SEOUL – Traditionally, you wouldn’t think of a barbershop as the first place you’d go to get your eyebrows groomed.
But that’s exactly where Seoul men flock to when they’re in need of managing their own. In the past few years alone, barbershops (바버숍) have popped all over Seoul and are having a moment. But unlike their American counterparts, where guys go for the sole purpose of cutting their hair or shaping their beards, Korean barbershops are where men feel comfortable getting beautified.
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At the barbershop called Swagger, in the hip neighborhood of Hongdae, men not only shape their brows, receive perms, but spruce up their complexions with B.B. creams which are applied by barbers themselves. The shop is owned by Hellen Choo, who also owns the Swagger grooming brand, a product line that includes hair pomades, gels, sprays, body washes, to eyebrow markers. The brand is now so popular, it’s sold at places like Olive Young, Korea’s answer to Sephora, 7-11, as well as other drug stores. Hellen is now expanding the brand to the States, where it’s called “Ssanai,” (man, in Korean) as Swagger’s trademark has already been taken.
Hellen, who comes from a design background, having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, was surprised when conducting her initial research. After surveying college-aged men, she was surprised to find that younger guys were more progressive in their grooming than she thought.
“I was talking to these 21-year old, 22-year old guys and meet them weekly,” she tells me. “What they were saying was that they don’t really do their hair. They don’t have time. ‘We just take a shower and rush to class,’ is what they, for the most part, told me.” But what they always made sure to do? “Their eyebrows,” Hellen says. “Guys won’t do their hair but they say they’ll always wear B.B. cream and wear their eyebrows.”
Which was no surprise to me when I was in Seoul. Rarely, if ever, did I spot any South Korean guy with messy or unkempt eyebrows. Each had them had perfectly shaped, symmetrical, thick and dark. It makes sense for a country that’s extremely trend-driven. A look at any billboard, advertisement or YouTube channel will show how all South Korean male celebrities have the same thick eyebrow shape, one that resembles a single paint stroke. It’s called the “straight eyebrow trend,” one that made its dominance in 2014.
In the States, having too primped of eyebrows raises a few eyebrows. They either conjure memories of the Jersey Shore (or Cristiano Ronaldo), or suggest guys are ~way~ too into their physical appearances (which, obvious isn’t a bad thing). In Seoul, having brows that are less than trimmed or shaped means that not only do you not care about yourself, it could suggest you are lazy, a slob or tacky altogether – something I’ve quickly learned is something all Seoulites are allergic to.
“Your eyebrows make the first impression and are super important,” Hellen explains to me. “You don’t want it to look too done and it needs to look natural. But if the eyebrows aren’t dark enough, you look really bland. The bolder the brows, the stronger the overall look of a guy. They have this thing in Korea where fortune tellers read your face. A thicker, more defined brows gives you a strong impression. That means you’re luckier, you’ll be wealthier, more successful.”
Which, I suppose, from my naturally bushy brows, was not me. When I stepped into Swagger’s barbershop, Hellen, taken aback at its lack of shape, gasped: “Your brows … they make you look so 둔해 (dull).” She immediately sat me in a chair to fix this problem. Taeyeon, Swagger’s popular female barber, who is booked for weeks, kindly tended to my brows, what was sure to be shocking for her. After snipping them to a shorter form, she took some shaving cream and started shaving them as you would your mustache or beard. The key, she told me, was to make them look sharp. A few minutes later, she applies Swagger’s own eyebrow marker, what Hellen says is pressed powder. With a swipe up and over, my eyebrows are super bold, super black. They’re thick, shapely, and I feel like a new man.
“Now you look really like a strong man,” Hellen remarks, after my transformation. “You look so much more masculine.”
My brows are shaped to a tee and I don’t know if I look bolder, but I feel fiercer, if not super Korean. My eyebrows aren’t only sharper, they’re thicker and darker. There’s no doubt that the shaped eyebrows really do make me look less “dull,” as Hellen would say, and I feel as if it changes my face shape altogether.
Do I feel more masculine after I spent 15-minutes tending to my eyebrows? Not exactly. But for the first time ever, I admit, I do feel more confident and dare I say, sexy. Korean fortunetellers, be damned, my thick, razor sharp eyebrows, with a slight Situation-like vibe make me feel extra extra, and I’m totally into that.