In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Jin Soon Choi is arguably the hardest-working person in the beauty industry. At this point, that's more of a fact than an opinion. In addition to having a decades-long career as fashion's most sought-after editorial manicurist, she also runs four popular New York City nail spas, helms an editor-beloved eponymous nail polish brand and is a backstage staple for designers like Marc Jacobs and Prada. When I arrived at her Tribeca spa recently for our interview, she was stationed at the front desk, answering phones and booking appointments.
I have a personal conspiracy theory that there is a secret army of Jin clones, all pitching in to work on photo shoots, backstage and checking to see that the salon operations are running smoothly. Because for one person to have accomplished all that Choi has — not to mention to have started from scratch with a mere $400 in her pocket, after immigrating to a new country without knowing the language — is nothing short of incredible.
But would Choi consider herself a success? Not quite. "I don't know if I would ever say I'm successful, I feel like that's a little bit snobbish. Sometimes I feel fulfilled, yes...But I never say I'm successful," she told me during our interview. In an industry often dominated by ego and hubris, Choi's humility is refreshing. And with an incomparable work ethic, attention to detail and always-sunny demeanor, it's no wonder she's so beloved by her colleagues, clients and editors.
During our discussion, Choi opened up about being a beauty industry pioneer, how fashion has changed since the start of her career, what it's like working with the industry's top talents and how both personal relationships and Shakespeare in the Park helped her along her way. Read on for the highlights.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in beauty?
I had no idea. I just wanted to change my life, I wanted to come here [from Korea], because my sister lived in Olympia, Washington. I had my own wholesale clothing business in Korea; I guess I always had the entrepreneurial spirit. But I decided to quit and to come here [to the U.S.]. I went to see my sister, but Olympia wasn't for me. It's beautiful, but I need a busy, more artsy city.
So you always knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur, but not necessarily in the beauty space?
I was into having my own business, but when I came here I just wanted to study and survive. I wanted to learn English first, but as soon as I came here [to New York], I had to work right away because I had to feed myself, of course. I had no one [in the city] — my sister gave me $400 because she thought that when I ran out of money, I'd have to go back to her. That was her clever idea, but I survived here.
What prompted the move to New York?
There were two cities I was considering: One was LA, the other was New York City. New York appealed to me because I'd heard it was an artsy city.
At what point did you start your nail career, and what drew you to it?
Being a manicurist was my third job in New York. Before, I waited tables in a Korean restaurant, which lasted one day. Then I had a job as a grocery store cashier, but that was so boring. I got a job as a manicurist, which many Korean immigrants did at the time, and liked this job particularly because I could sit down. I could talk to clients, so I could learn English. I got to become friends with clients. That was a big asset for me.
How did you discover your talent as a manicurist?
I was very meticulous. I can't do fast. I have to do a slow, good job — people liked me. From there, I decided to work as the manicurist at a hair salon owned by one of my clients' sisters. It was a small salon; I got to learn how to be a receptionist, how to speak English, how to curse. [Laughs.] All of the important things.
How did you continue to build your career after that?
I started going to clients' houses. Now, a lot of people are freelancing and going to clients' houses, with Glamsquad or whatever, but I was the pioneer on that; this was around 1997. One of my clients suggested I start doing it. I didn't have to put money into the business, I simply started doing it and my friend who was a client gave me a bicycle. I put my basket in the front and my hair salon boss gave me a huge backpack, and I'd put the foot bath inside. I'd go to people's houses. I was called 'Bicycle Jin.'
[That] was my huge break, because I got to meet people and continue to build relationships. I met a stylist who told me I should do photo shoots. I had no idea what a photo shoot was, seriously. A few people told me photo shoots were a good thing, so I was like 'OK, I'll do it.'
I went to Barnes & Noble all the time, I took every single beauty and fashion magazine out, I wrote down every beauty director's name and the publications' addresses. My client who was a writer wrote a letter for me, an announcement that I was going to peoples' houses and I like to do photo shoots. I sent out 50 of them, and one person responded to me — that was Andrea Pomerantz Lustig, [the former beauty director of Cosmopolitan]. I started going to her apartment on the Upper East Side, and she suggested I start doing shoots.
That's why I think relationships with people are very important. When you don't have anything, [relationships] are the most important asset. She introduced me to an agency, and I slowly started doing photo shoots or models' nails at their houses, and then I got to be good.
Once you started doing editorial work, was it like you had discovered a new, untapped passion?
In the beginning I was very surprised; I was thinking, 'Wow, I get to do nails and I get paid that much.' That interested me the most before the creative aspect. I was self-taught with nail art, so I was practicing it at home and thought it was fun. It gave me [an opportunity to be] creative. I did a test shoot with a photographer, and he showed the images to a few publications. The New York Times Magazine got back to us and wanted to run the shoot. That was my second break. That put me on the map from manicurist to nail artist.
Doing nail art for The New York Times Magazine was huge, because no one did that then — it was around 2001. Because of that, I got to do... you name it: L'Oréal, CoverGirl, Revlon.
At what point did you decide to open your own nail salon?
After the New York Times feature, a friend who happened to be a director at a nonprofit organization told me I should open my own salon in the East Village. She created the business plan and submitted it to an organization that offered grants to female business owners. Two years after I got it, I opened the salon.
What was different about it from other nail salons that already existed in the city?
Other nail salons were very white, clinical and had no character. I was the first person who made a nail salon more interesting, more like a relaxing, calm space. I did a subtle Asian theme; I didn't want to do a heavy Asian theme. I used my background [to inspire the design]. We used rice paper and lots of cherry wood. I met my husband, who was an architect, and we went to flea markets. We put bamboo trees outside. People thought it was a tea house. They were intrigued.
How did you continue to expand and keep opening more locations?
I didn't try, really; the opportunities just came. We'd done the East Village, and I like balance, so I thought I'd really like to open one in the West Village. I dreamed about it. I got up, I told my husband I'd dreamed about the space, and the location was the building where I used to work [at the hair salon]. That building had two different store fronts; I'd dreamed about the one next to the one where I'd worked. I went with my husband, and when I got there there was a sign saying, 'For Rent.' I thought I must have had a guardian angel because I worked so hard. That's how we opened in the West Village. And then we expanded from there.
Tell me about developing your product line.
I did do two collaborations with MAC before I launched my line. They were a huge success. That was a good experience for me to see how it works. Launching my nail polishes was a very natural step for me because I'm ambitious. I had done everything as a manicurist: house calls, fashion shows, photo shoots, events and having salons. Where can you go next? So it was very natural.
How did you develop the formula?
I'd had salons, so I knew what people wanted from me. Because of the salons, we had that direct feedback from clients. They wanted eco-friendly, long-lasting, quick-dry nail polish. I decided to launch my line based on high fashion because I was doing a lot of beauty photo shoots, but I wanted to focus on high fashion. I got to work with Steven Meisel, I worked with him for a long time. I thought, no one has done a high-fashion nail polish.
On that note, you work with some of the most creative, successful people in the industry, whether it's Marc Jacobs or Guido or photographers like Steven. What have you learned from them over the years?
I learned how to look at things, because automatically, when you work with those really high-profile, creative people, your taste level is changing. You learn to be more specific when you create something.
How did you get started working backstage at shows?
When I started doing editorial I also started doing fashion shows. I didn't have my brand, so my first one was Jill Stuart. They gave me 10 pieces of clothing as a trade. These days, we have to have a brand sponsorship, but back then, no. We got paid. After that I got to work with Sally Hansen and Revlon, they both became my sponsors.
How would you describe your approach to nails and your aesthetic?
Elegant simplicity. I'm into modern art. My style is clean, simple. I look at Kandinsky; my favorite artist was Edward Kelly because he was simple.
Is that where you look for inspiration?
Yes, I like to go to MOMA. I like to go to museums. Wherever I travel, in any city, my first stop is a museum.
You've accomplished so much in your career — what goals do you still have?
I still have to make the Jin Soon brand really big, we're still not there. I want to expand into a care line, too. I want to go global.
What are you most proud of?
Of course, my Jin Soon namesake nail polish. That's my big accomplishment. It shows the steps I've taken to get here.
What do you think has changed most about the industry over the course of your career?
People want to be their own bosses now. There are so many freelance people working. It can be positive, but also not. If they don't have salon experience, I'm not sure their skill is good. I believe salon experience is very important, you learn so much about how to work with people.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you'd known when you were first moving to New York?
I wish I could have prepared by learning to speak English. I still have an accent 20 years later. It's not easy when you come after you grow up. English was a big part of my frustration.
You're good at expressing yourself, and it seems like you're meticulous about the words you choose. How did you overcome that frustration of having a language barrier?
I was daring. A lot of Korean people, if they don't know English, they try not to talk. But me, I put my dictionary nearby while I was working, and [if a word came up] I didn't know, I'd check. I went to continuing education classes that high schools provided in the summer and church programs. The New York Public Library was my best friend, because you didn't have to pay. I even rented an English video and children's books. It was amazing. People who are really eager can find ways to learn without paying in New York. For example, I didn't know how to understand a British accent, so I went to Central Park, and in the summertime Shakespeare was playing, "Macbeth." Did I understand? No. But I'd go there.
Did you ever have a moment when you felt like you'd officially "made it" in your career?
I don't know, because I'll know that I did something good, but I don't know if I would ever say I'm successful, I feel like that's a little bit snobbish. Sometimes I feel fulfilled, yes. I'm fulfilled by the small things; I opened West Village, that's very good. But I never say I'm successful. I don't want to be that snob, because also I work with a lot of really successful people. So am I really successful? I don't know. A lot of the time I feel good that I've created stuff. That makes me so happy.
I worked hard. Sometimes I forget. I used to go to people's houses on my bicycle, and I got into a bicycle accident and then still went to the client's house because I didn't want to miss the new client. Funny, right?
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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