There was a time when Ji Baek’s salon, Rescue Beauty Lounge, was the place you went to get your nails done in New York City. The commitment to hygiene was unparalleled, prices weren’t outrageous, and Baek, the petite, stylish woman behind the business, knew how to take care of her customers (W Magazine once described the clientele as a “continuous conga line of high-powered editors, well-heeled bankers, and Park Avenue wives”).
When she opened in 1998, Baek says there was nothing like Rescue out there. “Every entrepreneur looks to provide something or make something that doesn’t exist,” she explains. “Back then salons had, you know, the fluorescent lights. They were chop shops, basically. They were dirty. Everything seemed cross-contaminated.”
Baek, who worked in the restaurant business at the time, was on her feet, often in heels, for 15-hour shifts. She just wanted “an amazing pedicure” to help get her through, but the salons she visited fell short. Eventually, she had an epiphany. She would open one herself.
Her family was shocked by her decision to go to nail school. But Baek recognized the potential of the salon industry. She knew there was money to be made. “When I opened, people said, ‘Oh, you’re going to touch people’s feet? That’s so gross.’” Baek remembers. “And I said, ‘I’m going to do it like you’d do it in a doctor’s office.’ So I want to have an autoclave. I want all the girls to wear gloves. I don’t want to have a whirlpool. I want to have a cool setting, cool music. I wanted to defend the technicians because there are owners who won’t give them gloves, and they contract all these skin diseases from other people. I’m all for protecting the client and the technicians.”
Word traveled about Rescue’s methods, and business grew. One store became two. In 2008, they expanded to the Meatpacking District. “We were the first ones to open there, before Theory or any of those other stores came in,” she says.
But physically, it was becoming very demanding. So Baek and her husband, happily married for 18 years, reached a mutual decision. “We said, ‘You know what? We work so much. We really need the weekends off. We don’t need so much money,’” she says. “We had an offer to open another place that would have been this money-making machine.” They turned it down and soon after, closed their doors altogether. Some clients cried when they found out.
“I still get emails saying ‘I hate you. I’m sitting here, getting a manicure and my cuticle’s bleeding.’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you. Thank you for hating me,’” she says.
But Baek, who turned 44 in April, insists she’s happy with the decision. She’s since turned her attention fully to her product line, Rescue Beauty Lounge. Her nail polishes are long- wearing, free of toluene, formaldehyde, DBP and animal testing. It took her two years of hard work to get it exactly right, but she’s done it.
Today, Baek lives in Paris for half the year because — well, because she can.
There’s nothing tying her down anymore. “I can work anywhere in the world now,” she says. “It’s very freeing. In Paris, I see these bundled-up American tourists — they’re in their 70s, freezing in the rain — and I tell my husband, ‘How lucky that we’re doing this now!’ Why do this when you’re 70, when you can do it now?”
Baek’s own parents emigrated from South Korea when she was 12 years old. “In Korean families, the girls have to do music,” she says. So she learned to play the piano and viola. Music was her life until, junior year of college, Baek developed tendonitis. Her dream of being a musician quickly ended. “It was devastating in the sense that I had my whole career path laid out for me,” she remembers. “I was supposed to audition for the Philharmonic, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t play.”
But looking back, she calls the change in trajectory a blessing in disguise. “After it happened, I saw my life open up in a way I couldn’t have imagined,” she says, insisting that everything happens for a reason. “And I’m so lucky. Every day, I just feel so blessed.”
Want the inside scoop on Ji’s picks from Rescue Beauty Lounge’s summer collection? Click here.
–STORY BY HILAL ISLER
This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here!