"I grew up in Korea. With the culture there, parents were always pushing their kids to be something—even things we didn’t want to be like doctors or lawyers or business owners. There’s a real entrepreneur [spirit]. When I was little, I wanted to be a writer. I was not into fashion or beauty—I loved stories. The opportunity came to me to do a clothing business, so I did it, but it wasn’t my passion and I decided I needed to change my life. I wanted to study more—that’s why I came to the US. At the time, I didn’t know that much about art, but New York as an art city fascinated me. My sister gave me $400 and she bought me the plane ticket. Twenty-something years ago, that got me my deposit and a month’s rent with a roommate.
My English was bad, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. I worked at a grocery store—that was my first job. After two days I got fired because I couldn’t speak English. I was so sad. I went to work at a restaurant, but that didn’t work out either. The third job was as a manicurist in a nail salon—and it was good. You could sit down, talk to clients, and learn English. That was at a place around 70th St. called Sunny Nails. It was a very small salon, but I got to learn so much. They were really experts there, so I learned, and we became friends. I was there for six months and then I moved on to a salon in the West Village. I would say I felt comfortable [doing everything myself] after two years, but I moved around to different salons for four more years to learn more. It was still exciting. Back then, we did a lot of fake nails—once you were able to do fake nails, you were an expert. [Laughs]
You know what? My favorite thing at the salons was meeting people and making friends. Manicuring was actually not my favorite thing back then. Manicurists and their clients can have really special relationships. If you understand the language and have an open mind, you can do it—seriously. A lot of people don’t, you know? But I became friends with one of my clients. Her sister opened a small hair salon called Cops and Barbers at 23 John St. Today, our current salon location is right next to that, where it used to be. See? Sometimes life is really weird.
I worked for several Korean nail salons [in New York] for four, five years, and then for a hair salon for about two years as a manicurist. After that, I felt like I should do something else. Working as a manicurist at a hair salon…it was hard to survive because even though [the owner] was nice, she couldn’t give me a lot of money. I asked clients what I should do, and one of them gave me a bike and told me that I should go to people’s houses and do their manicures. I put a basket in the front and my boss at the hair salon gave me a big backpack and I started going to people’s houses. After a while, clients started giving me ideas—‘Jin, why don’t you go work on photoshoots?’ At the time, I didn’t know what a photoshoot was—I didn’t know what PR was. I went to Barnes and Noble—I’m so thankful for Barnes and Noble—and took every beauty and fashion magazine out, then wrote down every beauty director’s name, and every mailing address. My client and friend who was a writer helped me write a letter and we sent like 50 of them to publications. One person responded to me. Andrea Pomerantz Lustig, who used to be a beauty editor at Cosmopolitan, had her assistant call me to say she wanted me to come to her house on Park Avenue. Afterward they said, ‘You’re good, you should do photoshoots.’ She introduced me to an agent, and they started giving me jobs one by one.
My first cover shoot was with Susan Sarandon in my first year at the agency. Thelma and Louise was the first movie I watched when I came to New York, and then I got to meet her on a shoot. I was so star struck. While I was on sets, if I had time, I tried to help with the clothes, and help the makeup artist and hairstylist. If they really liked me they would send me to different shoots. I got a lot of requests that way—there weren’t that many manicurists out there. And if you’re more meticulous, you can work with Maybelline, Revlon, L’Oréal, Covergirl…but everything had to be perfect. Later, I would come on as a consultant for a lot of people. I remember when I worked with Britney Spears once, Justin Timberlake was there, too. There was a magazine nearby with his face on it, so I asked him to sign it for my niece. [Laughs]
Financially, I was not capable of owning a salon, but my friend helped me write the letter—Donna Brody, she’s a director at the Writer’s Room now. She asked me one day, ‘Do you want to open your own business? This nonprofit organization helps minority women in business.’ She applied for me, and two years later, I got the space in the East Village. The first year, they charged me $1000 in rent for one year—now, it’s a different story. But that’s how I met my husband—he renovated all the buildings the nonprofit organization was taking care of. He did everything for me, design, construction, renovation.
In 2001 or 2002, Carton Davis called me after seeing my detail work and wanted to do a special project with me—like a test, because back then, people didn’t do nail art that much. We did a test and we did really, really well. He showed [the project] around and New York Times Magazine got it. We reshot it with accessories—and it was all me, a seven-page spread. That really got me on the map. Right before I opened my salon in the East Village, that magazine issue came out. I think I still have the magazine. It’s kind of outdated now, but back then, it was very sensational. It was a big deal! I was very happy. People tried to book me more—a lot more. After that, I stopped going to people’s houses [to do nails].
I think people who booked me liked me because I’m a perfectionist and I like teamwork. I think people appreciate that the most. I slowly got into projects with Vogue. Once you work with Vogue, you’re the man. [Laughs] One was with Angela Lindvall—we did tacky, curved, long nails. And when I worked with Beyoncé on Goldfinger, there was a music video for that and they didn’t tell me! I had to prepare nail art beforehand and I didn’t know what to do. People who work on photoshoots should have a quick sense, so you can be able to take a panic moment and make it smooth. Roll with the punches. But one of my favorite people to work with of course is Steven Meisel. I respect him so much and he’s just really warm. It’s fascinating looking at his work. When he's doing it, I’m just like, ‘Wow.’ It’s very inspiring. You appreciate people creativity by looking at their work closely. I feel so honored.
I launched Jin Soon nail polish as a brand at Space NK five years ago—September 12. The idea automatically came to me. I think if you’re ambitious, what else can you do? It’s not about ego, it’s about discovering capabilities you might not know you have. My husband is an architect, so I think I was inspired to make a very cool, luminous, architectural object for the bottle. We did a custom design with bottles from Italy. Very simple and minimalistic, which reflects my personality. We were first sold in Space NK and then we went to Barneys.
Our newest salon location opened over a year ago. I wanted it to be more like a spa with manicures and pedicures. Nail spas used to be very white and clinical, so my husband and I had an idea to create and inviting space that was cozy and warm. The service should reflect that too—and everything came together. We went to flea markets—back then the Chelsea flea markets were the best—and got everything piece by piece. I’m very thankful to my husband for his good ideas.
The best advice I’ve received from people in my career is ‘Don’t be afraid to do something, just do it. Don’t hesitate.’ And also, ‘If you have a bright idea, work hard.’ And that’s what I did."
—as told to ITG
Jin Soon photographed in her TriBeCa salon by Tom Newton on November 21, 2017.