Cutting School

A humble Chinatown institution incubates much of Hawaii’s hair-styling talent.


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(page 1 of 2)


Leo Williams has probably had his fingers in your hair. At least vicariously. As the owner and director of the Hawaii Institute of Hair Design, Williams has trained perhaps 80 percent of the barbers and hairstylists in Hawaii. His former students work in almost every barbershop and salon in the state. They’re meting out $200 haircuts in high-end salons; they predominate in countless Super Cuts and Fantastic Sams; and they run most of the old-fashioned two and three-seat barbershops scattered thoughout Island strip malls. To get their licenses, all of them spent at least 1,500 hours—10 months—under Williams’ patient tutelage.

The school was founded in 1942 by Williams’ grandfather. About 40 years ago, his mother and father moved the school to its current location: in an old building on North Hotel Street. And while he’s still in his thirties, Williams has been teaching there for more than 18 years. Up on the third floor, Williams’ mother, Margaret, manages the school’s administrative offices—and serves as a mother hen to the students.

Tony McDougald, for example, is a sedate student from North Carolina who recently got out of the Army and came to the school on the G.I. Bill. He wears his hair in a neatly carved fade, but had no prior experience with hairstyling. “I never touched a comb in my life,” he says, “so I’ve had to work harder than some of the other students.” The portability of hairstyling appealed to him. “My wife is still in the Army,” he says, “so we travel a lot. And people need haircuts everywhere.”

The tagline on an old brochure calls the school’s program “The Scientific Approach,” a system that has its roots in the precision cutting techniques developed by Vidal Sassoon in the 1960s. Students spend two months in class, practicing those techniques on mannequins, and learning some surprisingly complex material on chemistry and disorders of the skin. But the heart of the school is the bustling, ground-floor salon, where Williams presides calmly over dozens of student hairstylists, three or four instructors and hundreds of customers a day.

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