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Korean waves whet an appetite for curls

Hair bands. Hair spray. Hair teased. The 1980s is one of the most memorable decades for hair in the United States
Last Updated : 29 April 2023, 17:07 IST
Last Updated : 29 April 2023, 17:07 IST

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The modern men’s perm is loud for a hairstyle so soft. On TikTok, the hashtag #menperm, referring to one of the latest hair trends to be born from the app, has garnered more than 20.7 million views.

Those videos often begin with a man in a salon chair, pictured from the shoulder up. The camera orbits around his head just before a final shot of his crown: silky, voluminous waves lacquered with the aplomb of K-pop boy bands.

“I came across an Asian influencer on TikTok with curly hair, and I’m like, That doesn’t correlate, because most Asians have straight hair,” said Brandon Dhakhwa, 20, a student from Durham, England. “And then I did some research, and that’s when I realized he got a perm.”

Once popular primarily among Korean and Korean American men, the coiffure has gradually expanded beyond these groups in the past four years — thanks, in part, to the meteoric rise of TikTok and K-pop. While the hairstyle is nothing novel in South Korea, its wider embrace signifies a notable shift from the early 2000s, when the term “metrosexual” — used to describe aesthetically attuned men — became popular.

In South Korea, beauty standards are intimately tied to the music industry, “symbolized by the K-pop idol with perfect skin, immaculately dressed with perfect hair,” said S. Heijin Lee, who, as an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, researches Korean pop culture, beauty and digital media.

Those same revered features — or, in this case, men’s perms — are then circulated using social media.

Brendan Noji, 25, an LGBTQ youth services worker who lives in Los Angeles, stumbled upon the hairstyle online during quarantine in the early days of the pandemic.

Noji said he had a long history of “mismatches” that could be mapped onto every male hair fad of the past two decades: a buzz cut (Brad Pitt in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) turned Justin Bieber mop (a bowl cut seemingly written in cursive) turned pompadour (an inverted, slicked-back bowl cut) turned man bun (the hipster bros and skater boys of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, circa 2015).

Before going into the salon, he made sure to do his homework. He compiled a repository of references that included “Squid Game” actor Gong Yoo, “Pachinko” actor Lee Minho and K-pop boy group BTS.

And since his first perm in June 2020, Noji has gotten the treatment 10 more times. “I love my curls,” he said. “I feel so much more self-confident.

“The waves add a lot more personality that feels a lot closer to my own.”

‘Showy, but Not In-Your-Face Showy’

Perms are, of course, no stranger to Americans. Hair bands. Hair spray. Hair teased. The 1980s is one of the most memorable decades for hair in the United States. If your TV was on, there they were: stiff, bouffant, larger-than-life ringlets that smelled damaged and demanded moisturizing.

Unlike its overly gelled, overly spritzed American cousin, the “Korean perm” is much more subtle. It’s almost unnoticeable so as to appear natural.

Ben Duong, a 19-year-old student in Greenville, South Carolina, described his loose coils as “showy, but not in-your-face showy.” His hairdo even persuaded two pals who accompanied him to his second perm appointment to try it themselves.

Tyler Jung, 26, an analyst in New York City, said there were only two types of people in the world: those who understand the hairstyle and those who do not.

“There are some people who don’t notice or don’t pay attention at all, and this could be interpreted as the perm ‘not working,’” Jung said. “But in a way, it means that it doesn’t look artificial or outlandish, which is the worst feeling you can have about a new haircut.”

The Korean perm (“perm” is short for “permanent wave”) is distinctive for other reasons: Its top curls are tender and loose; the hairstyle is versatile and can be combed over or worn with bangs; and the sides and back of the head are faded short with clippers and scissors. For more money, a person can choose a down perm, which relaxes and flattens stubborn strands that stick out, creating a smoother appearance.

“Karl Nessler is credited with creating the first permanent wave machine in 1906, and they soon became commonplace in most beauty salons,” hair historian Rachael Gibson said. But, she added, the perm has far outgrown its beginnings when the style was executed with “methods used in the textile industry to alter fibers.”

Though it’s not clear where this specific style of perm originated, some of the most well-known Korean male celebrities, including soccer player Ahn Jung-hwan and K-drama “Winter Sonata” actor Bae Yong-joon, are widely credited with popularizing the men’s perm during the early aughts, said Sehwa Jin, a hairstylist and owner of Naamza, a Los Angeles salon that specializes in hairstyles popular with Korean men.

Since then, “various styles of the wave perm,” another term to refer to this hairstyle, have emerged, including the one making the rounds with Gen Z-ers and millennials today, said Mujin Choi, a South Korean hair stylist who has worked with BTS.

Jin added that several interpretations of men’s perms had existed in Japan and South Korea for decades, but the differences lay within “each country’s fashion and style.” The methods and tools behind this perm, however, are not so different from those of the springy American manes that dominated the late 20th century.

Both use chemical solutions and plastic curling rods. Both may apply heat, depending on the desired look, and both keep their curl from two to six months, depending on one’s commitment to aftercare, which includes moisturizing, avoiding humidity and using products made for treated hair. And, to borrow a line from Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” each abides by the same cardinal rule: “You are forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours after getting a perm.”

The American price tag, from $120 to $400, is on the premium end of men’s hair treatments and dependent on several factors, including location, number of hair products needed and tip (men’s perms are considerably cheaper in South Korea, ranging from $25 to $165). But Gen Z-ers and millennials continue to flock to studios with the enthusiasm of K-pop “stans.”

Christian Kon, a recruiter in Los Angeles, spent part of his childhood in Japan, where men’s perms are common. Every three months since 2011, he has gotten a perm. For him, convenience outweighs the cost.

“A perm is low maintenance,” Kon, 30, said. “I wake up, and my hair is done. I already have volume. I already have texture. I already have curls.”

Noji believes that he has also fully committed to the perm. But sometimes he misses his natural strands.

“Every so often, I think about going back to my straight hair,” Noji said. “But then I remember, that’s the thing with perms: They’re not actually permanent.”

The Perm as a Gateway

Though hair fads come and go, the modern men’s perm has evolved. It’s become something akin to a gateway.

After treating their tresses, the young men who spoke to The New York Times said they had invested more thought (and cash) into their general self-care practices. The alchemy of heat and harsh perm solutions can damage the scalp and hair follicles, and failing to consistently massage one’s locks with hair oil can result in a dry, frizzy look.

“If you want to keep your curls for a long time, you have to put in a little bit more effort,” said Dylan Norng, 22, a substitute teacher in Fontana, California. Norng’s routine consists mostly of using conditioner and patting his tendrils with a microfiber towel before air-drying them.

Jung, on the other hand, has directed his attention from the strands atop his head to the ones on his face. Since his initial perm in 2020, he has undergone an eyebrow tint and a lash lift.

These delicate curls may signal a broader shift from an antiquated male beauty standard of the past, to a freer and more expansive one today.

“We’re in a moment, in the United States at least, where younger generations are very critical of something like toxic masculinity,” said Lee. The hairdos of beloved K-pop boy band members and lead actors from Korean dramas offer an alternative, she said.

“Something like a boy perm becomes an aesthetic way of wearing that and symbolizing that,” she said.

Draw a graph measuring the proliferation of men’s perms, and it will most likely match one charting the popularity of K-pop groups and K-dramas in the United States. The prevalence of those exports can be seen in two distinct time periods that also converge with the rise of various social media apps.

In the early 2010s — when Instagram didn’t have ads and millennials still used Facebook — there were the boy bands BigBang and SHINee, “Gangnam Style” singer Psy and the drama series “Boys Over Flowers.” In the 2020s, which have brought the TV streaming boom and the pandemic, that has become TikTok, BTS, the K-pop girl group Blackpink and “Squid Game.”

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, major U.S. news outlets and talk show hosts zeroed in on Korean people wanting plastic surgery to “look white,” Lee said (for example, some Americans obsessed over Asians’ undergoing double-eyelid surgery).

“Fast forward to the current moment, where we see all of these trends toward ‘looking Korean,’” she continued. “I think that shift really illuminates the way in which Korean pop culture has blown up and become a global sensation.”

Naamza, a Los Angeles-based hair studio, was founded in 2018, and before 2020 men’s perms accounted for only 30% of its business. Today, that percentage has more than doubled, according to Naamza’s manager, Han Kim. Across the country, in New York City, Salon Jatel saw the number of requests for the hairstyle jump to 22 between January and March 2023, from four during the same period in 2021.

While there has been a spurt in demand for the men’s perm, the requests still come from a relatively small portion of clientele, said Harumi Mikami, a stylist at Salon Jatel.

Kim said the hairstyle was “rapidly growing” and attributed a change in the demographics of the salon’s patrons to the mass consumption of K-pop and TikTok. From 2018 to 2019, about 90% of Naamza’s clients were Korean and Korean American and “young male professionals who were already familiar with perms,” Kim said. After 2020, he continued, that shifted to 70% Asians and Asian Americans (including Koreans and Korean Americans) and 30% non-Asian men.

The impetus for Eric Ambriz’s perm was a desire to try something new. “I have very thick, straight hair, so going to curly was very fun,” said Ambriz, 32, who is Mexican American and works for his family’s trucking business in Oxnard, California. “It makes you feel like a different person.”

But for many like Norng, who is Chinese and Cambodian American, observing Asian male celebrities sporting a similar cut, was especially validating. “If it looks good on the K-pop idols, it must look good on us, too,” he said.

Jung, who spends about $300 at a salon every three months, said. “If you have some disposable income, why wouldn’t you want to look like a Korean idol?”

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Published 29 April 2023, 17:07 IST

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