Li Dongtian applies makeup to movie star Li Bingbing. Many actresses
and top models have become Li's clients. Provided to China Daily
Despite only being a middle school graduate, Li Dongtian is one of China's top stylists. He works with the most famous and beautiful faces in Beijing. Meng Jing reports
When then 16-year-old Li Dongtian, also known as Tony Li, sat in a Monita Cosmetics and Coiffure School classroom in 1988, knitting hundreds of nets to make wigs, he had no idea the repetitive, boring task would be the beginning of a wildly successful career.
Before entering the cosmetics school Li had floundered through his final year of middle school, desperately trying to figure out what to do when he inevitably failed to get into senior high school.
"I was a quiet, hard-working but lousy student in junior high school. My teachers regarded me as hopeless," said Li. "But at first, neither of my parents, who were engineers, agreed with my choice to become a hairdresser, I guess it was my poor grades that persuaded them in the end.
"I just wanted to learn a skill and make a living," he said.
Li's parents' concern is understandable. China did not have much of a fashion industry at the time and career prospects were uncertain.
There were 30 students in his cosmetics school class but he is the only one still working in the industry. Li said he had opportunities only because there were so few people willing to commit to the industry in the 1980s.
At the cosmetics school Li got a chance to model in a commercial. He volunteered to do the other models' hair and his skill impressed the director.
Things grew from there and before he graduated from the school in 1991, his name was already known in the entertainment business in China. Though the number of his celebrity clients was growing, Li left China for the US in 1994.
The two years he spent in the US left Li addicted to coffee - he always drinks a cup before doing any work - and improved his already considerable talent. Initially speaking no English, he simply let his hair-cutting skills do the talking.
Apart from working as a hairdresser in Los Angeles, Li went to fashion shows and taught himself how to do makeup. Eventually he decided to open his own stylist agency and run it in the same fashion as those in the US.
In 1999 Li founded his first Tony studio in Beijing and from there quickly built a national fashion empire.
One of Li's first fashion discoveries was then unknown but now world-renowned super model Lu Yan. The narrow-eyed, flat-nosed and thick-lipped Lu said that before she met Li she felt she didn't meet the traditional standard of beauty in most Chinese people's eyes.
"The first time he met me, he looked so excited. He said 'You are so beautiful' and I didn't believe him because no one ever said that to me before," Lu, recalled.
A photo of Lu standing behind a bunch of lilies with no makeup and freckles on her face garnered a lot of publicity for both Li and the model.
Li has since done countless covers for elite fashion magazines, and with many top models and actresses.
"I'm probably the only man who gets to touch all the beautiful women in Chinese men's fantasies," said Li. "But just their faces. "
Li owns 18 Tony Studios in five Chinese cites, three coffee shops and three major stylist training schools. Though he has gradually gone from a stylist to a businessman, he prefers to call himself "a man who is running a business of arts".
Li is proud that his style has impacted China's fashion industry for 20 years, but he believes each generation should add its own characteristics to the industry and create its own sense of style.
"For a long time, China has followed the fashion trends set by Western countries," he said.
"When more stylists have graduated from my schools, I hope that Chinese stylists will make the world hear their voices and admire beauty from a Chinese perspective."