The Life Interview with Kim Robinson

Kim Robinson: Cut above the rest

Celebrity hairstylist Kim Robinson is known for charging at least $2,000 for a haircut, but what is not known is that he gives free haircuts at old folks' homes

Crowning glory

Kim Robinson coiffs the curls of Asia's glitterati for no less than $2,000 a cut, but the celebrity stylist has high hopes for his budget-brand salon, kr+, which is reopening in Singapore next year after six years.

The salon, which was open from 2006 to 2009 at Millenia Walk, charged $70 to $99 for a haircut, but downed its shutters here during the economic downturn.

In contrast, Robinson's luxury 5,000 sq ft space in Ngee Ann City continued to do well because, as he says: "The clients we serve aren't looking for a deal."

He thinks kr+ will do well now and opened two salons in Hong Kong this year. Cuts there start at $30, a price point he wants to maintain in Singapore.

He has not yet settled on a location here, though as in Hong Kong, the Singapore salon will have tablet PCs at each table and a lookbook of hundreds of hairstyles sorted according to face type, so clients can choose what works best for them.

"There's not enough communication in our industry. The stylist doesn't ask questions and you just sit there and hope," he says. "How many times have people gone to a hairdresser and come out looking the same, only with shorter hair?"

Not under his hands. Perched on a stool in one of the intimate styling rooms of his kimrobinson salon in Ngee Ann City, the 59-year-old bachelor tells tale after tale of transformation, later echoed by clients and even employees who have been styled by him - ageing women who reclaim their desirability after a makeover; the 30-year-old "who'd never had a boyfriend" and "didn't feel feminine" until he chopped her hair off.

"Now she has a new look, new job and is engaged to be married," he says, as endearingly proud as the two stuffed peacocks in the lavish waiting area of the salon.

People know him as a celebrity stylist who, in his own words, is "flown all over the world to put my hands on the world's most beautiful women".

What is easy to overlook is that the ebullient and talkative blond hairstylist is a quiet hero to many.

Client, friend and Singapore fashionista Cindy Chua-Tay, 45, shares secrets he will not: that he gives free haircuts at old folks' homes in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year; that he works with women's groups and styles at no charge the hair of women going through divorce, escaping abusive marriages or living with cancer.

Asked about this, he says: "Hong Kong has been incredibly generous to me. I'm not too sure I could attain this level of success if I were in another country. I feel like giving back."

Under a memorandum of understanding with the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore, he offered himself and his stylists as trainers for top students in the hairstyling course from 2012 to this year.

Then there are the stories from his staff such as Ms Miki Gao, 25, hairstylist of choice for Singapore belles such as Instagram celebrity Jamie Chua. Ms Gao owes her success to his willingness to work with newbies and unstintingly share the secrets of his craft.

She was taken on at kimrobinson salon at age 15, spent 31/2 years washing hair and learning the ropes before she took on her first client.

She says: "I had to learn hairstyling techniques and communication skills and go through rigorous tests to be promoted. Today, I'm just happy when a client returns for another session as it tells me that I am doing something right."

When I was 14, I didn't know I was going to be a superstar.''

KIM ROBINSON

She is one of the models featured in Robinson's newly launched style guide, Go Get Gorgeous - his second after a coffee-table book of hairstyles released a decade ago.

The self-published 173-page beauty manual also includes portraits of regular clients and friends such as Hong Kong pop diva Sandy Lam, Hong Kong television veteran Liza Wang and American financial guru Suze Orman.

Ms Orman hosted a personal finance show on CNBC from 2002 to March this year. Robinson jokes: "She teaches people how to save money, not spend it, and she spends a fortune on me."

One of his favourite swans from Go Get Gorgeous flew in for the book launch.

Ms August Zhang, 24, who is signed with the top modelling agency Wilhelmina of New York City, has contracts with French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent and skincare line Vichy, and also recently debuted on the runway at Paris Fashion Week.

The Chinese model strides in, resplendent in a backless golden gown and settles on a plush recliner. Speaking in patchy but confident English and some Mandarin, she tells her Cinderella story with publicists translating.

When she first went to Robinson's salon in Hong Kong, the statuesque 1.78m beauty was the disappointment of her talent agency (she declines to name it). He was told then not to cut her hair too short because she was in line for a shampoo commercial job.

"She came with long legs, she came with a beautiful face, you just couldn't see her beautiful neck," he says.

Some time later, when Ms Zhang's agency was ready to send her home, she came to the stylist again and he cut her hair for free, shearing off several centimetres. Her star began rising immediately afterwards.

"When he cut it, it was a surprise," Ms Zhang says. "But it gave me confidence. I look in the mirror and don't take any bullsh**."

Most women do not know what is most beautiful about them, she says, adding that she sends all her friends in Hong Kong to him now.

"Kim can tell you - that's his strength. He's fast, decisive and very sharp in his observations. Even though he has known you for only 10 or 15 minutes, he can bring out your beauty."

After she leaves, the stylist remarks that Ms Zhang's story mirrors his own: rags to riches.

"I'm incredibly successful. I enjoy a price point that is unheard of," he says matter-of-factly. "When I was 14, I didn't know I was going to be a superstar."

That was the age he began as an apprentice in a hair salon in Perth. His parents, Malcolm and Glen, both in their 80s now, were dairy farmers who sold their farm in Margaret River, Western Australia, and moved to the city for their children's education. He has a younger brother and sister.

The family - they could not be reached by press time - are close by all accounts.

He calls his parents, especially his mother - Go Get Gorgeous is dedicated to her - at least once a day. He rushes home for Christmas and family gatherings and credits all his success to his upbringing.

"My parents never had money, but taught me about education, hard work and relationship- building. I'm super successful, but I have my feet on the ground because of where I came from."

Though when he first wanted to take the hair salon apprenticeship, he says: "My father had a freakout. Not as in: 'No, you can't do it', but he sold his farm so I could have a university education. I had to study to be a doctor or lawyer.

"He says to me, 'I never had any education. I wanted you to have what I didn't have.' We had a long talk."

His mother persuaded his father to let him try it for a year. At the end of it, he won an award for best apprentice and his employer convinced his father that "the boy's got talent".

He says: "I can honestly say I wasn't very good then. I know I'm talented, but you can have all the talent in the world and not know how to apply it. I was trained by the best."

His career began with a one-year stint in Hong Kong as a colourist. He did not enjoy it so he went to London, where he learnt "the discipline of hair-cutting" from the late, great maestro of hair, Vidal Sassoon.

Then he was off to Paris, where he was the only non-French assistant to the legendary French stylist known as Alexandre de Paris and whose client list included actresses Catherine Deneuve and Elizabeth Taylor as well as Princess Grace of Monaco.

Robinson stops short while listing the stars he has styled. "I have a celebrity Rolodex you would not believe, but I don't like to name-drop," he says, turning the talk to what he learnt from 20 years as assistant to de Paris and working on haute couture runway shows for Chanel, Lanvin, Givenchy and others.

"I got trained by the master of the French finish - how to do a beautiful chignon, how to cut hair dry, how to sculpt the hair for the face."

He explains de Paris' "face matrix" formula, which he in turn passes on to his stylists. First is to tell the shape of the face so that the stylist knows what hairdo will "lift and illuminate the face, elongate the neck".

He says: "When you elongate the neck, the face looks smaller. I don't know any girl who wants a fat face."

There was a market for the French style of hairdressing in Hong Kong when he opened Le Salon Orient in 1982 and word of mouth ensured he was soon coiffing the cream of Asian society.

Among his clients was the wife of a higher-up in Singapore's Economic Development Board, so in the 1990s, he was invited to consider a space in the then-new Ngee Ann City building. Le Salon Orient opened here in 1995 - the name changed to kimrobinson in 2002 - and built its reputation through brand and "hair shows".

Senior technician Anna Tan, 39, who has been with kimrobinson for 19 years, was an assistant at one of the hair shows.

She says: "Imagine seeing somebody pull off a four-feet-tall hairstyle in just 10 minutes. It was jaw- dropping. It made me more committed to knowing about my job."

Now a highly-in-demand ace colourist at the Ngee Ann City salon, she is another of his staff successes. She started with no experience and learnt on the job. He visits Singapore monthly to train staff and take clients.

In one training session, Ms Tan was a hair model for her employer and she still raves about the experience. "He knows your hair. He knows what you are thinking, he knows what you want."

Ms Chua-Tay says the same, recalling the free haircut she received in 1995 when she was the publicist working on the launch of his salon here. "I went from long to short hair in one fell swoop. I remember having no apprehensions, which is strange in the best possible way."

Once someone who never wore hair shorter than shoulder-length, she has sported mostly chic crops over the last 20 years.

She adds: "I trust him implicitly. To me, he is the arbiter of style. His obvious talent, his adventurous streak, of always indulging me when I clamour for change - which is very often - his magical hands when he snips away, his eye for colouring, his hilarious antics, but most of all, his big, big heart."

He admits that he prefers short hair and finds that even his own recent trim - he always has his hair cut by his own stylists - made him happy and confident.

He started out as a redhead and, in recent years, his hair began thinning until he started taking hair nutrients such as zinc and dihydrotestosterone blockers to thicken his mane.

Appearance is not something to be taken lightly in his line of work, but for him, beauty is more than just about looking good.

He says: "I'm in the business, I hear all sorts of things - about abuse from parents, husbands, boyfriends. The power that comes from beauty is confidence.

"It's not about cutting your hair or keeping it long to be feminine. It's about empowerment. Confidence and empowerment are so important as we age."

•Go Get Gorgeous ($48) is available at Books Kinokuniya and kimrobinson.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Cut above the rest'. Print Edition | Subscribe