Ki-Chul Lee is the mastermind behind Hurwundeki. Under the Hurwundeki brand, which was established in the UK ten years ago, he has turned his hand to hairdressing, founded a fashion label, opened two vintage boutiques, a coffee shop and a Korean restaurant.
At the height of the brand’s popularity in the early noughties, Gilbert and George were regulars and Kate Moss was known to pop into his East End boutique, but following the recession Lee was forced to close all but one of his stores. He has now gone back to his hairdressing roots and is beginning to rebuild his empire.
Ki-Chul Lee lives to work, more specifically to cut hair, 9:30am to 8pm, six days a week. The Korean entrepreneur says: “If I don’t work there is no reason for me to be here, I have always said that.” So it is no surprise that when we meet he appears with a comb and thinning scissors in hand. He’ll just be a moment, he wanted to fit another client in.
After graduating from high school Lee moved to Seoul to become a hair stylist and this is where he opened the first Hurwundeki salon. Hurwundeki – the word for hair in the dialect of Lee’s hometown of Jeju. By 2000, he was an established hairdresser in Korea and came to London to study at the Vidal Sasson Academy.
Lee opened his flagship UK salon in Spitalfields at 98 Commercial Street in 2004. He started to sell vintage items in the salon before branching out to boutiques in London’s East and West end. The stores stocked new designers and Hurwundeki’s own label which Lee started after he became “too busy” to collect vintage.
The label boasted wearable and well priced mens and womenswear, inspired by British and Far Eastern heritage. Founding a fashion line is by no means a way to lessen your workload but this is what makes Lee – controlled chaos and ruthless ambition.
By 2010, he had even opened a coffee shop in Bethnal Green and was branded by Time Out as one of the Top 40 shops in London. At the height of the brand’s popularity the doors of 98 Commercial Street had to be closed so that customers could be let in one by one.
Hurwundeki’s success was due to Lee’s creative vision. He intuitively knew how to carve out a niche in every business venture he undertook and pioneered the shabby chic aesthetic now synonymous with the east end.
Lee seemed unstoppable, that was, until June 2011. The recession bit and he was forced to close his Spitalfields salon along with his two boutiques, only the coffee shop was left. His business was devastated and Lee had a wife and two children under five to support. Shortly after, he left hairdressing and the UK altogether.
“London is not about lifestyle, it is about career. It is not even about talent, it is more than that. Even breathing in London is a luxury, but that is the way it should be. London should be expensive. London should be hard. And if you cannot manage you have to leave.”
For Lee failure was not an option, and following a four month silence, a Facebook post at 1am on November 30 announced his return.
Lee now lives in Victoria Park with his wife and two children, and it’s in the former Bethnal Green coffee shop, that remains Hurwunedki’s headquarters, is where I find him. The two railway arches on Cambridge Heath Road have now been transformed into a hairdressers come high-class Korean restaurant.
When I ask Lee why he chose to open a restaurant, he appears baffled. Why you wouldn’t have a restaurant next to a hairdressers? And he goes onto list a range of soy-chili sauces integral to Korean cooking.
Lee admits the past three years have been about survival. He talks about Spitalfields in particular with a bittersweet fondness. Topman have taken over the shop and all that is left of the Hurwundeki legacy is a framed copy of the Time Out “Top 40” article, hanging on the wall just above us. Lee gestures to it briefly but does not linger.
“I can’t complain about the recession because there are so many complexities to running a business. I invested too heavily in fashion. I was very ambitious as people loved the brand. I thought I was going to be richer than Bill Gates and bigger than Steve Jobs”, laughs Lee, “but now I don’t care”.
“You should look at business the same as looking at your child, love should be the first thing. Business that will make you money is good but it is hard, and if you think about money first you cannot keep that love.”
Now in his fifties, Lee is about to open “30” his first fully-fledged salon since the closure of Spitalfields.
“London has given me such a hard time, especially the East End as it has become so popular and expensive but I like Cambridge Heath because it is not about the high street and you do not get big stores.”
For the past three years, tucked away in Tower Hamlets, this is where Lee has slowly been rebuilding his empire.
In January 2013, he launched “15” a new concept for men’s hairdressing. It is simple – there are no appointments and for a short back and sides it is just £9 and you are only in the chair for 15 minutes – all from a hairdresser who used to charge £80 per haircut.
Lee has always known how to pitch the price just right, offering Londoners, with no time or money to spare, a unique service that is, quite literally, a cut above the rest.
His new way of hairdressing proved so popular that by May he launched the female equivalent “19”, and this is where “30” comes in.
The new salon, which is due to open on May 1, will offer a full range of hairstyling services from tints to permanent straightening. Lee hopes to extend this into a third branch called “50” but he is looking to extend the brand more slowly this time and to focus on hairdressing.
Lee puts his new direction down to the saturation in the fashion industry: “There are many talented people in fashion, but not so much in hairdressing.”
He got the lease for the shop, just opposite the arches at 242 Cambridge Heath Road, in late December.
He has always loved the shop that until recently was occupied by vintage clothing brand, Frockney Rebel, and thought: “This is it, this is the time I have to take it.”
The salon is a new beginning for Hurwundeki and marks a complete departure from the shabby chic aesthetic of the brand that Lee pioneered, before AllSaints set up shop in Spitalfields he is keen to add.
“Thirteen years ago this style was very new”, Lee gestures to a collection of vintage items including a mounted stag head, “that is why we were so popular, now wherever you go in the world it is the same. It is not special, that is why I am trying to be really modern. If you do modern with okay quality it just looks like Ikea, that’s why I haven’t tried, but for 30 I got David Ross who makes everything by hand.”
Ross is the co-founder of product and interior design company Superdreich, who are based in the railway arch behind Hurwundeki. The company was founded by Ross and his business partner Joe Hearty last year. Their first commission was a shop interior for Ideas Tap down at Boxpark in Shoreditch.
When I meet Ross, he is surrounded by interior design sketches and a mixture of imperial and metric measurements for the finishing touches of the salon: “all those little things you stay awake at night thinking about”.
The whole salon has been designed and fitted by Ross, down to the hairdressing tool trolleys. The only items which have been shop bought new are the styling chairs.
The minimalist black and white Shoji interior is a far cry from the exposed brick walls, stripped floorboards and incandescent light bulbs synonymous with Hurwendeki.
“It was such an empty space that the inspiration came from the materials we used. The floor is actually the cheapest timber you can buy, it is just battening that Lee originally used in Hurwundeki. It gives such a nice texture we thought we could make everything white with a textural element.”
Even the Hurwundeki name has been streamlined to HWDK – part of a graphic rebrand masterminded by Hearty. Ross says: “It is out of Lee’s comfort zone but he was very open to new ideas. He has got the big picture in his head and the detailing is left to the designers.”
Ross is one of Lee’s regulars, so much so he is the poster boy for 15. Ross laughs: “I don’t know if you noticed my huge face outside” referring to the Hurwundeki banners hung just left of the entrance to Cambridge Heath overground station.
Lee asked Ross to model, in return for hair-cuts, and when the new salon came about Ross was the first person he asked.
Superdreich’s commission for Hurwundeki was produced on a modest budget and is by no means a money making job but the duo wanted to do it for Lee or as Ross calls him: “The hair cutting philosopher with a unique perspective on life”.
“I once asked him what his favourite part of the hair cut was, the discussion at the beginning or finishing it off, and his answer ranged from climbing a mountain, his relationship with his wife, to bricklaying and architecture. He is definitely a man with a vision and a great person to be involved with.”
Ross says Lee is, “Optimistic when it comes to timescales” and remains as ambitious as ever. Lee on the other hand laughs when he is referred to an as entrepreneur, “I’m struggling!” but behind his polite modesty, Lee has always had his finger firmly on the pulse of East London, and you can’t help but feel he is quietly confident about “30”.
When I walk past Hurwundeki the following day I see Lee in the shop front, he looks on as commuters gather at the bus stop outside. It’s 9am, just before opening time, and he is sat with a coffee just below a “Kilroy was here” cartoon that has been scratched into the window. Much like the second world war cartoon, Hurwundeki has never left and if Lee has anything to do with it, recession or not, it never will.