Obituary | Few hairstylists working on our island, indeed anywhere, could count Lee Radziwill and Christie Brinkley as clients. Fewer still had worked on their hair in the celebrities’ residence. Shunji Matsuo was one
Yesterday morning, it was revealed by staff of Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio that the Japanese hairstylist/founder of the eponymous salon, has passed away in his hometown of Kobe. Mr Matsuo died of cancer; he was 67.
Considered one of our city’s most successful hairdressers, Mr Matsuo owns (or co-owns) 10 salons in Singapore. The number does not include branches in Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, which had prompted The Business Times to call him “a veritable salon mogul”. The 18-year permanent resident had become one of the biggest players in the business, beating even David Gan, arguably the most famous celebrity hairstylist here, by the sheer number of salons under his name.
Yet, Mr Matsuo did not share Mr Gan’s staggering client roster of famous local and regional names. He did, however, enjoy many moments working with some of the most noted personalities in international fashion, especially in New York City, where he started in 1974. Among the many names associated with the New York beau monde of the ’70s and ’80s, one stood out for Mr Matsuo: Lee Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy. Mr Matsuo liked to regale willing listeners with this particular story. He was at Ms Radziwill’s apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue one day, working on her hair, when he accidentally spilled water on the floor. Mortified by his own clumsiness, he immediately asked for “a dirty towel” to mop up the mess. She replied, and he often retold this with relish, “We do not have dirty towels!”
Shunji Matsuo’s 2008 version of the layered cut, styled with a gentle beehive. Photo: Rui Liang/Lightspade Studio, Styling: Vik Lim, Makeup: Yuan Sng
Shunji Matsuo’s reminiscences of the early days of his career were often spiked with comedic incidences and name-dropping, all the while full of the wonder of a small-town boy made good in a big city. He claimed that at the start, he did not know who the people he had attended to were, such as model Karen Graham, model/actress Lauren Hutton, and Victoria Newhouse, the wife of Condé Nast Publication’s Si Newhouse. But, interestingly, when it came to Polly Mellon, he knew who she was, enough at least to be disappointed that she did not invite him to do a shoot with her for Vogue. He would later recount that “although she told me, ‘you’re a genius’, she had never asked me to work for her”, unaware that the affectations of New Yorkers shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, Mr Matsuo’s scant knowledge of the society which he served was brief for he soon knew he was onto bigger things when he assisted in a shoot lensed by Richard Avedon.
Like many successful Asian hairdressers, including the Segamat-born David Gan, Mr Matsuo rose from humble beginnings. Born in Kobe to a restaurateur father and housewife mother, he was not academically inclined, nor, by his own admission, “a lover of sports or anything”. At age fifteen, shortly after his father died of liver failure, he chanced upon an article in a woman’s monthly Joeseishin that featured a Japanese man who was known to the local media as “Widow Kennedy’s Hairdresser”. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, even in mourning, had always looked immaculately groomed and her Oleg Cassini for hair was a petite New Yorker from Tokyo named Suga Yusuke.
Known simply as Suga, Mrs Kennedy’s go-to hairdresser probably inspired many young Japanese eager to leave their country for the much-admired USA. Born in a Japanese colony close to Beijing, Suga and his family moved back to Japan after his father died in a car accident when he was 10 months old. The Yusukes finally settled in Tokyo, where Suga later studied and worked. Unmotivated in the capital and in love with everything American (“I loved chocolate kisses and Bazooka bubblegum,” he told the press), Suga moved to New York and quickly found employment with hairdresser-to-the-stars Mr Kenneth. Through hard work, determination, and no small measure of luck, he soon became the widowed Mrs Kennedy’s hairdresser.
Suga and Shunji Matsuo in New York in the mid-’70s. Photo: Shunji Matsuo
Mr Matsuo was completely taken with Suga’s success story and was so inspired by it that he made up his mind instantly to be a hairdresser—the decision no longer requiring the blessing of a paternal figure. That article, an eight-page spread, was so central to his resolve that he had it laminated for posterity. A former journalist who had seen the preserved, yellowed black-and-white tear-sheets told SOTD that “Shunji was quite obsessed with that magazine profile of his idol. He was a rather sentimental person, and he won’t forget that editorial piece because it really changed his life.”
In 1968, he left Kobe for Tokyo and enrolled for a hairdressing course in Yamano Beauty School, unsurprisingly Suga’s alma mater. Three years later, Suga visited Tokyo to scout for new talents to staff his first salon in Manhattan. Mr Matsuo, who had by then graduated and returned to Kobe, was beyond ecstatic when he read about it in a magazine, and, without hesitation, applied for the selection and left immediately for Tokyo.
Although he was picked after a surprisingly simple selection process, nothing came out of it. Suga had left the city. Undeterred, Mr Matsuo made his way to Los Angeles in 1973, first, to receive an American license at the US branch of Yamano Beauty School so that he could work, and second, to somehow reconnect with his idol. He called Suga, who had not forgotten the young man, and immediately invited him to New York to work. In 1974, his Big Apple adventure began.
Two years after he relocated to New York, Shunji Matsuo was to witness Suga enjoying his most intoxicating professional high. The place was Innsbruck, Austria in 1976, and figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s double axels and stupendous spins had won her Olympic gold. But the audience that day witnessed more than just sporting excellence; they saw a short, lively hairdo dubbed the “wedge” and fell in love with it. The “wedge” would forever be synonymous with Suga, opening more doors for him than he had ever hoped to open.
Mr Matsuo began to reap Suga’s success, assisting the latter on both commercial and editorial shoots. One of these was with Richard Avedon, who was just commissioned by a very young and new Gianni Versace to helm the campaign for his first boutique in the US. Gianni Versace was the breakout star of 1981, but Mr Matsuo wasn’t aware of that, and recalled that he “had to work very fast because there were so many models”. In fact, during this period, Mr Matsuo did the hair of some of the best models of the time: Iman, Kelly LeBrock, Janice Dickinson, and Pat Cleveland. But all this while, he had only been an assistant to Suga.
Things changed in 1983. Suga had to go to Tokyo to discuss a business partnership with haute couture designer Hanae Mori. According to Mr Matsuo, he was not aware of what that was about. He was only a little upset that the boss had not asked him to go along. As it turned out, Suga was in talks with Ms Mori’s son Kei to set up Studio V, a chain of salon cum boutiques. During Suga’s absence, Shunji Matsuo was asked to attend a Richard Avedon shoot on his own and the client was Christian Dior. That became the turning point for Suga’s young assistant.
“Although he never said if both of them really got on (they had a professional relationship rather than a social one), he was full of respect for the guy,” the former journalist told SOTD, “but in the end, he did not want to walk in Suga’s shadow.” In 1984, Shunji Matsuo decided to part ways with his mentor/idol Suga Yusuke. After he left, he did not immediately set up his own salon. Instead, he chose to freelance, a professional arrangement not uncommon among hairdressers then (and even now). He soon met Christiaan Houtenbos, a Dutchman working the New York fashion circuit and was known as the “Master of Short”.
It is not hard to see why Mr Matsuo found himself drawn to Christiaan, as he was called. Like Suga, Christiaan preferred short, ‘sassy’ hair, and was behind some of the most iconic looks of the ’80s, such as Debbie Harry’s messy locks and Grace Jones’s flat top (later so strikingly paired with a Giorgio Armani jacket for the Jean Paul Goude-designed cover of her album Nightclubbing). In 1986, Christiaan invited Mr Matsuo to Paris to assist the former in his work during Paris Fashion Week. The designer show that the Japanese found himself doing was that of a compatriot’s: Comme des Garçons.
Through Christiaan, Mr Matsuo found himself working more on fashion shows, such as those by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who became a mentor of sorts; and socialising with up-and-coming editorial stars, such as the stylist Paul Cavaco (who mostly teamed up with Bruce Weber) and the fashion journalist Andre Leon Talley (then with Interview). In 1986, Mr Matsuo accepted a print job, which turned out to be a high point of his career since going solo. Shot in Big Sur, California, the photograph of model Kirsten was selected for the cover of the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, his first American title. Covers beget covers, and he was soon commissioned to work on more Bazaar covers, as well as those of New York and Interview.
All through the latter half of the ’80s, one photographer was a constant in Mr Matsuo’s attempts to align himself with fashion bigwigs of the time and to score editorial features: Gilles Bensimon. Credited for assisting in the launch of American Elle in 1981, Mr Bensimon—what 21st Century New Yorkers call a ‘modelizer’—married Elle Macpherson after his first divorce. Mr Matsuo met model Christie Brinkley in a shoot lensed by Mr Bensimon, and the model and hairdresser, by Mr Matsuo’s account, hit it off. Soon he was asked to visit the residence Ms Brinkley shared with then husband Billy Joel to do her hair. These were happy times, as he recounted, but things took a turn when he made an unwise request. Mr Matsuo had asked the model’s agent if it was alright that in accepting no charge for his services, he could announce that he was Christie Brinkley’s hairdresser. He got his answer when she did not called him back again.
It was never really discussed if, despite his high-profile clients of the ’80s, Shunji Mastuo was a truly talented hairstylist. People do choose hairstylists the way they choose bartenders: based on the inclination to listen. Fashion folks here who have worked with him consider him a good “shoot stylist”, but no one could recall if he, like Suga and Christiaan, had created anything memorable with cuts. From the bob to balayage, he has done them all, often under the guise of “Japanese techniques”. No one, however, could confirm if they were. To be sure, he is a competent hairdresser, but nobody would say for certain that he was extraordinary. His work in recent years, as one of them noted, was about dreaming up all sorts of effects on hair using hair (sometimes with hair pieces), the effect much like flower arrangement or ikebana.
Mr Matsuo’s love of hair pieces, usually coloured like kueh lapis kukus, came about at the time he had some hair designs photographed for the biographical book, Mane Man, which he was preparing in 2007. He wanted to create some rather over-the-top looks, but was limited by the length and thickness of the hair of the models he had booked. Someone suggested that he could cut hair from wigs, colour them, and attached them onto the models’ head in any fashion he wished. The idea fired his imagination, and he would from then on work with lengths of coloured hair that could be piled like Lego bricks. Unhindered (unhinged, some would say), he laid heaps of them on heads with gusto.
It is not clear if this penchant for the dramatic was a belated expression of what to him was real creativity, or if he was compensating for what he was not able to do in the salon. It is also plausible that this was to show that he had come into his own, no longer eclipsed by Suga or anyone else to whom he was a mere assistant. The creative outburst was less about leaving behind an artistic legacy than simply doing what he wanted to do without being told that he could not. He once said, “In America, I always had a boss or a partner. In Asia, I am my own boss, and I could do anything my own way.”
Shunji Matsuo working on a model during a hair show. Photo: 色影师
As the ’90s unfolded, Mr Matsuo may have realised that he was not going to leave a mark on New York fashion the way others before him did. America had taught him to survive the fashion system there, and to play the publicity games and manoeuvre the social circuit to stay afloat, but it had not fostered the innovation that would elevate him to the iconic status of those he had admired. As a former stylist remarked to SOTD, “During those days, being an Asian in America wasn’t easy. There was only room for one Suga.”
In 1990, Suga—the reason Mr Matsuo went to America—passed away, and the news deeply affected his one-time assistant. Mr Matsuo realised that an era had passed and he sensed that a new chapter of his life had to be written. After opening two moderately successful salons—37.57 on 57th street and Salon Ziba, a precursor to today’s Korean ‘quick cuts’—Shunji Matsuo decided, in the mid-’90s, to leave New York City.
His next port of call was Jakarta. Odd as his choice might have been, he was certain that the Indonesian capital was where he would rebirth the glory he had experienced in New York. Tokyo would have been a logical choice, but he would be, as he told friends, “just a Japanese working among Japanese.” He felt Jakarta would be where he could stand out and be outstanding. Sadly for him, just a year after his salons opened (he moved from one location to another), Indonesia experienced the worse political turmoil of its modern history. The capital city was descending into chaos, an inevitability that resulted from the resignation of President Suharto, whose regime was not able to escape the contagion effect of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. Mr Matsuo had to leave—“escape” was how he put it.
He arrived in Singapore in 1998, part of a hastily put together plan to flee a city in disorder that he had thought to call home. After a month holed up in the YMCA on Stamford Road and unable (or unwilling?) to do anything (“I was depressed,” he had admitted), he decided to return to Kobe upon the urging of his family. Two weeks later, he was back in Jakarta, then on the road to recovery, but things were not going to be the same. He then decided to rebuild his professional life in Singapore. It was here that he finally found success and recognition, and, more significantly, a salon that bears his very own name. In 1999, Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio opened in Wellington Building, right in the beating heart of Orchard Road.
In 2010, after Shunji Matsuo Hair Studio vacated Wellington Building, where the first salon was opened, it relocated to Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Photo: Zhao XIangji
But Singapore was not to be his next New York. The market was too small and the celebrities that he had hoped to charm were ensnared by others such as the ebullient and ambitious David Gan. Moreover, most of his target customers had not heard of him. His spanking new salon at Wellington Building was no Passion, a sweeping anchor at Palais Renaissance. Mr Matsuo understood the need for publicity and he was determined to be the celebrity hairstylist he had come to consider himself to be. Accept for the executives of hair product brands, he knew very few people here. His best bet was to seek a conduit, and he found it in Jennifer Dunbar, a PR old hat who was not a fashion industry staple, but was able to get her client into magazines, such as the now defunct NTUC Lifestyle. Mr Matsuo was disappointed that he was not doing the high-profile jobs that he desired, but he did not let on. He was grateful for the opportunities, and he soldiered on, as he had before.
A breakthrough of sorts presented itself in 2008 when Mr Matsuo did the hair of the models of Thomas Wee’s comeback show during Singapore Fashion Week of that year. “I think he is good,” Mr Wee had said, “With his many years of experience and with old-school training, he is not your average ‘Orchard Road Salon’ hairstylist. I like to think that he has a lot of energy to be creative.” Bitten by the local fashion show bug, Shunji Matsuo would position his salon as a major sponsor for many of our city’s catwalk presentations.
But his love of fashion shows was not restricted to what went on backstage or the mayhem among the models. He liked it upfront, on the runway, in full view of an audience. A keen participant in hair shows, he would organise his company’s annual dinner and dance as a hair show too, with competing teams creating outlandish styles that encouraged boisterous cheers. He would invite industry folks to serve as judges. It was fun and it was serious, and it reflected his belief that the hair-styling business is glamourous.
Shunji Matsuo with his ‘models’ before the Makeover Magic in Kobe last year. Photo: Shunji Mastuo
In 2013, a new idea for a show emerged. It would put not only his hair designs on stage, but also the creator in the limelight. Following his fixation with hair pieces, Mr Matsuo came to know a wig maker who wove pieces out of real hair. So impressed by these wigs was he that he decided that he would do a hair show by styling the wigs on those who needed them most: cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Makeover Magic was thus born and the first show was staged in Kobe. It would become an annual event (in Singapore too), and it would be extended to elderly ladies who wanted a chance to look simply extraordinary. Modern business practices would have called this corporate social responsibility, but Mr Matsuo did not describe it as such.
Makeover Magic was well received in Japan, bringing accolades to its Japanese creator, who, prior to this, did not think he had made it in his home country. But skeptics found what Mr Matsuo did to be too over-the-top to be a makeover in the conventional sense. He was not working with wigs alone; he added those hair pieces he had come to love. Some attendees thought the old ladies looked victimised—a ridiculous remodeling that was the vain indulgence of one man than the true enjoyment of the duped. In Singapore, some called it “搞笑行动” (gao xiao xing dong) or comedy routine, or, to steal an Italian Vogue cover blurb, “makeover madness”, but conceded that for many of the participants, it was the fun rather than the fantasy that was magical. Mr Matsuo was unfazed by his critics, and he believed in his mission of making people happy, even for the brief moment they were playing dressed-up, more so after being diagnosed with the dreaded disease cancer.
An admirer of Lee Kuan Yew (and other dogmatic personalities such as his favourite author, the “god of business consulting” Yukio Funai), Mr Matsuo considered Singapore very much his home. It was only in the last two years that he started going back to Japan frequently, partly to stage Makeover Magic, partly to seek treatment for his debilitating illness. Against the odds, and against an industry dominated by an influential few, he was able to produce Shunji Matsuo 2.0. Although he did not create anything akin to the “wedge” of his first employer in America, nor left a legacy that would be invaluable to the annals of Singapore fashion, Shunji Matsuo will always be remembered as the one who came and conjured.