform on stage in front of a group of hairdressers. I just wished that I had more to share.
I also went to a few local beauty schools several times to offer my knowledge and skill in haircutting. I enjoyed teaching tremendously, because it was such an honor for me to have the opportunity to inspire and to motivate students, who shared the same passion of haircutting and had the enthusiasm to learn.
I learned as much, if not more, as I taught. It became evident, when I was invited to train a salon of six hairdressers every 2-3 months for two years. I discovered a lot of important materials for the Hair Design training manual that I was about to start writing.
Thesevaluable experiences also allowed me to understand how everybody in the beauty industry has to work together in order to succeed. Manufacturers, distributors and salon owners need more good hairdressers who know how to cut, color and style hair with hair products well. Then salons would have more clients, and more clients means more hair products sold. Therefore, training hairdressers became an imperative part in the beauty industry.
Since not many salon owners had the knowledge, time, patience or passion to teach, as a beginner- hairdresser, I had to search for any advanced training that I could afford, which included beauty shows, seminars or classes held in salons, or beauty schools. Nonetheless, even after years of seeing innumerable haircutting demonstrations, I never remembered much of what I had learned, because there was too much information, which was not organized and explained well, from too many different sources.
It was only after I started my own practice that could I afford to attend hands-on training from the advanced training academies. The step-by step training not only helped improve my technical skill, but also helped me understand how to approach haircutting in a significant manner. I started to have control over my haircuts, and it was the first time I felt I knew what I was doing.
While I was at the beauty school, I learned only the basic skills of cutting hair and the knowledge that would help me pass the state-board test and get my license. After I graduated, it was hard to find a salon that had the resources to train beginner-hairdressers. Luckily, I found a French chain-salon that had a great training instructor, program and facility to train all of their new hairdressers before they put them on the floor to cut hair. I did not have to pay for the training, and neither did I get paid. The training lasted about a month, and it taught me one haircut at a time, and after I learned about half a dozen haircuts, I was cutting hair like a robot and became an efficient and proficient haircutting machine.
Because the chain- salon was in mid-town Manhattan, a prime location, the salon looked chic, the operators all dressed in white, and the price of a haircut was low, so there were plenty of walk-in customers for us to cut hair. It was the best place for me to start my career as a hairdresser, for I did not have to wash hair for other hairdressers anymore, and it was a place where I could learn, make mistakes and gain experience.
Since clients could only choose one out of the six basic haircuts, and each of the haircuts had a few different versions, I did not have to do much consultation with clients, worry about what they wanted or whether they liked the haircuts I gave them or not. At that time, I knew those six haircuts very well, and I did them so many times that I could do them backwards and in the dark. Not knowing that I was trapped in my own comfort zone, and needing to get out… I was waiting to hit rock bottom of my career.
WhileI was in beauty school cutting hair, a lot of people told me I was very good at cutting hair! They made me feel like a super- star, and before long I started to buy into this misconception, until the day I found myself spending too much time on a haircut, always giving the same haircuts, or cutting the hair in the same way. I became a great “cookie-cutter” instead, and I was losing my cutting edge. It was then I realized that I was not that good after all.
One time when I was cutting a woman’s hair, it dawned on me that I always gave triangle layer to long hair, and I always layered too much! I asked myself how I could cut it differently, but my brain was completely blank and incapable of answering the question. Even though I had been going to the International Beauty show in New York every year since I was in beauty school, I had no clue as to how to improve my haircuts, nor did I know how to apply what I had learned, not to mention how to create new haircuts and cut hair in different ways.
Ihave been a licensed hairdresser now since 1988. I have owned my small studio since 1993, and I have worked by myself most of the time. I am passionate, ambitious and determined to be the best, or at least one of the best, at what I do. I enjoy having my own space at work and the freedom to express myself as an artist. Even though I have never been to art school, I always think and approach life as an artist. Since I have discovered and applied hair design, my salon has turned into an art- craft- design hair studio, which allows me to work like an artist and be creative in customizing haircuts for my clients.
My salon has also become my research laboratory to experiment and try out new things that I unveiled or learned from whatever I could get my hands on, as well as to find out how to retain clients by giving them what they want without compromising the creativity and integrity of my work.
My survival instinct told me that I had to give one great haircut at a time, make one happy client at a time and do my best one-day at a time. The only way I knew how to secure my profession and financial future was by establishing a solid foundation and building upon it, which required me to learn constantly and improve continuously.
Starting a business was difficult in the beginning because I did not have enough of a following, so I had to build from scratch again. Since my haircutting skills were not strong enough yet to draw a big crowd, and I had no budget for marketing, public relation, promotion and advertising, the business was very slow at first, and I was hardly making ends meet.
However, I still strongly believed that my work would speak louder than my words, and that referrals would be the most effective advertising. Besides, I believed that only those who were recommended to me would be willing to pay the price that I was asking. I found myself praying hard again for another big break or the miracle of my life! My prayer were answered once again just before I was contemplating closing down my business; an influential client, who sent a lot of her friends and family to me, saved my business as well as my profession.
It was the summer of 1995, and I had begun to lose a lot of clients. I received a lot of phone calls from my clients complaining about the haircuts I gave them. It hurt to know that I had caused such grief for people, making them so upset about their hair. I was so mad at myself that I questioned myself many times whether or not I should quit and find another line of work.
Fortunately, I could not afford to quit, nor did I know what else I could do. Just the thought of not being able to cut hair anymore was unconceivable, because I loved cutting hair and I had come so far! Therefore, instead of calling it quits and becoming a loser, I decided to take action and do something about it!
I told myself that I had had enough of embarrassment, humiliation and financial suffering, and I turned my frustration into motivation. I decided to spend every dollar I earned on hands-on training from the respectable hair product manufacturing companies or any hairdressers who claimed that they had a unique haircutting system. I picked up the phone and called all of the famous advanced training academies in the country to book as many classes as I could afford.
I was so excited at the thought of eventually being good at haircutting that I did not care if I went bankrupt. My expenses included tuition fees, airfare, hotel accommodations, meals and most of all, lost income. However, it was worth it! Besides having all the framed diplomas hanging on my wall, I gained knowledge, sharpened my skill and met many interesting and talented fellow hairdressers, which subsequently, led me to meet the love of my life.
I enjoyed learning from all of the devoted and knowledgeable instructors, and I was very impressed by some of the well organized and state- of- the- art advanced training facilities. Most of all, I had a wonderful time traveling and sightseeing around the country. As I learned more and more about haircutting, I kept collecting more and more diplomas. After hanging about 10 diplomas on the wall, I took them down. I did not feel the need to show them off anymore, because I believed my work started to sell itself.
After almost two years of continuous education and advanced training, I found that hands-on training was the only effective way to learn how to cut hair. However, I could not help thinking it could be too costly for a lot of hairdressers to fly to so many places to learn how to cut hair better. In addition, it was not easy to follow all of the things that I was taught, and it was hard to remember all of the things that I had learned.
Even though I had difficulty applying all of the new knowledge and skill I learned from the trainings on my clients’ haircut, I felt recharged and motivated. It was worth it, since hands-on training helped me improve my work, my clientele, my referral, my confidence and my income.
Advanced training academies usually teach how to do their latest haircuts, but not how to design haircuts according to each individual’s needs and desires. I did learn some new haircutting concepts, approaches, tools and techniques from them; some made sense, but others did not. The problem was that I did not know what to do with all the new haircuts I learned, since every client had different personal preferences and had different hair texture. Furthermore, I had little idea how to apply what I had learned together with what I already knew to give clients what they like as well as what I like to do.
Despite how much I learned from the academies, I never did master any new haircuts from the hands-on training, because I could never remember all of the steps. I never had the confidence to give a new haircut that I did not fully comprehend to my clients. I needed to know how to alter all of the haircuts I learned to suit my clients. To me, it made more sense to work with clients and their hair to create haircuts than just giving them a new haircut regardless of their desires and hair texture. I believe we have to use models to learn how to custom design and customize haircuts, not just learn haircuts; otherwise, we push our luck every time we give haircuts to clients, and pray that it will work with their hair as well as their desires.
After two years of going to advance training academies, I had learned enough. I had to stop going because every instructor taught me different things and I was getting confused. I decided to stop learning one haircut at a time, since I could never remember all the steps it took to duplicate the haircuts I learned when I only knew what and how, but did not know why. I wanted to know why besides what and how.
I decided it was time for me to find a better way to learn haircutting. I wished there was a structural and comprehensive school that could teach me how to custom design and create customized haircuts that would suit each individual client, so that I would no longer have to learn haircutting by following steps. But sadly, there was minimal hair design material available. At the time, I wished I could do something about it.
The idea of drawing hair diagrams came up when I was attending advanced training classes of Pivot Point International Inc. in Chicago, I read one of their haircutting books using diagrams to illustrate haircuts, I found it very useful to understand the structure of a haircut; however, I did not immediately get the concept of drawing haircuts. It took a few more training sessions for me to come to that realization, and I started to draw instead of write down what I saw during all of the haircutting demonstrations.
Since I did not know shorthand, I could not possibly write down every haircut I learned in the advanced training academies. That was when the light in my head suddenly turned on, and I began to draw hair diagrams to record the demonstrated haircuts, like an artist or a designer, which enabled me to keep up with the instructors’ demonstrations. Not only would I not forget how to do the haircuts later on in the hands-on training session, but also helped me to have a better understanding of how the haircuts were constructed. When I was back at work in my salon, I would draw a lot of hair diagrams every night after work to document all of the interesting haircuts I created on that day, and I would study the diagrams to see if I could improve the haircuts; and by doing so, I usually discovered new haircuts and new haircutting approaches.
In 1997, I decided to pick up a pen and start writing a Hair Design Training Manual of my own, hoping that I could put everything that I had learned into perspective. The manual is comprised of 4 parts: photography, diagrams, theory and drawings, and 3 levels: fundamental, intermediate and advanced.
I wrote the manual mostly on the weekends, because I worked 5 days a week, 10-12 hours a day. I was both physically and mentally exhausted by the end of a working day. It took me twelve years to finish this manual, because the more I would draw and write; the more ideas would pop up in my head. I initially wanted to write a book just about haircutting, only using hair diagrams, then I decided to show all of the elements of hair design. Before long, I was convinced that hairdressers needed more than technical skill to survive and succeed, they also need to know how to be professional. Finally I was convinced that if there were no salons that knew how to nurture and retain the creative talented hairdressers, as well as run a good business, then there were no good places for hairdressers to practice hair design. Therefore, the manual got bigger and more comprehensive, and took much more time to finish than I had bargained for. It was a big undertaking, but I was determined to make it happened against all odds!
First, I had to scratch my head trying to remember everything that I had learned from the academies, and then I had to write them down or draw them before I forgot. After that, I clarified and simplified the materials, and then I improved and refined them. Finally, I arranged and organized them in a way that would make it easy for hairdressers to comprehend and store the materials in their memories.
Every time I came home from an educational trip, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I had learned, and studying all of my drawings intensely. I kept drawing and drawing, and discovered a lot of haircutting elements and principles. They were more important than the haircuts that I had learned. Before long, instead of trying to follow the haircuts that I had learned from the haircutting classes, books or videotapes, I started to design and construct my haircuts. Everyday I learned more and more about haircutting, simply by drawing; and from drawing, I learned more and more about hair design elements. Once I figured out how the elements related to each other, I started to realize how to improve haircuts and to create new haircuts.
By drawing a lot of hair diagrams, I found out that drawing hair diagrams is the key to learn and master haircutting. I believe if hairdressers know how to draw, they will know how to cut. However, knowing all of the hair design elements and principles is as important as knowing how to draw hair diagrams, because it can help hairdressers understand how, why and what in constructing haircuts by drawing. Drawing hair diagrams helps hairdressers understand how all of the haircuts are created as well as how to create new haircuts. It is the same theory behind architects drawing blueprints to design all kind of structures.
In January 2002, I started to put my hair diagrams together with the help of a graphic illustrator, so that they could be published. The Manual would introduce all of the essential and fundamental hair design elements and principles, as well as hair diagrams to illustrate how it is possible to design an unlimited number of haircuts.
By knowing how to draw hair diagrams, manipulate hair design elements and apply the hair design principles, my profession has become more rewarding and fulfilling. Since then my haircutting skill has become more consistent, efficient, accurate and creative. Cutting hair becomes effortless and more fun now that I have made cutting hair a creative process, not a mechanical process.
I love my work more and have less fear because I no longer use my clients to experiment. Since I have mastered hair design and hair diagram drawing, I can create, improve, correct and customize any haircuts according to each client’s unique hair and preferences. I do not feel nervous when clients say I like what you did last time, can you do it again, or when a new client says I come to you because I like what you did to my friend.
My small hair salon has become my laboratory, and I no longer feel like I am going to a salon to work, but to a studio to create, invent, discover and explore new haircutting systems (haircutting concepts, approaches, tools and techniques.) Since I know the consequence of each piece of hair I cut, there is less and less trial and error. I just need to keep learning and practicing the different haircutting systems that I discovered, and become more familiar with the relativity of all of the hair design elements, as well as the principles of hair design.
Before I learned hair design, every year after I returned from a hair show, I was eager to use the new tools that I had bought and the new ideas that I had learned to cut hair differently, in hope that I would not end up always giving the same haircuts and cutting them in the same way. Unfortunately, I found that, despite all of my effort, I still was not able to fully understand enough of what I had learned to give my clients what they want--- not until I learned hair design. Later on, I realized haircutting is only the delivery part of haircutting, while hair design is the creative part which requires hairdressers to decide what to cut, where to cut, how to cut and how much to cut. This is when I discovered that only by learning hair design can hairdressers create the shape, form, balance and texture of the haircuts that both clients and hairdressers want… with ease and great precision.
In order to learn hair design, hairdressers must learn the relativity of hair design elements, which teaches hairdressers how hair design elements relate and work together, so they do not have to remember and memorize all the steps required to give a specific haircut. They will start to know the difference between bringing all the hair to one side to cut and bringing all the hair to the other side to cut, as well as everything in between the two opposite sides.
Hairdressers can easily learn hair design by studying the illustrations of hair design diagrams, which demonstrate how the hair design elements can create components and how components create haircutting patterns and how each pattern contains numerous options for hairdressers to choose from, in order to create the haircuts they want.
In conclusion, once hairdressers have learned all of the hair design elements, and have started drawing hair diagrams, they can begin designing hair, which means they can start creating, constructing and customizing haircuts. The more they draw, the more they will understand how to come up with haircuts within and beyond their imagination… the sky will then be the only limit.
Ifthis Hair Design Training manual can help just one hairdresser understand more of what haircutting is and how to give haircuts that can raise the client-retention rate and improve their income, I would be very happy. If I can contribute to the elevation of just one hairdresser to become a true hair designer, I would be ecstatic!
Indeed, I am grateful for what the hairdressing profession has done for me, which includes offering me a creative job, plenty of career options and multiple business opportunities. I am very fortunate to be a member of this giant industry, which endlessly provides an abundance of education, entertainment and excitement through numerous hair shows across the country. I also have to thank all of the platform artists who have been the source for my motivation and the driving force to keep me going when I was about to throw the towel.
Words cannot show my deepest appreciation of what I have been given by this industry. I sincerely hope the manual can!
May God bless all those who choose the profession to make people look good with their hair, those who run successful salons to provide jobs and a future for hairdressers, those who organize hair shows to motivate, inspire, entertain and educate hairdressers, those who teach hairdressers how to do a better job, love their work more and make a better living, and last but not least, those who open beauty schools and advanced training academies to relentlessly nurture the future of this great hairdressing industry, so that it will continue to prosper and carry on the torch!