For years, accomplished hair stylist Kiyotaka Tsutsumi worked with several renowned hair salons in Tokyo, including Uka and Album Hair, creating looks for clients, competitions (Excel Assistant Collection, Level Design Award, NOISE), and fashion shoots for magazines such as Biteki, Bi story, Fudge and Hitoiki.
Then, in the late 2010s, Tsutsumi relocated to the United States, New York City specifically, to continue his impressive career. In New York, he’s been working with MEY, one of the best-reviewed hair studios in the city.
Tsutsumi has also styled many celebrities, including Jessie Li, Ebecho Muslimova, Tiffany Meier, and he also created George Hu’s look for the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.
Tsutsumi has maintained his reputation for expertise and excellence across every job and every location he’s ever worked. That much is clear. But we wanted to know more about some of the key differences in work culture between Japan and the U.S. and also the differences when it comes to professional hair styling.
Fortunately, we had the chance to interview Tsutsumi and discuss the topic in detail. Of course, we also covered other aspects of his career, from working with famous salons to his work with celebrities.
You’ll find all this and more below.
You worked with Uka for quite a long time. Did you enjoy working with such a well-known salon? What was the atmosphere like?
Tsutsumi: Yes, I enjoyed it so much and their atmosphere was very welcoming. There were people of various generations working at Uka, ranging from people around my parents’ generation to young kids who had just entered the workforce. So even though we were each other’s seniors and juniors, I remember that after working together for a long time, we were all getting close to each other as if we were family.
And that’s how I spent my time with everyone; I was learning not only my skills as a hair stylist, but also my attitude toward work and how to face life through my work as a hairstylist, which is the core of who I am today.
What inspired your relocation to New York? Was this a difficult transition?
Tsutsumi: I first visited New York when I was 25 years old. I don’t remember what magazine it was, but a cool guy in some magazine talked about how you should go to New York at least once by the age of 25. I didn’t have much money at the time, but I went on a very short trip of five days and three nights, and on the way from JFK airport to Manhattan by cab, I remember being overwhelmed by the skyscrapers I saw from the bridge. And when I got off near Times Square for the first time, I intuitively felt, “Oh, this is my city.”
Funny, right? But that feeling is what made me move to New York when I was 30 years old. I came to New York after obtaining an artist visa to work as a beautician in the U.S. To be honest, obtaining that visa was very difficult. However, many people helped me, and thanks to all of them, I am now able to live in New York. So even now, when I go back to Japan temporarily, I stop by to express my gratitude to the people who helped me.
Have you noticed any major differences between working in Japan and working in the US?
Tsutsumi: There is a huge difference between Japan and the U.S. in terms of work. I have lived in the US for five years and have traveled abroad a lot. I have no doubt that the hospitality industry in Japan is world-class. I worked as a hair stylist in Japan for over 10 years. I have always thought about how to impress my customers and not make them feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it is not only me, but I think it is something that all Japanese think about.
Unfortunately, though the Japanese hospitality industry is one of the best in the world, the salaries are very low. On the other hand, in the U.S., salaries are very high. New Yorkers, in particular, are willing to pay more for something they think is good. So we are more motivated and try to behave in a more professional manner. And what surprised me when I came to the U.S. is how few people judge others by their appearance. For example, I tend to look young, but as a hair stylist, as long as I have good technique, everyone in America gives me good marks. That made me very happy.
You’ve styled many celebrities during your career. Have you always felt comfortable working with celebrities?
Tsutsumi: Yes, I have cut and styled the hair of many celebrities. What I always keep in mind is that I do not do anything special just because they are celebrities. I do what I usually do. By doing so, I feel that we are both very comfortable with each other.
Is there a single look you’ve created that you feel represents some of your best work?
Tsutsumi: If I had to pick one, I loved the look I created for a hair competition a long time ago. Every day for a month I thought about the clothes, the makeup, the hairstyles, and the balance with the models. I remember that the competition was very hard because the rule was that the haircut and styling had to be done in about 20 minutes on the day.
I was still young at the time, and there were times when I did not sleep for two or three days because I practiced too much. Then, on the day of the competition, I received an award. It was not a big competition, but it was an irreplaceable look for me.
When you’re participating in a competition, do you have a consistent strategy? Do you try to create very unique looks?
Tsutsumi: There is no consistent strategy in particular. One thing I do keep in mind, however, is that my priority is to create a haircut that suits the model rather than to create a unique haircut.
My idea of a stylish person is someone who, when walking down the street, makes you look back and say, “Oh, that person is so stylish.” Sometimes we see people who have a unique hairstyle but it doesn’t suit them, right? When you see such a person, would you think that person is fashionable? I want to create fashionable people. That doesn’t change in competition or at the hair salon.
Has your perspective on hair styling changed over time? Have you learned any important lessons from your experience?
Tsutsumi: Yes. My approach to not only hair styling, but all of my work is constantly changing. I am constantly learning, and I think that helps me improve, giving me even more to offer.