Calvin Gan is the founder and owner of Hairloom, one of Singapore’s leading creative hair salons. He is hairstylist to local celebrities such as Jasmine Sokko and Oon Shu An.
At a first glance, Hairloom is not your typical hair establishment. No colourful array of products in the window, no photographs of models with perfect hair, no receptionist hastily making calls… all you get is a sleek grey wall. The chic Hairloom logo that emanates a soft glow is the only indication you’re entering a salon. The seamlessly hidden entrance gave me the impression that I was entering some sort of clandestine club.
Calvin Gan was also a surprise. Expecting someone rather flamboyant, whose projecting voice was never unaccompanied by emphatic hand gestures, what I saw was a man in a plain white tee with a warm, unassuming manner that instantly put me at ease.
So, who is the man behind this incredibly successful business? What makes him tick?
Singapore – 1997. Gan arrived from the coastal city of Malacca with just $300 in his pocket.
All he carried with him was a couple of years worth of styling skills and the hope that this move would kick-start his career.
Back in Malaysia, at the age of 15, Gan worked as a shampoo boy at his local salon. He was taken on as an apprentice without pay, simply there to learn. As someone who considers personal style a form of expression, he was always more fascinated by what went on behind the scenes rather than on stage. Gan wanted to work with colour, texture, design… all essential elements in the creation of something original, an imaginary world. Which is why the banal routine of school, something that I took comfort in, was only frustrating to him: after a year of working part-time, Gan quit school and hopped onto a plane to the Lion City.
The risk didn’t yield immediate reward. His living circumstances – the $1 meals, the negligible amount of sleep that came with sharing a tiny room with 2 other flatmates – only compounded the stress of finding a job. Even now, 20 years later, the rejection he faced then still hits home hard. His voice thickens with emotion – he wonders, “Was it that I seemed unqualified? Was it because I looked like I came from the wrong sort of crowd?” “I was so desperate…”. He recalls trying to apply for a position at Passion, a hair salon owned by celebrity hairstylist, David Gan, in Orchard … “I wanted to go in for an interview… I looked at myself… and because I had been rejected so many times, my confidence was battered…” I walked all the way up to the salon “but I didn’t dare to walk in”.
Yes, it took struggle in all its many forms – financial, emotional, physical – to get through this first year. However, it was only by taking this leap, free falling into the competitive beauty industry without any safety net, that provided not only motivation, but an almost primal need to succeed.
Throughout the interview, he kept going back to this one word: dramatic. His life has been filled with these so-called coincidences, these one-offs that happened more than once – seemingly minor moments that completely altered his life’s path.
The endless list of dismissals, the fact that he could not even step into Passion, was all just part of a larger scheme to bring him to his lifelong friend and mentor, Anthony. Coming from a small salon in Parkway, when Gan walked into Monsoon, he felt a vague sense of deja vu. “I don’t know why… but I kept feeling like we knew each other.” Anthony wasn’t surprised that Gan recognized him – after all, he was famous back in Malaysia.
It was then that he realised. Back when he was 15, Gan’s ex-boss showed him a photograph. He singled out Anthony, “Look out for this guy, he’s got talent.” Gan still remembers thinking how amazing it would be to learn from someone like him. “Imagine… I met him 5 years later in Singapore, and we actually worked together!”
Gan’s five years with Anthony served not only to hone his skill set, but also grow his customer base. By 2008, in light of the restructuring of Monsoon, Gan decided it was time to set up something of his own.
Now, he needed an operation space. One of his customers informed him that there was a vacant unit at Shaw Tower, but because the building was so old and run-down, he did not consider renting it. On the point of signing a lease for a 1000 sq-ft unit on Arab Street, the owner suddenly rejected his cheque over a trivial issue. After a few attempts at negotiation, the owner – who was already rather disobliging – flared up at Gan for speaking in Chinese to his agent. Gan walked out – “I was offended… He was so fierce!”
On a whim, he decided to look at that place at Shaw Towers. It was going for the same price, but was twice as big. Looking back, “What if I had really signed that lease… for three years?”
Location is everything: it determines customer flow, the calibre of competition you sign up for, the pricing. This choice could unequivocally change his future.
Gan’s firm conviction that “everything happens for a reason” gave him the consistent strength to muster up hope for the future.
For the next 3 years, business really picked up. The customer base was ever-growing, his number of staff expanded from 5 to 15, and he had even added a cafe concept to the salon: a cup of barista coffee to go with your new ‘do’. But something was missing.
Gan’s main propelling force has always been an enthusiasm for his art. His salon was not based on a “direction of business, but a direction of passion”. So, his realisation that he had never learnt the science behind the technique – the why behind the how – prompted a major decision.
He left. To the US branch of the renowned Vidal Sassoon chain. Joined a training programme. To fully immerse himself in this experience, he had to throw out all his existing knowledge and start completely from scratch.
While having to unlearn and relearn 20 years worth of his craft was hell, Gan developed a firm grasp on the principles behind the action. The foundation that he regained defined his work as a creative director. He learnt to see the person behind the style: how can I adapt this technique to fit my client’s face-shape? What do I need to do to account for Singapore’s humid weather? And so forth.
When you have so much going for you, there is so much more to lose – it takes an immense amount of courage to completely surrender. Restart. But that is exactly what Gan chose to do.
And this is why his clients inevitably come back again and again. Because in the end, he makes sure he’s “worth the price”.