How Hong Kong’s first Korean barber adapted the male grooming experience to Asian hair and needs

Sangyoon Lee quit banking intending to be a rooftop gardener, but had an epiphany at a New York barbershop. His company, Herr, offers Western-style, men-only grooming with added luxury and a focus on Asian hair and beards

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 7:00am

Male grooming is increasing in popularity. Sangyoon Lee, founder of Korean barbershop franchise Herr, has sought to capitalise on this trend, celebrating the best of what barbering has to offer, tailored for Asia.

Founded in 2014, Herr has expanded with three branches in Seoul, and most recently a shop in Hong Kong, at Central menswear boutique Attire House. The company deliberated for a while over where to open its first outlet overseas, with Lee having received offers to open up in Beijing, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur.

“Meeting the right partners is very important in foreign ventures. The philosophy of the entrepreneur is also very important. Luckily, I met Roger Chan and Brandon Chau [co-founders of Attire House], who are very passionate about creating a men’s alternative grooming place,” says Lee.

What was so special about the experience was being able to spend time around other men
Sangyoon Lee

Lee worked in acquisitions at Goldman Sachs and UBS, but quit his job with the initial intention of building an organic rooftop gardening business in Seoul. He decided to spend some time in New York to study the rooftop gardening business. It was at that time that he visited Freemans Sporting Club and used its grooming services. This left a deep impression on him.

Lee says: “What was so special about the experience was being able to spend time around other men. There are customers who go to a barbershop every 10 days, and these customers really feel a sense of community and belonging. It’s in this kind of space that men can talk about their personal life, how they would like to look, personal problems, etc. I really loved that experience, and wanted to recreate that in Seoul.”

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“We encourage our barbers to build a true friendship with all their clients. Sometimes you need a guy who listens to you. Sometimes you need a guy who will give you a pep talk. So we really emphasise to our barbers to be the guy that’s there all the time,” says Lee.

While Lee has directly imported certain aspects of the Western grooming experience, he has also adapted it for the Asian market. Given the competitiveness of the beauty and grooming industry in Seoul, he fashioned the experience to be high-end. In Seoul, customers are offered a glass of whiskey and a complementary shoe shine with their shave. He also ensures that barbers are trained with an understanding of Asian hair.

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“Our team is specialised in handling typical Asian hair. We help suggest haircuts and shaves that suit Asian facial features. After the cut, we also offer a shampoo service. When you go to a regular barbershop in the West, they don’t offer that.”

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This attention to detail has not gone unnoticed. A variety of luxury brands have been keen to collaborate with Herr. The company has worked with brands such as Gucci, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, providing VIP customer care, grooming tutorials, haircuts and other treatments for these brands’ customers. Louis Vuitton also took over the shop for a month, decking the space in the French house’s travel books and monogrammed furniture. Herr has also provided consulting and product development advice for Aesop’s shaving products.

“When I interview potential barbers, I usually ask ‘what kind of pomade do you use?’ It’s a basic question, but half of them tell me they’ve never used pomade before. That doesn’t make any sense! So I think the basic requirement is to find people with the same passion for barbering services and the culture,” says Lee.

“We don’t attract our customers by advertisement. We don’t put ourselves in magazines. They sometimes come to us, but we don’t spend a single penny on advertising. Customer referrals are what we really value, and that’s how we grow the business. This is how we win clients over and earn their trust.”