For Vu Montgomery, a man on a clear mission to take what he is given and make the very best of it, a career in hairstyling was never part of his life’s path. A Vietnamese immigrant who moved to the United States at the age of nine, Vu came to his new country without any knowledge of the native language and came to know the common vernacular just by immersing himself in it. Vu received stellar grades in school and entered Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, with pre-med on his mind, but after a session of dissection in one of his anatomy classes, he concluded that a career in medicine was not for him.
Immediately following his ah-ha moment, Vu started working as a trainer at a local gym during the day and a line cook at a restaurant at night—both jobs requiring him to wear a uniform. This is when Vu came up with a new life goal; by the time he was 35 years old, he would no longer be employed in a place where people only knew his name because of a tag or inscription on a uniform. And, on a whim—a lucky, life-changing whim—Vu enrolled himself in Bellingham Beauty School where he went from a boy who had never touched hair to a coiffeur who saw styling as an art form.
Now in the industry almost 30 years, Vu is a star stylist at the prestigious Obadiah Salon in Kirkland, Washington, a mere 8 miles south of where Vu grew up in Woodinville. We got the chance to chat with Vu—a self-proclaimed member of the #oribeobsessed—about changing his life path to find something he truly loves and continuing to master it even in the face of adversity.
How did you find yourself at beauty school?
I was not expecting to like it, but people told me I’d be good with hair because I am creative. I was also always into fashion, which goes hand-in hand with hairstyling. I had never touched anyone else’s hair before going to school, but this allowed me to learn the correct way—First you break it down, then you create. I burnt myself with a curling iron; I skipped lunch to perfect techniques; I was committed.
When did the Oribe obsession begin?
I was working at Obadiah Salon, the salon I am still at today, and we got the chance to meet Oribe Canales and Daniel Kaner, co-president of Oribe Hair Care, when they came to speak about the brand. Throughout beauty school I idolized Oribe Canales, and when he came to the salon, he inspired me to get to the next level. I instantly committed to supporting Oribe Hair Care and to making it successful. At the time, I was trying to build a clientele, and as I committed and got better behind the chair, my clientele improved.
I wanted to be like Oribe. My turning point was when I got the chance to go to Paris and work on the Armani Privé haute couture show. It’s all about the relationships you make and how you serve the people around you.
Actually, I have a tattoo of the Oribe Goddess on my back. I got it in Las Vegas during one of the first Oribe Backstage shows as a thank you for inspiring me and supporting my craft.
The owner of Obadiah Salon, Michelle Kleppe, refers to you as the “heart and soul” of the salon. Why do you think this is?
I have a servant’s heart and a fun-loving warrior’s spirit. I also read a lot of leadership books and borrow certain things from certain people. Coming from a third-world country with five kids at home, everything I do has to be intentional.
I try to support our clients through hard work and loyalty because what we do on a daily basis is appreciated—it’s an emotional commitment on both ends.
Why is education so important in this industry?
Passion has to come from somewhere, and I believe that it comes from peer education. If an old guy like me can reinvent himself to be current in the market then that speaks directly to education.
It also means a lot to me personally. When I was 16 years old I was getting very bad headaches and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then about eight years ago I was diagnosed with an eye disease. It turns out that I have been somewhat blind my entire life and I didn’t know it. I was always walking around with dark sunglasses and driving around with a dirty windshield, but I was so used to it that I didn’t know any differently. The first time I learned to cut hair, I was not seeing strands of hair. I was actually drawing negative space around the chair so the head and hair could reveal itself to me. I learned to feel the hair because I couldn’t really see it and had to concentrate on great technique because I couldn’t see detail.
A few years ago I underwent surgery for cornea transplants and that helped in an amazing way. I couldn’t believe how bright and detailed the world was. Now I can see water splash and I see color in a whole new way. This also meant having to reteach myself everything from coloring to timing to cutting. But I have also learned that I had to be limited to be limitless.
How would you encourage someone to continue doing what they love, even if they are faced with obstacles?
First figure out why you do what you do and what your motivation is for doing it. If you love your job and just have to do it then find a way to do it. There are people in much worse shape than I was, so if you think about it I wasn’t really limited at all.
Tell us about the “Vu do?”
First of all, it’s catchy! A Vu do is how a person feels when they leave the experience with me. My core value is a combination of serving people well, coloring and cutting. The Vu do a vibe you can’t fake.
What is your favorite Oribe product?
I basically walk around with a paint brush and try to paint the world, so for this reason I love Bright Blonde Shampoo and Conditioner for Beautiful Color. You can see the warmth it leaves behind.
Do you have any secret tips or techniques you can share?
Keep it simple—people always over decorate. Less is more.
What is your favorite classic fashion look?
For a woman: a pearl necklace, diamond earrings, a little black dress, black pumps and a bob.
The luxury possession you can’t live without.
What is your next travel destination?
I’m a deeply spiritual person, so for me the where doesn’t matter as long as I am spending time with my family. My kids, my wife and I go somewhere together once a year.
What’s next for you?
I’m at the age where I’m starting to get better with years. I want to continue to learn and be inspired and surround myself with people who do that.