Cutting School

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


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Students are expected to learn every aspect of hairstyling, and have to master cutting hair with shears, clippers and razors, as well as the fundamentals of color and highlights, straightening and perms. Each student also spends at least 40 hours at the front desk—practice for the business side of hairstyling. And before they can graduate, they’re expected to perform a dozen shaves, each replete with the hot towel, bristle brush and straightedge razor of an earlier era.

Students work with five to eight customers a day, six days a week. Toward the end of their training, when they begin to work faster, they might see as many as 10 clients a day. It’s the school’s job to attract all those clients, most of whom come for the low prices. A basic haircut is $5.50; a perm and cut starts at $19.95; color begins at $10.95; and you can get highlights starting at $5.

“It’s like a community service,” Williams says. “Clients can pamper themselves for a reasonable price. Standard salons are double to triple our prices.” The fees are just enough for the school to pay the rent for the salon, ensuring that there will be enough clients for the students.

Judging by the number of long-time customers, many are attracted to more than just the low prices. Kimo, a retired Waikiki beachboy who wears his hair like Samson, says he’s been coming to the school’s salon for 10 years. “I get a cut and color,” he says. “In all that time, they only made one mistake, and that was probably my fault. I was in a hurry and didn’t let them leave the chemical in long enough.”

Williams is quick to point out that students can only learn the basics in school; it takes years of practice to become an accomplished stylist. Kimo’s long, swooping hairstyle, for example, isn’t among the cuts taught in the school’s textbook, and its peculiarities eventually flummox the young student working with him. She calls over Susu Danforth, an instructor familiar with Kimo’s trademark style. While Danforth finishes up, Kimo jokes with the young student about the attention he pays to his hair. “I like go out clubbing,” he says with a grin. “If I see you at Ocean Club and ask you go dance, no ignore me now.” When the student asks the name of this singular haircut, Danforth deadpans, “The Kimo.”

At the other end of the salon, a young student named Anousack Sithammalat touches up the long black hair of an unusually serene client. “I come every week to get my roots done,” the woman says softly. “My theory is, if you’re gonna wash away the gray, you might as well be thorough.” Sithammalat works quietly, meticulously sectioning hair and applying the dye to the roots. “This guy, he’s brilliant,” the customer says, beaming. She’s become a faithful customer of Sithammalat, but when he graduates, she’ll choose another student to patronize. “This is the perfect place to be pampered for not much money,” she explains. “I pay $10 to get my roots done. For $3 more, they toss in a scalp massage. So for $13, I’m queen for a day.”

Like Sithammalat, most of the students are part of a young, hip crowd. Many have spiky hair and studs in their lips, but it’s still a diverse group. Danz Pham is a tough young boxer from Waianae who wears his hair in a short, tri-color fade. Before he enrolled, he was working in construction behind the school.

“I was a bad boy,” Pham says. “I used to come in and cruise the students.” But the allure of working indoors, with air-conditioning and all those young women around, convinced him that hairstyling was the profession for him. “Besides,” he says, “I used to cut hair all the time at home. All Waianae boys cut hair.” He still flirts with the girls, but it’s mingled with kibitzing on coloring techniques.

During slow periods in the salon, students sometimes gather among the empty chairs in the back to fiddle with one another’s hair and talk story. Many have family ties in the hair business and relatives who are also graduates of the school. Some students already have chairs waiting for them in family salons. “I’ve got several offers for when I get out,” says Sara Maikui, as she carefully removes hair extensions for another student. “My aunt has a salon in Vegas, if I want to go there. But I think I’ll stick around here for a couple of years first.”

Leo Williams has taught many of Hawaii’s hairstylists—everything from how to hold a comb to how to run a business.

“Foxy” Nga Le, fresh out of high school in Waianae, says her brother came to the school about two years ago, and that her mom and sister-in-law are also hairstylists. Former bartender Jeanine Joseph feels good about her job prospects after graduation. “My cousin, Travis, just graduated,” she points out. “His mom and sister also cut hair. They all work at Studio Kiss in Pearl City.”

Stewart Crockett graduated three years ago, about 20 years after his father, Donald. Donald and his wife own two Fantastic Sams, one in Wahiawa and another in Mililani, so it might seem natural for Stewart to join the family business. “Stewart basically grew up in a salon,” Donald says. Even so, Stewart didn’t envision himself as a hairstylist. “I never thought I could do it,” Stewart says. “It looked hard.” Then, Donald introduced him to Williams.

Stewart found the book side of school difficult, but once he came down to the salon, things began to improve. “The first haircut was the most nerve-wracking,” he says. “In the end, it turned out all right. It wasn’t a perfect haircut, but I didn’t put any rat bites in their head.” He feels that the patience of the instructors and the constant practice eventually revealed a gift. “By the time I came out,” he says, “I was better than my parents.”

Williams keeps track of former students, and many later become instructors at the school. They work as professional hairstylists, but one day a call will lure them back to the school to teach. Mel Kihara graduated nine years ago and now owns Mel’s Barber in Kaimuki. “When I opened it,” Kihara says, “my instructor came by to give me one of those Chinese things you put up on the door that says, Good luck.’ That surprised me—how did they know I had opened a shop?”

In the salon, Williams checks on the student’s work. Her client has chosen a mod Japanese hairstyle called an “octopus” and students gather around as Williams does the final touches. Working his thinning shears like a razor, he carves the upper layers of the client’s hair until it seems to cling tightly to the shape of her head, leaving the long ends to flare down around her shoulders like tentacles. The students nod their heads at his technique. When he finishes, the customer exclaims, “Ooh ... Sassoony!” But Williams has already moved on, his eyes scanning the salon for the next student who needs help.


Freelance writer Dennis Hollier bares his bald spot with a short, layered, barber cut. “I’m just vain enough,” he says, “not to want anyone to think I’m vain.”

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