After a decade of questionable cuts and bad dye jobs, it took me quite some time to finally land on a hairstyle (and color) I didn’t want to change. My look has remained virtually the same for the past few years—a medium-length blond lob that allows me to alternate between beachy wavy and straight locks. As a naturally mousy brunette, I always had lofty aspirations of becoming a “believable” blonde and it’s proven to be no easy feat. Between fighting off gold and yellow hues to repairing signs of breakage and making sure to visit the salon every four to six weeks, I had attained what I always wanted and yet I still found myself scrolling through Instagram looking for inspo. So maybe it was time to try something new, or rather, some place new.
Stepping through the doors of Zoku Salon in Summit, New Jersey, I could’ve easily mistaken it for a salon in New York City or Beverly Hills. Thanks in part to a recent renovation, Zoku’s main level features exposed brick walls, an abundance of natural sunlight from floor-to-ceiling windows, backlit circular mirrors at every station and whimsical floral arrangements for décor. Their product lines are artfully displayed throughout the salon, ranging from top brands such as Oribe, Goldwell, Shu Uemura and Kérastase to name a few. Downstairs, guests will find an equally light and bright space with areas reserved for spa services such as facials or waxing and even a specially-designed room with ventilation for chemical processes including smoothing treatments.
One thing in particular that made my visit to Zoku Salon stand out amongst others I’d been to, was the fact that I’d be seeing two different professionals in one sitting. Owners Zoë Cortez and Christine Ku would be taking care of me—Cortez in charge of my color and Ku responsible for my cut/style.
The two joined forces to open Zoku Salon back in 2006, which Cortez emphasized adds up to more than just a clever combination of their names. To their surprise, Zoku translates to mean “partnership” in Japanese. Not only were Cortez and Ku coming together as a team, they wanted to bridge the gap between their two cultures as well as between East and West—meaning New York and New Jersey.
Owners Zoë Cortez (left) and Christine Ku (right) / Photos by Peter Bonacci
“I moved out here [New Jersey] in 2004 and was commuting back and forth to New York,” Cortez explained. “In doing that, I realized that there was no place to get my hair done, nothing that I would want to go to. So I said to Christine ‘we really need to do something here’.” At that point in time, Cortez and Ku were friends operating out of their basements—with clients stopping at Cortez’s house for color and then driving to South Orange to see Ku for their cut. Within months, Ku came over to Cortez’s studio and the two were so busy Cortez recalls her husband having to stay home from work just to valet park cars outside.
Although at first reluctant to a brick-and-mortar location, Zoku Salon is now in its 13th year as one of the state’s top hair studios. Which shouldn’t come as a shock, given the women’s backgrounds. Both Ku and Cortez spent years in the editorial field working on high-end fashion shoots, as well as creating looks for some of the hottest names in Hollywood. Prior to Zoku Salon, Cortez was scouted by Prive LA for her work at Brad Johns (now the head colorist at Oribe) to help to open Prive New York where the duo first met. Meanwhile, Ku split her time working across the globe in New York, Toronto, Europe and Hong Kong before settling down in New Jersey.
When I sat down in Cortez’s chair, it was Ku who I spoke to first about what I wanted to do for my cut which we’d be getting to later. It was important to get a feel (and look at) the hair while it was still dry. I told her I thought I’d only need a trim because I was quite happy with where I was lengthwise—and partly because I had just cut my hair four weeks prior. She nodded to acknowledge my wishes before running her fingers through my hair, noting the bluntness of my current style and heaviness on my ends. We wouldn’t be taking too much off, but rather adding volume, movement and shape.
Not long after, Cortez stepped back in to talk color. I was quick to bring up my saved folder on Instagram which included a myriad of icy blondes and celebs such as Scarlett Johansson. I expressed that I wanted to bring my blonde up higher towards the root and also brighten it and remove any gold tones. Cortez, a fellow blonde herself, seemed to know exactly what to do, suggesting foils over balayage for maximum payoff.
The entirety of my appointment from consultation to blowout lasted about three and a half hours, which, if you know anything about being blonde is actually a rather short amount of time. On average, I’m at the salon no less than four hours and sometimes up to six. After Cortez finished my color—a process which took foils, an infrared hair dryer to speed up the lightning and a glaze to cancel out any brass—I made my way downstairs for Ku to do my cut, which would be one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Ku’s station was set up like a typical stylist with a variety of cutting shears but not one of them made contact with my hair. Instead, Ku suggested a calligraphy cut which happens to be her signature. It starts off with an angled tool that looks like paint brush mixed with a razor meets a pen. It comes in different colors which equates the artist’s level starting from black and going up to gold, the latter meaning you can train other people. Ku compared the technique to the way florists cut stems in order for the flower (or hair, in this case) to absorb more moisture and therefore become softer, bouncier and fuller. Before any cutting could be done, she applied a special treatment all over so that the blade could glide easily through the hair. According to Ku’s assessment, my hair is fine but there’s a lot of it so she would balance out the heaviness on my ends by adding more volume.
In between cutting, Ku took just as much time to show and explain to me the different ways I could style my hair now that lends itself to this technique. For loose, beachy waves she told me that after washing I could just twist the ends of my hair with a bit of product and let it air dry. After the cut and blowout, she proceeded to wave my hair with a curling iron faster than I ever could. I was ecstatic to see finished look come together, the Scarlett Johansson/Jennifer Lawrence/Julianne Hough-inspired hair of my dreams. I found myself thinking, and saying out loud, that this was the hair I had always wanted and asked for but never received. To top it all off, I of course was also sent home with a Zoku Salon goodie bag filled with the Oribe styling products Ku and I had spoken about.
Photos (left) by Zoku Salon
As I write this, I’m two weeks out from my appointment and my hair has never felt softer, lighter or looked healthier and brighter—even with having it bleached. Cortez and Ku were attentive to my wants and requests and their expertise in their respective fields is what I believe made all the difference. They introduced to me products, techniques and methods I had never heard of before, which says a lot considering I’ve been salon-hopping for over 10 years. My goal of beautiful blond hair has finally been achieved thanks to Zoku Salon, but what I really gained was a sense of confidence that I hadn’t had before.
Main image by Peter Bonacci