At age 21, Shunji Matsuo left Kobe, Japan, for New York City where he went on to make a name for himself by styling the hair of Cindy Crawford and Madonna.
With changing times and fortunes, however, Asia now has the cutting edge.
'About 20 to 30 years ago, Asians went to London and New York to learn how to cut hair. Today, Asian hairdressers, especially the Japanese, have the best cutting and colouring techniques,' he says.
'Now, stylists from New York and London go to Tokyo to learn their craft.'
He should know. The 58-year-old marked his 40th year in the business earlier this month by launching his biography Mane Man - The Life And Styles Of Shunji Matsuo.
A glitzy fashion show, featuring 20 models sporting 20 iconic hairstyles in the past four decades like the mohawk and the bob, was held at the National Museum.
Matsuo donated the $4,240 raised from the sale of his book that night to The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.
The hairstylist, who has lived here since 1999 and became a permanent resident in 2001, has nothing but praise for his Singaporean counterparts.
'Singaporean hairstylists are very international,' he says. 'They travel to many cities to learn the techniques and have an open mind towards hairstyling.'
Despite his experience and star-studded clientele - he also worked with fashion luminaries like photographer Richard Avedon and fashion designer Donna Karan during his 22 years in New York - his charges remain down to earth: $80 for a haircut.
|The fashion show featured Matsuo's styles from the past four decades, such as the mohawk (above).
It is small change compared to other celebrity hairstylists like David Gan ($339 for a haircut) and Kim Robinson ($1,580 per haircut).
The difference between him and Gan, he says, is that 'David takes care of famous actors and actresses while I take care of regular people'.
'We don't compete with each other and I respect him as a hairdresser.'
His affordable charges ensure that everyone gets 'a chance to have a good haircut'.
He is not immune to inflation though. When he started his flagship salon here at 01-01 Wellington Building in 1999, he charged $65. This was raised to $70 in 2003, then to $80 about a year ago.
'Products are becoming more expensive,' he explains.
On average, he sees between 17 and 20 clients a day who make bookings up to three weeks in advance.
Although local actresses like Michelle Chong, Jesseca Liu and May Phua can be spotted at his salon, he maintains that nine out of 10 of his customers are 'working professionals, not tai-tais'.
This is why he excels in giving them 'easy maintenance looks' that suit the weather here.
As publicist Lionnel Lim, who worked with Matsuo on the book and fashion show, says: 'The best thing about Shunji is that he is so humble, but his work over the years speaks for itself.'
When Matsuo decides to take things easy 'maybe in 10 years' time', he hopes to head to Okinawa, Japan, where he says the pace of life is slow and the scenery beautiful.
Loyal customers might still be able to have him work his magic on their hair if they make a trip to the Japanese countryside.
He says with a laugh: 'I don't mind having a small hair salon there.'
» An exhibition of 25 images from the book Mane Man - The Life And Styles Of Shunji Matsuo ($108) is on at the Epson Solutions Centre, 03-18 Wheelock Place, till Dec 10.
» The book is available at all Shunji Matsuo salons (01-01 Wellington Building; Level B1 Isetan Orchard; 03-037 Suntec City Galleria Tower 4 and 03-01 Central Square). It will also be sold at Kinokuniya and other leading bookstores from next month.
Hot on the heels of Shunji Matsuo's charitable efforts comes another hairstylist who is pitching in to help The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.
To mark the 10th anniversary of his hair salon Action Hair Salon, artistic director Vinn Wong held a hair show to raise money for the Fund.
The event, which was held at the Paragon Atrium three weeks ago, had Wong and his team of hairstylists performing the equivalent of hairstyling stunts on the runway to the beat of thumping rock music.
The showstopping bouffant headpieces, masterful backcombing and sleek bobs were enough to inspire guests, who included Senior Minister of State for Education and Information, Communications and the Arts, Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew; Wong's clients and members of the media to donate over $10,000 to the Fund.
'We chose to raise money for The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund because kids are the most innocent and helpless and they deserve all the help we can offer,' said Wong, 35.
He also took the occasion to showcase his handbag designs. He created a collection of eight crocodile skin bags in 'simple and classic designs to fully showcase the quality of the crocodile leather'.
Crocodile leather was the chosen material because 'exotic skin is what makes handbags unique and crocodile skin bags are appealing to my customers', he said of his well-heeled clientele.
He will donate the proceeds of the first handbag he sells to the ST School Pocket Money Fund.
Prices for the bags start from $4,000.
To view and buy the bags, contact Sonnie Tan at Action Hair Salon, 05-33/34 Paragon, on tel: 6732-1003/6738-9038 or e-mail: email@example.com.
This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times on Oct 31, 2008.