For Korean men, groomed eyebrows is a signifier of masculinity

(Getting my eyebrows trimmed – the most masculine act you could do, grooming-wise.)

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.

SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about Seoul’s most famous skincare clinic

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.

(Taeyeon, the popular barber, teaches me how to properly shave my eyebrows.)

“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.

(BEFORE: My brows in its natural form. Do I look … dull?)

“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.

(AFTER: My brand new, shapely eyebrows. Am I ‘masculine’ AF yet?)

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.

This is how one of the owners of America’s coolest barber shop gets his hair cut

Welcome to Groom Raider, a series where we, well, raid the grooming closets of the people we admire to see what products they use. While we browse through their moisturizers, creams, fragrances and more, we get a glimpse into their past lives and the stories behind how they came to be. This week we meet with Ayler Young, the co-owner of the barbershop, Frank’s Chop Shop Los Angeles and designer of his own eponymous bomber jacket brand. 

A walk inside Frank’s Chop Shop, the barbershop located in NYC’s Lower East Side, you feel as if you’re definitely inside the epicenter of cool.

There’s nothing especially remarkable about the barbershop’s unassuming decor, its black and white tiled floors scuffed, its brick walls rustic but standard. But it’s immediately known you’re inside some place buzzing with swag. A couple of tatted barbers clip their clients in leather chairs. One of them is the DJ, Atrak, whose blonde hair is currently being shorn. Another is a woman in braids who’s getting an undercut. It’s apparent that it’s the clientele and the barbers who’ve created the mystique around Frank’s Chop Shop, now a bonafide destination for a who’s who of downtown types and creatives. If you’re anyone in New York City, it’s the place you go for your trims, fades, undercuts, and shaves.

Behind the store is one of the co-founders, Ayler Young (the other is Michael Malbon), who’s come to the shop for his own haircut. Ayler, a serial entrepreneur, recently launched his first fashion brand called Philip Ayler (his legal first name), a line exclusively made of reversible bomber jackets. If the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s made custom jackets that blew up at last year’s Coachella with Guns N’ Roses to other celebs rocking his looks. Recently, Gigi Hadid and Axl Rose wore Ayler’s designs, deemed the “it” jacket of the season. Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, among other stars, followed suit.

As he’ll tell it, getting into design was because of a dream.

“In it, I felt this burgundy jacket and it really was special and life changing,” he tells Very Good Light. Moments later, a friend came over his digs in L.A. to drop something off. “It was a burgundy bomber jacket, no joke. It’s almost as if I had to put two and two together to realize this was something I had to do.”

After dropping off a few designs to a local factory in downtown Los Angeles, he was stopped at a club by a guy who said he wanted the jackets for his band. “I asked him what band it was,” he recalls. “The guy replies: Guns N’ Roses. That’s really when things took off.”

Today, his brand, worn by every It girl of the moment from Gigi to Kendall Jenner, is now sold at places from Miami’s The Webster, to What Goes Around Comes Around. It’s quite a departure, given Ayler’s a musician by trade and in the grooming world.

The California-born, Massachusetts-bred designer, started out in music. At 22, he became the music director for the Off-Broadway musical, Cafe a Go Go, production set in South London. The show went through hundreds of performances before it came to a close. Afterwards, Ayler would find himself successfully creating businesses from Tribeca Cinemas, to then partnering with his friend, the founder of the cult magazine, Frank151 to create Frank’s Chop Shop.

The idea for the business was spurred when both couldn’t find a space for their clients to come and enjoy themselves. “We had this idea of giving them amazing hair cuts and having them leave looking great and feeling fantastic,” he says. “It’s a great way to change someone’s life in such a short period of time and have them leaving that much more confident.”

Today, the brand has expanded to Los Angeles, and is constantly booked. One of the shop’s stylists, Hiro, is booked for the next two weeks. For Ayler, success is all about creating a passionate community.

“From the beginning, Mike (Malbon) was about to find the best barbers around,” he says. “You can’t create a strong business without these loyal guys. They could have all had their own barbershops. It’s about the community. It’s the great staff and people.”

As for his own hair cut? He goes down to a #2 with clippers. “I don’t like skin,” he says. “I don’t like hard lines and I don’t necessarily like to look like I had a hair cut when walking outside.”

If you’re looking for a good barber, here’s a few key tips Ayler would give you:

Have a 15 minute consultation. “It’s important to be open to your barber. Talk to him or her and get a game plan together.”

Know your terms but ask if you don’t know. “Scissor cuts. Tapers. Razor fade. Full baldy. There’s a lot to know, but don’t be afraid to ask if you’re unsure of what these are specifically.”

A good barber will make you sleepy. “If you make clients so relaxed they want to fall asleep, it says everything about a barber. How they’re using your clippers, they’re touching them, that’s a good gauge if they’re dozing off. A good barber will make you very at ease.”

To make an appointment at Frank’s Chop Shop head here. And to check out Philip Ayler, go here.

Photos by Adj Regidor/Very Good Light