Carving out a new niche

He's talented and resourceful and so irrepressible that when his career as a TV presenter dead-ended, he simply moved away and snipped out another path for himself

Back in the 1990s, Kraiwit ''Tom'' Bhumsuko used to sing for his supper, but nowadays the former popster gives stage performances of a completely different kind. Wielding a pair of scissors or manoeuvring a comb and a can of hairspray, he strutted his stuff earlier this year styling tresses at Matrix's ''Flights of Fancy'' hair show.

That US haircare and colour brand has appointed him as its first artistic director for Thailand where his role includes training local hairdressers at the Matrix Academy.

His ultimate dream, however, is to open a training centre of his own. And he's certainly notching up a lot of the experience necessary to do so, since he's currently running no less than two hairdressing operations here: Salon de Bangkok at Emporium and Sukho Salon at the Esplanade shopping complex on Ratchadapisek Road.

The 40-something hairstylist says he really loves training people, a task which he approaches more as a sharing of ideas rather than taking on the role of a conventional teacher. He instructs his students in new techniques, of course, but he is also open to interesting questions and smart ideas they might have, saying he finds that this give-and-take helps to generate a more creative atmosphere in the classroom.

''Hairdressing is creative work and, rather like painting, there are no set rules about cutting and colouring as long as you have acquired the basics,'' he explained. ''After that, you learn and improve by doing.''

Why did you quit showbiz?I used to have my own TV show, Fahsai Le Kraiwit. It was about health and beauty and went out on Channel 9. For, like, five years, I'd been struggling to find sponsors for this morning slot and then when I got them, the TV station just cancelled the show, even though there was a contract.

That shocked me and I needed a big break. Almost 10 years ago I emigrated to Canada for a little adventure.

What did you do in Canada?

After being a singer and an actor, it was difficult for me to work as a regular company employee. At first, I thought of taking voice training classes so that I could open a school whenever I got back to Thailand. Then I changed my mind about starting a school because I realised that I was tired of being in the entertainment industry and that I wanted to do something completely new.

The spa industry was booming then and I got interested in opening a spa. In Canada, you have to learn about basic medical science such as anatomy and physiology in order to be able to operate a spa, which has to comply with high standards and regulations. It all seemed too complicated for me, so I looked for something simpler and fun _ and that was hairstyling.

How did it go at hairstyling school?

The first training course I took was a short one, only eight sessions. My teacher said: ''Wow! You have really firm hands, perfect for cutting hair!'' So I continued my hairstyling education by doing a full 10-month programme.

I became really passionate about hairstyling, particularly the colour work, and did a progressive course at Joji's Hair Academy for another six months. This academy was developed from an apprenticeship programme that Joji conducted in her Vancouver salon, where she combined cutting and colouring techniques from Vidal Sassoon and Toni & Guy to create her own techniques.

In total, it was one-and-a-half years of training.

What do you like about cutting hair?

Cutting hair is fun, but you can only see a difference when you cut long hair to give someone a short hairstyle. Most women only like to have their hair trimmed or layered, however, and so a cut may not make a big difference unless you colour the hair, too.

So I love colour work because it's really fun to mix shades and create my own colours, such as purple _ which can come in different variations such as reddish purple and bluish purple. The hair-colouring shows the cut off to better effect. It really changes your look to make you a new person.

What are your responsibilities as Matrix's artistic director?

Matrix is the No.1-selling salon-product brand in North America and I'm very familiar with the products because I used them while I was going to hairdressing school.

The brand has been in Thailand for four to five years, so it's quite new, just like me compared to others who have been in the local hairdressing industry for 10 or 20 years. Because of my fluency in English, I am better able to present my creativity and this was partly the reason why I was made the artistic director at Matrix Thailand. My role involves conducting training courses in cutting and colouring techniques.

Tell us a little bit about your new Sukho Salon.I could have named it Tom Salon or Kraiwit Salon, but I wanted it to bear my family name. And so it became Sukho Salon, which is easier to pronounce and remember than Bhumsuko.

With the advent of the AEC [Asean Economic Community], you have to think of business expansion into neighbouring countries and the name of the business has to have an international appeal. ''Sukho'' works well in this respect _ and it also has a good meaning: happiness.

In the future, I'd like to open a Sukho Training Centre with a programme based on a combination of what I've learned and experienced both here and in Canada.

What qualities do you think make Thais especially good at hairdressing?

Thais have an advantage in being service-minded and this combined with hairdressing skills and creativity can make us stand out in this profession.

The training programme will also include English classes because when hairstylists have a proficiency in that language they can communicate with foreign customers _ and there's a considerable number of them [here] who are always looking for places to have their hair done.

Could any comparison be drawn between singing and hairdressing?

I actually love singing and I loved being a TV host, but today I'm happy as a hairstylist, a profession which I never thought I would have. It gives me opportunities to meet people, celebs and even foreign royalty, who want me to cut their hair. I'm grateful to my clients and I cannot disappoint them.

After doing it more and more, I find I can't stop cutting hair, but don't get me wrong: I'm no ''crazy scissors''!

I love touching hair and this profession allows you to touch the hair of strangers, who normally would not want anyone touching their head. Dr Somsak Chalachol [leading hairstylist and founder of a local chain of salons] says that people who can do this job are chosen by God.

The hardest thing for me, right now, is time management, as I have to take care of my own clients, manage the salons as well as train the staff.

As an artist, management is hard for me and Dr Somsak says that, business-wise, I'm too sensitive. He's my mentor. He's teaching me a lot about being both an artist and a businessman.

What are the rewards of being a hairdresser?

In the past, hairdressing was for those who rien noi [were poorly educated] or for mia noi [mistresses], but it has gained a lot more respect as a profession in recent years. Dr Somsak, whom I have known for more than 15 years, said that we should all help improve this industry.

Thais get excited every time a Western hairstylist comes to do a hair show here, but our vision is to see more Thai hairstylists shining at the international level.

As for the financial rewards... you can actually make a lot of money in this profession. My top hairstylists can make up to 100,000 baht a month whereas a new recruit can earn between 20,000 and 50,000 baht, which is still probably more than a university graduate with a bachelor's degree can make.

In general, hairdressers may not have degrees, but they do have skills. And if they're really passionate about hairdressing, the money will come.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kanokporn Chanasongkram
Position: Reporter