By Cho Jae-eun
LONDON, March 5 (Yonhap) — It’s not every day that you get a pair of iconic, reclusive, but immaculately tailored artists peering through your windows. But when precisely that happened to Lee Ki-chul, at his London store Hurwundeki, the Korean expat-turned-entrepreneur didn’t bat an eye.
“A surprised customer came to me one day, saying that (renowned British artists) Gilbert & George were hanging onto the windowsill, glancing at the shop. They eventually came in and complimented the interior of the shop, especially the stripped walls,” says Lee, at his hair salocafe, near Bethnal Green Station in East London.
“After that day, the pair came almost every day and we all became friends. (Model) Kate Moss and (rock singer) Pete Doherty often came to the clothes shop. It received so much attention when I first opened, it was beyond anything I had ever imagined.”
Sipping a cup of fresh coffee he has brewed, the 45-year-old entrepreneur points to a wooly cape hanging on the wall, swearing that it’s a vintage item from the Napoleonic Era. The cafe portion is packed with uber trendy accessories: stuffed animals, ruggedly cut wooden tables, antique chandeliers — and a sofa wrapped in saekdong (colors used in traditional Korean costume) patchworks.
Hurwundeki, meaning “hair” in the dialect from the Korean island of Jeju, seems to be an amalgamation of life experiences that have influenced Lee — memories of his life growing up on the island, times as a 20-something hair salon owner in Seoul, and a period when Lee was a vintage-loving arts student in London, rummaging through flea markets in search of hidden treasures.
“Now all the cafes in London have these stripped down, unfinished walls, but what influenced me to do this to my walls back when I opened the shop was a childhood ‘trauma’ of sorts,” Lee explains.
“My family didn’t have enough money to paint the walls in our house and I was so embarrassed that I never invited any of my friends to come over. I guess in a way, stripping down the paint in my shop was a sort of therapy for me,” he says, laughing.
As a little boy growing up in Andeok, Jeju, Lee says that he felt trapped. “I grew up in the depths of the countryside in Jeju. I felt like the kids I grew up with didn’t dare to dream. It was as if we weren’t allowed to have ambitious dreams and go off and be successful,” he says.
“But I wanted to see the world. I would daydream about giving speeches in some big auditorium, with the U.S. president in attendance.”
Soon after high school, Lee left immediately to go live in Seoul, and at his sister’s insistence, became a hair stylist.
“She kept telling me I had a natural talent for hair. I saw it as my escape from Jeju.”
By his late 20s, Lee, now far from his “suffocating” hometown, had a decade’s worth of success being a hair stylist and salon owner in Seoul. This success moved him towards yet the bigger dream of making the Hurwundeki name global. In 2000, he decided to face up to his lifelong ambition — and ultimate fear — of opening a business in London.
“London was, and still is, an extremely important city to me,” he says, listing some British artists and designers like Vidal Sassoon and Alexander McQueen, whom he admired as a young man.
The feeling of being trapped started creeping up on him again in Seoul, as Lee felt himself grow tired of the uniformity of trends, of “looking at the same outfits on the streets, day-in-and-day-out.”
“But as much as I loved and looked up to London, it was also a source of great fear. If I failed in London, my creativity would never really be validated.”
After graduating from the Vidal Sassoon Academy, Lee made the bold move of opening Hurwundeki near Brick Lane, East London, in 2004. His innovative shop, merging hair, fashion and cafe culture, immediately enjoyed local media attention. By 2011, culture magazine Time Out named Hurwundeki one of its top 40 shops in London.
Lee admits that he has always been quite “gifted” in being entrepreneurial. As a student, his first taste of business in London came when he started selling shoes in Portobello Market that his sister bought from Dongdaemun Market in Seoul and sent to him.
With the money from selling these shoes and some money from his salon business in Korea, Lee opened store after store in London, after the first in 2004. By 2010, Lee owned four stores in London under the Hurwundeki name. “At the height of our popularity, the clothing store on Commercial Street had to close its doors so that customers could only enter one at a time,” says Lee.
The business’ rapid ascent, however, came to a grinding halt in the face of the global economic crisis. Forced to close down three of his four shops by 2011, Lee now operates the salon, cafe and clothing shop under one roof.
“The recession was a big hit in the fashion industry and my store, like all brands, suffered,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes. The other day, my wife (who helps around the shop) said to me, ‘I didn’t come to London to wash dishes.’ Any business worth its salt is going to have ups-and-downs. And my business will always be an ongoing process.”
In a strange twist of fate, Lee decided to go back to the place where, as a little boy, he had so wanted to escape from. In an attempt to push his business forward, Lee went back to his roots, opening a restaurant/cafe on Jeju last year named Osorok, which serves up organic dishes using home-grown vegetables Lee grows himself. He says the restaurant/cafe is the first move for the Hurwundeki brand to go global, and that he has been eyeing Beijing as his next destination.
He still misses Korean food, his parents and friends back home. But after 11 years in London, he admits it’s often difficult to readjust to the “Korean” way of doing things.
“I saw my service staff at Osorok being trained and was so shocked that they were expected to bow to customers at a 90 degree angle. It was quite disgusting actually,” he says, his forehead creasing into a frown. “I am not saying I am British but I just wish that the service mentality in Korea was more natural.”
This natural approach, Lee says, is important for him, in his belief that service or entrepreneurship shouldn’t be forced.
“I think customers recognize when service is coming from the heart. And you have to enjoy what you do to present this kind of attitude.
If you work for 14 hours a day but you don’t grow tired of what you do, other people will like what you are doing as well.”
Having dipped his toes into fashion, hair, interior design and food, Lee says he wants to focus more on hair in the future.
“Fashion and design are mature industries. There is not much I can add. However, the hair industry is still relatively young and there is much more room for innovation and improvement,” Lee says.
Regardless of the field of expertise however, Lee says that it is working and being creative that drives him every day.
“Like Yves Saint Laurent did, I want to work until the day I die.”