From humble beginnings to becoming one of the most sought-after hairstylists in Singapore, the down-to-earth and affable Edward Chong, partner at Evolve Salon, shares with us his perspectives on life and how he got started doing what he does best.
Honing his craft for close to twenty years, his versatile and fashionable designs has also won him many accolades and features in leading magazines around the region. STYLEGUIDE books a session with Edward to find out more about how he started and what lies behind his creative designs.
How did you get started initially and what inspired you to do what you do?
I was never one who liked to study. When I was younger I knew that any job in the future that I would like to do would be something less restrictive, so I can find it fun and enjoyable, not the usual 9-to-5 office job.
I'm not someone who can wake up very early, wear the same clothes and do the same thing all over again.
My choice was partly inspired by my cousin who is a hairstylist as well. When I was growing up, I saw him cut and style the hair of our family members and I thought to myself that it looked rather interesting, so why not try it out for myself?
I find fashion quite interesting and fun as it is always evolving and changing.
And it so happened after my O-levels that I also had a senior who had decided to become a hairstylist, and she shared with me about how it was like. I decided to then enroll at a local hair academy to learn the skills, and I have never looked back since.
Were there any things in your personal life back then that you felt dissatisfied with?
There hasn’t been anything that I’ve been dissatisfied with. The closest would be when I was working full-time at my previous salon, and there came a time when I was bored with the routine that I had.
Initially, I had envisioned being a hairstylist to be a job that would be less routine-like and restrictive, but it had started to become a 9-to-5 job.
I wanted to do something different, so I decided to explore a different aspect of hairstyling. I challenged myself by doing “session styling” (a term used to describe working on editorial work), which allowed me to work with magazines to do editorial work.
Anything to do, or relate with hair I can try.
This allowed me to unleash and stretch my creativity, as well as try my hand at creating and experimenting with different looks.
What was your experience like, starting from scratch with no connections?
Singapore is still considered small, so back then you really need to know people, have some connections and through recommendations, you get to be exposed more.
It's all about exposure – You do magazines, they credit your name; Through photographers, make-up artists and such who recommend hairstylists. Everything just grow. You just have to do pretty much like a lot back then.
Definitely as you are starting out, being new, you will have to do a lot of charity work. And I wasnt that experienced as well, any opportunity is also for me to learn. There might be mistakes, but you just have to learn, think about it and prove your value.
I would say to be really stable, I was working a lot back then, so it took at least 8 years to be recognised and to convince people to believe in you and your ideas.
Back then and the times now is different. Back then there was no social media so people don't know us, or don't know me. There are very limited ways that others would be able to hear about us. Our magazines may not be seen overseas, so our names may not go out.
But right now with social media, people keep reposting or tagging. If your work can be seen internationally now, things get easier for the younger generation compared to our times. That's why back then it takes a longer time.
I think it’s the same for any business, not just hairstyling. With instagram or with any social media, you can get known faster.
What was the biggest thing that you've learnt from these opportunities?
The biggest thing that I learnt…Well, I get to work with different people most of the times, and learning how to communicate is very important, because you need to - it's teamwork.
Anything that is not right might just spoil the whole thing.
It might be make-up or the hair, or the pictures do not come out nice, or somehow you just find that the hair doesn’t feel right - in terms of beauty, most of us in this line are quite sensitive. There might just be something lacking.
When you are more experienced, your mind and your brain think faster - what is right, what is wrong? And that’s something we have to learn, and not just be stubborn that “I want it like this” without compromising.
Sometimes you just have to let go and listen to others’ opinions, so teamwork with communication has been the biggest thing I’ve learnt.
What would you say is your purpose in life?
It's a really hard question. I'm actually very simple. I never want to impose a lot of stress onto myself, but sometimes work have to stress a little bit.
My aim in life is just to take things as they come and enjoy everything that life has to offer.
You know whatever thing that comes, I will just deal with it. I don't want to think too far. It's too stressful and I prefer it this way.
In hairstyling, it's just like education – there's never a full stop.
We are still learning new things everytime. With fashion, everything is changing so I also have to learn new things and move along with time.
As long as you do what you are good at, and you try your best, I think that should be good enough.
For my trade, it's more about creativity. If you impose too much stress, you might be too eager to do it. Sometimes, that might not be a good thing.
We like to create, so we like to let things flow. We absorb anything that comes around - what we see, what we hear, and so on.
When you push too hard, it might just backfire.
We are all in the creative line and we dont like to be too restricted. That's how I feel.
Every hairstylist is different. There will not be someone who shares the same thoughts, or do the same things. It might be the same haircut that comes out finished, but it could have been a different technique used that created it.
Everybody sees beauty differently.
What is the change or impact that you want to make in this world?
It might not sound like much, but I would like to give back to society by sharing my knowledge, skills and experience with younger generation of hairstylists. Times are different today, and I would like to impart what I know to them so that they don’t have to go through what we had to in the past.
Because back then, it's not as easy.
And back then, in the past, people are more…how to say, they don't share that much, unless you pay. Because it's a skill of a lifetime, and it's their ricebowl; if they teach you, you can be considered their competitor already.
Unless you are learning from instructors in schools, or you pay to learn from others. If not , just by sharing, sometimes it can be quite tough.
Do you still see the old culture within the industry?
These days people are more towards sharing actually, because in Singapore the market is not so big. Most of us know each other, and sharing helps to make our hair industry better. Everybody also don't want a bad name for the hair industry, so if the industry creates a very healthy and clean environment, it works better for everyone.
I mean, to me there is no such thing as competitors, or “you snatch my customer”.
To me it's a free market, customers are free to go wherever they're comfortable. Some customers like to change, they might come to me for these two months, then go to another stylist for two months, and then go to another one for two months. But you never know when they'll come back again. They might. After a while, after changing so much, they will think, "Actually, I have not seen Edward for half a year, let's go for a quick haircut with him".
Everything comes back.
I'm sure for all trades it's the same. You might leave this company but you know, maybe 5 years down the road, you could be back in the same company but maybe in a different role or position.
Where do you get your creativity and ideas from?
Everywhere and anywhere. I mean, technology is so advanced, I just need to go online and look at what people are doing, youtube, magazines, anything can be an inspiration for me as long as I am able to relate to it and evolve it from what it is.
Whatever comes. I also look at fashion shows, we need to know the trend, like what is coming next. Even clothes and makeup, we have to know a little bit about everything before we can know and create what looks better.
And these days, people are not just showing the fashion shows, they are going behind the scenes. So we get to see even more, even the hairstylists are sharing things! Instagram is really a very good platform I must say.
I also travel to different places and different cultures, it can be very inspiring and interesting to see how each country and their people handle their hair.
Can you share your greatest inspiration or motivation in life?
Myself. Everything I have achieved today is because I worked towards it, I've gone through what I've gone through to be where I am today. So even in the future, I will still be the one pushing myself onwards.
Because if you don't tell yourself that you want to do it, you will not be able to achieve whatever you set yourself to.
I look forward to enjoying life when I work, because I enjoy what I'm doing. That's why you have to find joy and pleasure in what you are working on. I don't think what I’m doing is just work…it's a lifestyle, becoming part of me.
What were some of the biggest challenges you've faced, in life or in business?
Evolve is my first business venture, and being a partner is not without its challenges this is a very hands-on project for me and for my other partners. Running a business is more than just being a good hairstylist.
I also have to be a manager and that involves dishing out discipline at times. It is a delicate relationship to balance. But I like to think of the staff at Evolve as my colleagues, and that all of us are working towards the same goal, which is to build a name for the salon, and that definitely helps get us through when times are rough.
We also share with them about business itself, so everybody will learn - in time to come if they were to leave us and venture out on their own – and they might get a little bit more information that helps them so they won’t have to go through our mistakes.
There are many things involved in running a business and as it is a first for us, there are bound to be mistakes made. But what matters more is that we learn from these mistakes and grow from them.
What do you do to recharge when you're feeling drained?
The advantage of being a freelancer is that I manage my own time. That means I try not to let myself get overwhelmed or stressed. But for the times that I do feel drained, I destress by doing simple things, such as staying at home to relax, watch television or even just doing nothing. If not, I also like to travel as that not only brings about a sense of freedom and relaxation but also opens my mind and allows me to be inspirated at the same time.
What does success mean to you and what is the greatest success you've experienced?
For hairstylists in general, I think everybody wants to have their own salon. It's a dream for most I'm sure. But they might not know what comes after that. Being a partner in the salon when I turned 30 is something I consider one of the successes in my life.
Another would be the ability to work as a freelance hairstylist, which means I am able to work with the clients when I need to, but am also able to do other things, such as editorial or commercial work, on the side.
What is the most interesting life experience you've had so far?
As a session hairstylist, I have been extremely fortunate to travel all across the world for work. I have been to Paris, China, New Zealand and Australia, among many others, and while the work is tough because of the long hours on set, it has also been fun and enlightening. Having to work on-the-go, because sometimes the shoots are outdoors in the middle of nowhere and we have limited resources available (i.e. no proper electricity, lighting) makes the experience challenging but also very interesting.
I still remember my first New Zealand trip for a work trip. Everybody was stuck in a bus for hours just to get to another location, but we managed to make it fun and not so boring. Instead of hotels, we rented a bed and breakfast apartment. When we were not working at night, we were just talking about life and sharing our dreams. And coincidentally, we passed by a bungee jump and I decided to take the plunge. It was completely impromptu without any planning or discussion! It was a pretty fun trip I would say.
What would your ideal lifestyle be like in the next 1, 5 and 10 years?
I am very fortunate to be able to do what I like, so honestly, this does not feel like a job. And being able to work as a freelancer means I am able to manage my own time. This is the lifestyle I have desired to have, and will still want to have years down the road. If I am still able to work like this and enjoy my life in the next 1,5 or 10 years, I would consider myself extremely lucky to do so.
Thanks to my job, I am able to travel and see the world and I get to meet interesting people. Sometimes I think that my life right now feels as if it’s a semi-retired one, but of course it’s not. But I like the freedom I have. I’m not restricted to being at work 9-to-5 every day, stuck behind a desk, so what’s there not to enjoy?
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just be yourself, and continue doing the things you want to. Whatever decision you make, accept it and don’t regret it.
I believe that the person I am today is because of the things I have encountered when I was younger, so I wouldn’t change a thing. My past has contributed to what I have achieved today, so it's very important to me for my growth as a person.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
I've never been someone who wants to be somebody famous.
Instead, I just want to be someone who can be good enough to make a change in people’s lives. The change doesn’t have to be very big. It can be something as simple as making a client smile because I gave him/her a good cut or to be able to impart my skills and knowledge to the younger generation of hairstylists.