At the age of 18 — and on his third attempt — Takamichi Saeki finally extricated himself from Japan. He escaped Tokyo for New York City, but it could have been London or Paris — anywhere, really, as long as it was abroad. He just wanted out.
Even since kindergarten Saeki says he didn’t really feel comfortable being in Japan, which explains two previous attempts to get away. But, at 18 he was ready, or “fearless” as he recalls — and he set off across the Pacific, with his family’s blessing.
“They understood that I wanted to be out as soon as I could, and they were supportive. ‘Take care of yourself,’ they said,” Saeki recalls.
It was 1989 when Saeki arrived in the Big Apple, the tail end of the ’80s. Newspaper headlines portrayed a city spiraling out of control: An average day saw five murders, nine rapes and 255 robberies. On top of that, a crack epidemic was tearing neighborhoods apart.
Saeki dropped himself in the middle of this. Looking back, he recalls thinking, “Oh my God, this is pretty rough.”
But there was also the excitement that comes with being in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth. He arrived with aspirations of being a jazz singer, although he admits he doesn’t really know how serious he was about this.
“I needed an excuse, a reason to go,” he says.
Jazz singing never got rolling, but Saeki did get swept up in the art world. More than 25 years later he’s still there.
His workplace, essentially a white cube, has the look of a contemporary art gallery.
However, Saeki has decorated it in a way that makes it more homely: There’s a mural by the Spanish artist Santi Moix and a painting by Canadian artist Richard Hambleton, both friends of Saeki. The stark white interior is offset by a smattering of red cushions, a little red pig and a beautiful red origami light fixture, by French designer Eric Guen.
And then there’s the row of mirrors with sleek white chairs opposite them, the dryers and bowls for washing and rinsing, and the unmistakable smell of a salon: shampoo, conditioner and wet hair. This is Saeki’s creation: Takamichi Hair on Houston Street in the Bowery, in downtown Manhattan.
For Saeki, the road to becoming a hair stylist and running a salon — his salon in the Bowery is the third iteration of Takamichi Hair, adding more space and staff with each move — started out in the art world, working as a gallery assistant.
Saeki wound his way into a part-time job hanging paintings at the Ise Cultural Foundation, a cultural offshoot of Ise Foods Co., in their vast Soho warehouse, which was made up of an exhibition space and cheap studios for artists.
“Somehow they hired me,” Takamichi says, deploying his usual self-deprecation. After about 18 months at Ise, around his 20th birthday, his ambition took on form and he opened his own gallery.
A chance meeting with a Serbian emigre led to the two of them opening a gallery that aimed to be an exact replica of novelist and art collector Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. Stein’s Parisian abode was a hang-out for modernist luminaries such as Picasso and Matisse. Their paintings lined her walls.
“It was very conceptual,” Saeki says of the Stein facsimile. “That’s not exactly what I wanted, but I was young and stupid.”
The experience cured him temporarily of his gallery ambitions; it also left him burned out. He left New York for Cologne, Germany, at the invitation of a girlfriend.
Once again he was in the company of artists, an experience he enjoyed. But he soon realized he didn’t want to settle in Germany and he returned to New York inside of a year.
Back in New York, two Japanese hair stylists, well established in New York City, offered their young and peripatetic countryman some blunt and specific advice. They were trying to dissuade Saeki from his art world ambitions.
“They told me: ‘Takamichi, you can’t do art, it’s just not possible, you need to be a billionaire or get married to a rich woman,” he recalls. “They told me I should be a hair stylist.”
Saeki replied with an expletive that rhymes with “bucket.” However, with further persuasion he reluctantly agreed. He returned to his mentors after getting his license as a hair stylist and apprenticed at their salon, Sirens, for several years before striking out on his own.
He started out cutting in his own apartment, before moving into a little bodega in his neighborhood. His first salon was tiny, just three seats, but it was big enough to engender a following.
Karin Satrom, director of graphic design at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, has been a Saeki regular stretching back 15 years. She came to him by way of a friend, who had what several New York publications have described as the “Takamichi cut.”
“A friend at work came in one day with the most stunning haircut and I immediately got his (Saeki’s) name and have never looked back,” Satrom said.
“He is a master of style and I trust him to both recommend new looks for me as well as recommend against something that won’t work for me.”
New York magazine called Saeki “a master of the well-done undone hair” when it singled out his salon a few years back.
Everyone I spoke to about Takamichi (as he is known) said a variation of the same thing: He’s personable, generous, fun and hardworking.
His wife, Marie, who works in public relations, says Takamichi “has never missed a day, never missed one appointment with a client.
“On the other hand, I don’t think he missed any good parties or events in New York, either,” she adds. “He is a master of power-napping.”
Saeki’s next move will see him bring out a line of hair products, which are currently under development in France where his wife is from.
He regularly returns to Japan to visit his mother who lives on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. It also allows him to indulge in another of his passions: Japanese food.
Through his industriousness, ambition and fortitude, Saeki has carved out his own version of the American dream. Or, more to the point, he’s cut and styled it the way he wants it.
Name: Takamichi Saeki
Profession: Hair stylist
Key moments in career:
1989 — Moves to New York
2000 — Opens Takamichi Hair, his first salon in the East Village
2005 — Moves salon to a bigger location in the Bowery
2012 — Takamichi Hair moves to Houston Street on the Bowery. Employs 13 staff
Words to live by: “Jealousy is your biggest enemy.”
Things I miss about Japan: “Food, period.”
2000年 最初の店舗 Takamichi Hair を イーストビレッジに開店
2005年 Takamichi Hair がバワリーに移転
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5