When thoughts about 50 shades of grey elicit concern, not anticipation, chances are it's less to do with libido than a senior moment involving the ageing process and your hair. Greying hair doesn't have to be an issue of course (just ask George Clooney) but if it is and the problems are deep-rooted, Anita Wong can help. As the founder of homegrown hair care pioneer PHS Hairscience, Ms Wong, 46, has been a pioneer in the search for research-based solutions to hair loss and greying hair (50 shades darker, as it were).
Motivated by her own experience with thinning hair and a desire to develop botanical scalp products, she introduced hair spa concept Phyto Hair Spa in 2006 before rebranding it under the PHS name in 2014. The business now includes three luxury service centres (or Labs), spacious oases of calm along the Orchard Road belt and two Capsule retail outlets in Bedok and Katong - with more on the way. The Labs feature VIP rooms, resident trichologists plus scalp and hair care services while the Capsules are retail units, catering to people with less time to spare.
Ms Wong helped out in her mother's Katong Plaza beauty salon when she was a teen, then learned the trade in London and Hong Kong before returning home to work as a hairstylist in the shop. Instead of taking over the reins when her mom retired, Ms Wong decided to take a different, if related, route. "I couldn't see myself cutting hair forever," she says. Instead, she was a Singapore Girl for five years before launching Revamp in 1997, a prototype salon for kids at East Point Mall in Simei.
Even then, she had a penchant for setting trends and spotting business potential. Fast-forward another decade to the moment when she realised her future lay in hair care, joining forces with French brand Phyto. In recent years her focus has been on hair care for Asians, improving and expanding the range of PHS products and working in conjunction with a Korean research laboratory to develop an effective stem cell-based hair growth solution.
You were the first to have a hair salon for kids, the first to introduce the hair spa concept and now you've rolled out the Capsule retail hair care concept. How does PHS stay ahead of the game?
We're not a hair salon, we don't cut or colour hair. A lot of people neglect hair health, they focus instead on styling, colouring, etc. A nice haircut is very important to how a person looks but my hair is very fine and there is no volume to it. I wanted to have thicker, fuller hair so I decided to concentrate my business on healthy hair, but I didn't want to be associated with the Before and After hair care centres. I noticed that most hair care centres sell fear, and that lowers a person's confidence. PHS is all about restoring confidence and selling a positive message. Offering age-defying products is not enough, we have to provide consumers with a solution through hair care products. About 80 per cent of the people that come to our service centres have problems. We try to educate consumers on the importance of healthy diets, healthy lifestyles. The Capsule stores target men and women equally; they are smaller, fuss-free places to get treatments and buy products for home use. Men don't like to spend two hours getting their hair treated.
PHS offers an extensive range of over 150 made-in-Korea professional and home care products. You developed and tested all of them yourself, working with a research lab in Korea.
Innovation is very important to me - I'm always searching for solutions. I have done a lot of R&D over the past five or six years and we come up with new products every two or three years. We are the first to bring a medical-grade lotion to a retail level. It depends on the severity of individual cases but usually after about four treatments of our (just-launched) Miracle Stem Cell Solution, you start to see the results. It's a natural solution, using a patented technique to regenerate your own cells and promote hair growth. We want to educate consumers and it's best if they start early. We are one of the few markets able to darken grey hair: technology is important, and we want to be different from the other hair solutions in the market.
What advice do you have for follicle-challenged folks?
Our staff are trained to share hair tips with the customers. Simple things like understanding your scalp condition, proper hair maintenance (men should wash their hair twice a day) and using the correct product for your hair type are important: a lot of problems are caused by using the wrong styling products. It's no big secret that the first step to beautiful hair is products with quality ingredients. But products alone are not enough: you must have a positive mindset and healthy lifestyle habits like proper exercise, good nutrition and not eating after 8pm. I meditate for 15 minutes in the morning, it keeps your mind calm - when you're stressed your cells die faster.
How do you plan to grow the business?
We are one of the strongest hair care brands in Asia. The market potential is big and the next 10 years should see good growth. We have trademarked our brand in 11 countries, including India and China and I think the Capsule concept is good for overseas expansion. Twelve years ago, consumers were not so concerned about hair, it was more about skincare, facial parlours and so on. So many people worry about skincare but to me hair is a daily essential too. All the professional brands are coming up with scalp care. They used to focus on damaged hair but hair salons cannot treat problems - we bring treatment and styling together. Our brand is about beauty but the way we administer it is different.
What challenges lie ahead for PHS?
Products are never a challenge and business models are never a challenge. Customers have never complained about the results. The biggest challenge is setting up a management team that buys into the vision. I'm a forward thinker - I already have a 15-year plan for the business.
What is the one question that customers ask the most?
Most people don't ask the impossible, they just want to age gracefully. Other than that, it's: 'I know the owner - can I have a discount?'