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Park Naejoo: Meet the hairstylist behind BTS, EXO, GOT7 and NCT 

Catch the CEO of luxury salon Bit & Boot debunk myths about K-pop hairstyling, as he joins us while accompanying BTS on their latest US tour

Oysmita Majumder May 21, 2022

Park Naejoo. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.

Park Naejoo, the founder of the celebrity hair and makeup salon Bit & Boot in South Korea, is not only a well-known name in the industry among idols and entertainment labels, but is also as humble as they come. Connecting with us over a Whatsapp chat session, all the way from Las Vegas where he’s currently on tour with pop titans BTS for the ‘Permission to Dance On Stage Tour’ the artist’s unabashed enthusiasm for sharing his story through voice notes [surprisingly enough, in English] is absolutely heartwarming. 

He’s the man behind some of the most iconic hairstyles seen on boy groups like BTS, EXO, GOT7, NCT, Monsta X, SuperM and The Boyz, as well as actors like Ji Chang Wook, Ahn Bo Hyun and many more. When he’s not designing new hairstyling lookbooks for artists’ comebacks, or touring across the world with his exceptionally talented crew of hair and makeup artists, he runs a popular YouTube channel where he regularly drops tutorials recreating trending idol hairstyles, exclusive behind-the-scenes vlogs from artists’ music video projects, plus fashion trends and predictions within the K-Pop space.

In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India for our 2022 K-Music Special issue, Park opens up to our journalist Oysmita Majumder about his bittersweet experiences as a K-pop hair stylist, launching his own brand, working within the glimmering world of entertainment and more.

BTS. Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

Firstly, I’d like to know a little bit about what got you interested in the field of hairstyling in the first place. Were there ever any underlying factors that influenced this passion, or was it something you just realized you had a natural penchant for, over the years?

When I first started working, I didn’t actually realize what I liked, or what I was interested in. But it all changed after meeting my mentor/teacher; which I now realize was my big chance. Since then, every single day of working in this field has been undeniably fun and exciting!

Having been a part of the industry for well over a decade, the process of finding success and climbing to the top of an industry dominated by a plethora of exquisite talent, must have come with its fair share of challenges. Can you tell us a little about the behind-the-scenes process of founding and becoming the CEO of your salon?

So I was actually working in a small town as a hairstylist for 10 years; at that time, I wanted to learn how to design better and more creative hairstyles. So, following that, I started working as a hairstyling assistant to my teacher for two full years. I started practicing my craft as a hairstylist and was eventually entrusted with styling many models and celebrities for magazine editorials and shoots. It was only four years ago that I finally opened my own hair salon, rather hair and makeup salon, and roped in makeup artist Won Jungyo, who you’re already familiar with.

[Read our interview featuring TWICE’s makeup artist Won Jungyo, here]

NCT U. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

As a matter of fact, we just wrapped up an immensely insightful conversation with her! Now, how did you come to finalize the name ‘Bit & Boot’ for your salon?

Well, one of my friends, who’s a makeup artist in Korea, actually suggested the name ‘Bit & Boot’ to me as a gift. ‘Bit’ in Korean means hair brush, or hair comb, and ‘Boot’ means makeup brush both of which are extremely integral to our field of work. So, he combined the two Korean words into an English name for our salon.

“BTS and EXO — I feel like they are my family, my younger brothers.”

What sets Bit & Boot apart from other luxury salons? What would you consider as your team’s USP?

Our passion for forging our own, unique stylistic identities. We don’t stick to the same, basic styles that have been recycled in the industry numerous times over, and try to create art that’s fresh and new.

That definitely reflects in your work. Your company boasts an abundance of talented creators in the hair and makeup space. We have Jungyo, Hansom, Kate, Jeonghyun and Hamin, among others – all of whom come with a strong body of expertise and a track record of working in colossal projects. How does the team persistently manage to maintain the standard of work? Are there any directives the crew abides by?

While working together, I have always told [my team] that we need to ace our respective projects; we need to deliver a close-to-perfect job in styling our clients, and most importantly all the looks that we create should be customized to suit each one of our artists, K-pop idols or otherwise. We need to be ready and have our guard up at all times, because we don’t know when we can catch our next stint. Hence, the team always has to be at the beck and call of the higher ups, to catch the right chances and make the best out of the given opportunities.

EXO. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

I’ve heard that your first client was EXO, with whom you’ve worked closely since their pre-debut period. You’ve also worked with BTS since the release of their second album. Besides their music, both groups have become renowned globally for their impactful fashion statement(s), which includes a range of bold and eye-catching hairstyles. How would you summarize the bond that you share with them today? 

BTS and EXO — I feel like they are my family, my younger brothers. That’s because I’ve actually spent the majority of my time as a hairstylist with them. Infact, I think I’ve spent more time with them than I have with my biological family, even though I’ve got two kids at home.

How was your experience working with BTS for the Grammys?

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It was really exciting and quite a fascinating experience as well! It was so nice to work with BTS again, and to meet so many of my favorite artists in person. Well, the only downside ofcourse is that they [BTS] didn’t win the award. Everything else about the experience was great.

“When fans like the way their favorite idol or celebrity has been styled and leave good feedback, that feels quite rewarding to me.”

Where there’s life, there’s hope – let’s not lose our faith till then. Now, whenever concept photos or teasers from artists’ forthcoming comeback schedules are released, often the foremost thing that trends on social media and gets the fandoms obsessing over, are the eye-catching hair colors and hairstyles they carry. There’s always a lot of hype around predicting the artists’ hairstyles for upcoming projects, along with in-depth discussions on what hairstyles the fans would like to see them try next and why. As the brain behind some of the most iconic hairstyling stints in the K-pop industry, what goes through your mind when these project teasers are unveiled to the public?

Whenever concept photos or teasers are coming out, I’m always anxious and excited as to whether the fans will like their new concepts; hair colors and hairstyles. I’m consistently trying to create new, quality styles that all the fans can admire and like.

Fans often possess a lot of interesting ideas with regards to idols’ hairstyles and even curate edits for hairstyle designs they’d like to see them in. Such content is abundantly interspersed on social media, and is quite difficult to miss because of the stellar quality of such fanarts. There have also been multiple instances of fan edits materializing and being brought to life in the artists’ subsequent projects. Have you ever come across such content in the past, and does your team consider these ideas and suggestions?

I’ve actually watched a lot of fans sharing their ideas and edits. There are so many cool ideas to consider at all times, and I try to keep them in consideration as and when the circumstances permit. However, the primary focus while creating new hairstyles is always around the artists’ concept for that specific comeback or performance. 

[Left] EXO’s Suho. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment [Right] BTS’ V. Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

That’s really interesting to know! Of all the artists that you’ve worked with, who seems to be the most involved in fashion, and has the most inputs to add in terms of their hairstyling?

Suho of EXO and V of BTS; both of them are very involved and interested in their fashion, and always share a significant amount of opinions with regards to their styling. We’ve had scores of meetings to discuss their hairstyles.

“GOT7 – they are extremely friendly.”

How much creative freedom do idols tend to get pertaining to providing suggestions for finalizing their hairstyles, and is the relaxation different in case of newer and older groups?

Well, I’ve had countless meetings with the idols to discuss new concepts and exchange our opinions. The newer the group, the more ideas and suggestions are required from my end. I’ve always had a tendency of sharing more of my inputs with the newest artists or trainees, as compared to the older, more seasoned ones.

What’s your creative process usually like? Can you tell us what goes into the ideation, planning and execution of the designs you come up with? 

Typically, before starting our work, we collect many concept pictures, following which we draft the individual hair designs of each member. The next stage is developing that design, essentially bringing it to life. For this, we are required to work with the entire team consisting of makeup artists, visual directors, hair stylists and stylists; we have numerous meetings to flesh out the final concept. That’s how our designs usually come to life.

Your artistic caliber in being able to brainstorm new and unique stylistic concepts across numerous eras of artist comebacks seems to be largely unparalleled. As a creative artist in such a dynamic, fast-paced industry, there at times arises the issue of running into a slump. Tell us how you manage to overcome creative droughts and consistently stay focused and inspired? 

My job entails a lot of research work. I usually have to keep sifting through websites and scrolling through Pinterest to collect and maintain a buffer of quality hairstyle references. This helps me to stay ready for my next project, and hence there’s not much scope of a creative drought.

“I understand that if the fans don’t like a particular style, then I’m the one who needs to work on and improve my skills and output.”

EXO’s Kai. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

What’s the most challenging aspect about your job?

The fact that I can’t spend a lot of time with my family, even though I’ve got two kids back at home.

And corollarily, what’s the most rewarding aspect of it?

When fans like the way their favorite idol or celebrity has been styled and leave good feedback, that feels quite rewarding to me.

You’ve previously mentioned that before the Covid-19 pandemic, you only managed to get one day off in a year, and that all of your professional schedules were booked six months in advance. Has that changed now, for better or for worse? 

To be honest, this primarily depends on where I’m working from. Before Covid, I used to travel a lot for my day-to-day work schedules. At the time, I’d get to focus only on one work [assignment] or shoot. But recently, after Covid, I need to go back and forth from the same shooting locations countless times. At times, there are multiple shooting schedules lined up in a single day. Recently I haven’t been able to get enough sleep, as we’ve tentatively been planning for a K-pop concert overseas.

“In 2022, the fashion keyword is ‘Y2K.’ Also, a lot more new and unique styles will be popular this year.”

[Left] EXO’s Kai [Right] EXO’s D.O. Photos: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

Being a celebrity hairstylist can be stressful by itself, but you’re also the CEO of your own company. How do you manage to deal with the pressure – what’s your escape?

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Whenever I manage to get any free time, I like to visit cute cafés to chalk out my plans. I try and prioritize all my tasks based on which are more important and which can be delayed a little, then I go about checking those tasks off the list accordingly.

That’s a lovely way to go about it! Now besides this, there’s the added pressure from fans who may not be satisfied with the end result of certain looks, and the creative team behind these styles are left to face their wrath in the form of trolling and hateful comments on social media. What’s your take on scenarios like these?

Yes, whenever I’ve been through such situations in the past, I’ve always felt quite pressured – but I understand that if the fans don’t like a particular style, then I’m the one who needs to work on and improve my skills and output.

Wonho. Photo: Courtesy of Highline Entertainment

Another common concern that fans seem to have is with how frequently and heavily the artist’s hair is dyed or bleached, thereby leaving it susceptible to damage. Of course, as long-time professionals in the industry, the team likely already has a well-devised system of hair treatment in place. Can you elaborate a little on that front, incase that helps put an end to all conjectures?

To answer this question, our staff at Bit & Boot is always checking our clients’ hair conditions and providing recuperative hair treatment at our salon. While styling their hair a certain way, or dyeing their hair a certain shade, we always take into consideration their forthcoming concepts and schedules in order to minimize the damage as much as possible. We are extremely particular about making it a point to execute our stylistic decisions only after a series of thorough discussions and deliberations with all parties involved.

Thank you for clarifying these! An issue that you’ve openly spoken about in the past is not having substantial qualitative feedback on whether your work has been stagnant or improving with time. I’d like to tell you this on behalf of all the fans, that you’re doing a wonderful job so far, and the evidence is in the outpouring of love and support your creations continue to receive from across the globe. I want to thank both you and your team, for all of your incessant hard-work. Your art brings immense happiness to a lot of people. 

[Laughs] Thank you so much! Wow, that’s actually driving me to work harder.

While styling their hair a certain way, or dyeing their hair a certain shade, we always take into consideration their forthcoming concepts and schedules in order to minimize the damage as much as possible.”

Can you predict some styling trends that you personally think will be big in the K-pop space this year? 

In 2022, the fashion keyword is ‘Y2K.’ Have you heard about it? Also, I think a lot more new and unique styles will be popular this year.

BTS. Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

Yes, of course! Now tell me, how do you think the elements of styling and visual direction in K-pop are unique compared to overseas fashion trends in the music and entertainment industry? How has K-pop fashion helped South Korea stand out in the global pop space?

Up until a few years ago, we heavily relied on following the European or Japanese themes of hairstyles for our art. But right now, we’re trying to come up with our own hairstyle designs. I feel that our South Korean hairstyles look very beautiful and a lot more youthful, compared to the rest.

EXO. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

You’ve worked with the GOT7 members in the past. Tell us a little bit about their off-stage personalities? I’m sure ahgases [their fandom] would love to gain some insight on this.

GOT7 – they are extremely friendly. Since right now I’m in Las Vegas with BTS, I was really looking forward to meeting Mark [Tuan of GOT7] here, because he lives in Los Angeles. Sadly, right now he just so happens to be back in Seoul. Before coming here I’d spoken to him, but we couldn’t match our schedules. However, I’m looking forward to meeting him once I go back to Korea.

Apart from hairstyling, what are some of your other interests? How do you like to spend your free time?

My hobby is actually learning English, which is also why I wanted to answer your questions today via these voice notes. To be honest, my English is not that good, and writing in English, for me right now, is especially challenging. I hope I’ve been able to make you understand my words so far!

EXO. Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment

You definitely have. Now, what are the essential hair styling tools which you cannot travel without, while on tour? 

So that would actually be hair brush, hair spray, hair-cutting tools [and] oh, also transformers while traveling.

I firmly believe that one can shape and change one’s future with the work one puts in at the present.

Who’s your biggest inspiration?

My teacher is my biggest inspiration; her name is Lee Hye Young. She’s the number-one hairstylist in Korea. When I was working as her apprentice, besides being trained well at hair styling, I also learned to imbibe a positive attitude and enriching values from her.

BTS. Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Music

Who is your dream client? 

It’s Justin Bieber. I actually met him very recently during the Grammy Awards. I became a fan of his, after watching him perform his set on stage.

What’s next for Bit & Boot?

[Laughs] I really have no idea, I think the future changes with the approach over the present. So yes, I firmly believe that one can shape and change one’s future with the work one puts in at the present. I’ll hence need to focus on building and strengthening my groundwork as my next milestone for Bit & Boot.

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