SHE LOVES DESIGNER DUDS, HIGH HEELS AND WALK-IN CUSTOMERS. MEET JI BAEK, THE WOMAN BEHIND THE RESCUE NAIL SALONS.
Byline: Kerry Diamond
NEW YORK — The grand opening of the Rescue Beauty Lounge on Center Market Place in SoHo was just one day away, and all was not going well. The camel-colored UltraSuede couch designed specifically for the waiting room didn’t fit into its designated space, and the guys who were supposed to hang the signs outside were nowhere to be found.
Just as the contractor started shouting, an attractive woman dressed in cuffed jeans, a gray T-shirt and Reebok sneakers marched in and began hauling around furniture at a pace practically guaranteed to break at least one perfect nail.
This was Ji Baek, the woman Vogue magazine called “Manhattan’s chicest manicurist”?
“These are my cleaning clothes,” said the customarily Chloe-clad Baek, just in case anyone thought differently.
Sure enough, after the chores were taken care of, Baek disappeared into the basement and emerged a minute later transformed and ready for her photo shoot. Looking more like a petite fashion model than a scrappy small-business owner, she posed on the metal bench outside, dressed in dangly Erickson Beamon beads, tight red Alexander McQueen jeans, a black leather Prada vest that revealed plenty of skin and a gold belly chain. Even jaded SoHo passersby stopped for a second look.
More surprising than all the attention Baek was drawing is the fact that she still works on customers — actually paints their toenails, pushes back their cuticles and scrapes their callouses — in full designer duds. But the megawatt wardrobe is no doubt a way to further differentiate the Rescue franchise from what Baek derisively calls “chop shops” — the cheap manicure parlors that exist on almost every corner in New York.
Baek opened her first salon, the basement level Rescue Aromatherapy Spa on Lafayette Street, in 1998. A trained violinist and pianist who attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York, Baek developed tendonitis while studying at Juilliard and SUNY Purchase and had to find a new career path. She transitioned into the restaurant business and even went to the French Culinary Institute to study how to run her own restaurant. Because she spent all day on her feet, she was always seeking the perfect place for a pedicure and constantly coming up disappointed. She didn’t like the fancy spas where she’d have to disrobe just to have her digits done. “I hate the locker room scene. I’m not an exhibitionist,” she insisted, although her penchant for sexy clothing might lead one to think otherwise. “It makes you feel like junior high all over again.”
The inexpensive corner nail salons didn’t do it for her, either. She informed her husband that there was a major gap in the manicure market and that she was going to fill it. She would go to beauty school and open a nail salon that was upscale but not uptight, with prices that were slightly above the “chop shops’,” but below the major spas’. Her husband was shocked. “You’re going to touch someone’s feet?” he asked.
Baek’s Korean-born mother was equally aghast. “My mother was like, ‘You went to Juilliard and I spent so much money on your education, and now you’re going to open a nail salon?”‘ Baek recalled.
Both husband and mother had to rethink their stance as Rescue quickly developed a following among New York’s hip and beauty-conscious.
With success came attention from the beauty industry. Executives from Bergdorf Goodman asked Baek if she would be interested in opening an uptown outpost in its new beauty department. She agreed, but when Bergdorf’s New Level of Beauty opened last November, there was no Rescue salon. Nor will there be one, said Baek.
“We were caught between a change of management,” she said, when asked what happened to the venture.
So Baek started scouting for another location. Rather than look uptown, she decided to stay in SoHo. “I like this neighborhood, and I love this block,” she said of Central Market Street, a tiny block behind the trendy Police Building co-op.
The 1,400-square-foot Rescue Beauty Lounge is bigger and airier than the other Rescue. It features 12 manicure and pedicure stations, two waxing rooms and a makeup artist who can be booked for special events and makeovers. Basic hair services will be added in the fall. Walk-ins are welcome. “I hate turning away walk-ins,” confessed Baek. “It kills me.”
The front of the lounge serves as a tiny boutique and features makeup from Shu Uemura (Baek’s favorite), Watosa and Delux Beauty. She carries selected jewelry, T-shirts, handbags and flipflops, many of which are purchased while clients sit on the UltraSuede couch waiting for their manicures and pedicures to dry.
The retail portion of the business will account for approximately 40 percent of the new location’s sales, Baek noted.
These days, with two salons to oversee, Baek isn’t working on clients as much as she once did. “I didn’t open my business to be a manicurist,” she said. “I find owners/technicians lose touch with their business. But if we’re overbooked, I pitch in.”
Staying in touch is important to Baek, which is why she doesn’t have any immediate plans for additional Rescue locations.
“I don’t ever want to be so big that I don’t know my clients’ names. That would scare me,” she said. “We want to keep the business small.”