The Life Interview: Veteran hairstylist Casey Chua rebrands salon, updates skills
As the veteran hairstylist celebrates his 35th year in business, he is far from slowing down, working hard to update his skills and rebrand his salon
He calls himself an introvert, which could be why the name of hairstylist Casey Chua may be only on insiders' lips.
But the 61-year-old follicular virtuoso might just be Singapore's first celebrity hairstylist.
Over 31/2 decades, he has been quietly coiffing the likes of Alexa Chung, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Donna Karan, Hillary Clinton and even Margaret Thatcher.
The bachelor is also well known in the industry as the emergency doctor for botched colour jobs, with other salons calling him for crisis advice and even sending their dissatisfied clients his way.
The expatriate community reveres him as the only person who understands Caucasian hair - and one Swiss client even flies here to see him twice a year because she trusts him exclusively.
This month, Mr Chua is celebrating his 35th year in business with a bang - by moving from his salon in Palais Renaissance, where he has been based for 26 years, to a fresh, new space across the road, in the Hilton Shopping Gallery. It opens officially today.
The new Casey Salon looks rather different from the site of his first paid job - the living room of his childhood home where he washed hair and swept the floor for $2 of extra pocket money a day.
When he was 10, his mother converted part of their semi-detached house in Dunearn Road into a hair salon. She ran a brisk business and, because his father ran his own transportation logistics enterprise, attracted the expatriate wives of trading company importers of goods such as Campbell's Soup and Kraft cheese.
Of her five sons, he was the only one who showed enough promise to be allowed to wash her friends' hair.
Because he was not academically inclined, he dropped out of school after his O levels and worked for his father for about a year. But his real passion was not in warehouses and lorries - it was in hairdressing.
To learn that skill well, he knew that London was the only place to be.
"My mum said, 'If you want to do it, I will flog off all my jewellery to put you there.' Of course, what she meant was, 'If you want to do it, you'd better do it well'," he recalls.
The year was 1974 when he enrolled in the Morris Institute of Hairdressing in London's Tottenham Court Road.
"It was a huge college - very busy, with students from all over. Half of my classmates were from Iran - they were very fashionable," he says.
Apart from learning how to style hair, subjects such as hygiene and etiquette were covered.
"They even taught us what topics not to discuss with our customers - politics, sex and religion," he says.
"London was an eye opener. This was 1974 - music was big. You heard about drugs; the war. I had John Lennon hair with blue streaks and round, metal spectacle frames - a lot of people said, 'You look like an Asian John Lennon.'"
After completing a year at the college, he decided to spend his next year studying at the Sassoon Academy, where Mr Vidal Sassoon himself would conduct weekly demonstrations and give pep talks every Monday. Where the Morris Institute had laid traditional foundations of finger waving and setting, Sassoon pioneered techniques using precisely angled cuts.
In the midst of his education, Mr Chua took up various internship stints with London salons - trendy parlours such as Jingles in Russell Square, famous for its lopsided haircuts; Christopha in Bayswater; and Scissors in Kings Road, which boasted disco lights and stylists in roller skates.
In many ways, hairstylists are like psychologists for our clients. When you’re doing someone’s hair, it’s very close up. Clients can be so open with the most private problems. Sometimes, they just need to let loose.
MR CASEY CHUA
To earn his keep, he had a night job manning a cigarette and candy kiosk in the Tottenham Court Road Tube station. He also cleared tables at a Singapore-Malaysian restaurant in Holland Park. And on Sundays, he gave his friends haircuts at home, in exchange for either £1.50 a head or a home-cooked dinner.
During one of his internships, he met an Austrian colourist who sparked an interest in colouring.
"Just watching him made me want to do colour. And while doing it, he explained the chemistry," Mr Chua says. "He said, 'If you're really interested in colouring, you should go to Germany."
So he did a three-month stint at German haircare company Wella's head office in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt.
"It was very much an experimental, knowledge-gaining time of my life," he says. "I also went to the L'Oreal institute in Paris to learn about colour and how to do chignons. Bayalage was already there in France."
The little money he earned went back into short learning courses. "Sometimes, one friend would pretend to be a translator so that two people could learn for the price of one."
His first full-time job was at St Clare, a salon in Shepherd's Bush. Then he worked at Rene Aubrey, a salon with several branches.
It was while he was working at the South Kensington branch that he frequently saw a young lady and her flatmate parking their bicycles outside; the flatmate would come into his salon to get her hair done and she would go into her preferred salon across the road.
It was only when news of Prince Charles' engagement came out that he realised she was Lady Diana.
"She lived near me - I cycled to work in the summer past her apartment in Brompton Road," he said. "We knew her as the Sloane Ranger - that was what Londoners who spoke with a clipped accent and always wore high-collared duvet jackets were called."
Much later on, in 1997, Mr Chua was booked to style Princess Diana's hair on a planned visit to Singapore for an event promoting HIV awareness, but before she could make it here, the tragedy occurred - she died in a car crash in Paris on Aug 31 that year.
While at Rene Aubrey, Mr Chua had the opportunity to work at several of Paris' Pret A Porter fashion shows.
"It was all palpitations and adrenaline," he says. "I would have done anything, even if they had asked me to sweep the floors, just to be backstage; to see the energy and professionalism." It was there that he styled the hair of American model and actress Jerry Hall.
"I was so frightened," he says. But she turned out to be "friendly, charismatic, loud and funny".
"She called everybody 'honey'. Her personality was so big - I think that's what made her so famous that she could dump Bryan Ferry for Mick Jagger."
For eight years, he enjoyed the heady and intoxicating life of a London hairstylist.
HE ONCE CRAWLED UNDER A TABLE WITH MARGARET THATCHER
"I was happy, I was growing, I was able to be myself. It was just exciting and happening. You know, this was the 1970s," he says. "We went to the disco until two in the morning, go and eat, have coffee, go home and wake up in time for lunch. The discos had live acts like David Bowie, Boy George and Grace Jones. For me, a kampung boy, seeing it all was amazing."
That was why, in 1982, when his ageing mother asked him to come home, he was greatly reluctant.
"I said, 'I'll come home only if you can find me a nice place to set up a salon in,'" he recalls. "I was hoping the business wouldn't take off and I could go back to London."
Not to be denied, his resourceful Peranakan mother tapped family friends who owned the Regent hotel, then called the Pavilion InterContinental, designed by renowned architect John Portman and lined with designer stores such as Chloe, Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels.
She loaned him $40,000 and with that, on top of a bank loan of $100,000, he opened his first salon, on the second level. Modelled after the forward-looking salons he had seen in Munich and Paris, "it was decorated in a very soft powder grey, with chrome. There were pictures in Perspex hanging on fishing tackle. It was quite modern for the 1980s," Mr Chua says.
Within the first year, he was able to repay his mother's loan.
"Overnight, it was a success," recalls his brother, Mr Paul Chua, 62, who helps to run the business. "It was the hottest salon in town, creating new concepts and setting the standard."
Clients grew in number such that "those with perm rods had no room to sit - they had to stand outside," Mr Casey Chua says.
He started working on editorial fashion shoots with Her World and Female magazines, as well as television commercials. Over the years, he has also been an ambassador for global haircare brands Redken and L'Oreal.
Nine years after he set up shop, he was courted by the landlord of Palais Renaissance and moved his salon there. "We were the only tenants to have complimentary parking for our clients," he remembers.
He is also, perhaps, the only Singaporean who has crawled under a table with Margaret Thatcher. During the former British prime minister's visit to Singapore in 1989, he was appointed to style her hair at the British ambassador's residence. He was under the dressing table trying desperately to deal with a heated curler malfunction when "the next thing I knew, she was kneeling next to me. She said, 'Everything okay?'".
Everything was, in fact, okay. The back-up set of heated curlers, which happened to be manufactured by a Japanese brand, was functioning. "She said, 'Yeah, you can trust a Japanese product.' Funny she said that because she was here to promote British products," he recalls with a chuckle.
These days, though, it is not so much celebrated personages who occupy his time, but his devoted, long-time clients, to whom his loyalty remains. He charges from $250 for a haircut and from $250 for a colour job
"We are working with third-generation clients now," he says. "Those who came to me when they were 30 or 40 are now 70. And those who were babies are now in their 30s."
Ms Sharon Tan, 44, has been a customer since her mother brought her to Casey Salon when she was 16. Together, she and Mr Chua have experimented with looks ranging from long, cascading waves to razor-sharp pixie cuts. He has styled her on occasions ranging from her junior college prom night to public speaking sessions after she became a banker.
"Everyone was always asking where I got my hair cut," she says. "In my early 20s, whenever he did my hair, somebody would stop me in the street to ask where I had got it done. It really made me feel good."
She introduced her husband and two-year-old son to the salon. "Casey is on the pulse of things that are not necessarily just trendy, but classic and very tasteful. He has a way of just nailing it," she says. "It has made me realise that a relationship with a hairdresser is like finding a soulmate. I'm already thinking, 'Oh, no, if he retires, who can I go to?'"
But Mr Chua is not content to rest on his laurels. "I think rebranding is very important - not only do we have to update our skills, but we also have to update the salon."
The new salon, with its clean white walls and olive accents, is designed to look fresher and more luxurious.
And when it comes to making sure his skills remain top-notch, Mr Chua travels regularly to London and tries out for jobs at top salons incognito. "I've done that eight times, and eight times, I got the job," he says. "That's my way of testing myself - where am I in the world as a hairstylist?"
In Singapore, he hopes to raise the bar for the industry. "We have pretty good schools here, but we don't have a state exam or licence to perform hairdressing," he says. "We proposed to the Institute of Technical Education that they should start a state exam, so that young hairstylists, after graduating, should be certified in areas such as hygiene and respecting chemicals." There are tentative plans for talks next year.
And the hair industry here is, unfortunately, more competitive than collaborative, he reveals. "People tend to want to outdo one another, rather than work together as a community. I think it's a shame."
This is a sentiment that has perhaps come from many decades of investment, both professional and emotional, in Singapore's collective tresses.
"I've been running my salon for 35 years and I'm still going strong. I'm very blessed to have a job that actually brings joy to people," he says.
•Casey Salon is at 581 Orchard Road, 02-21. Go to www.caseysalon.com.