By Léo Azambuja

Lee Ann Apao opened Studio 203 Salon in Lihu‘e 23 years ago, and has more than 30 years of professional experience. Photo by Léo Azambuja

As a young girl, Lee Ann Apao would steal her mother’s hair scissors to try her hairstyling talent on her friends in the cane fields of Kaua‘i. That young girl would grow up and open Studio 203 Salon, one the top-notch salons on the island.

“We specialize in hair color, a lot of customized hair techniques as far as placement of color. We do customized haircuts. We have an aesthetician … and we have a manicurist and pedicurist,” said Apao, adding the salon also offers deep conditioning of the scalp for people with scalp ailments.

Studio 203 opened 23 years ago in Lihu‘e. It operates in the iconic Tip Top Motel building, right next to Tip Top Café on Akahi Street. Prior to that, Apao worked at the former Liberty House for seven years, and another couple years at Macy’s. That’s more than three decades of professional experience.

It’s a busy salon; about 10 professionals can be seen at the salon working on clients on the busiest days, and all of them use contemporary techniques. They all have been professionally trained and have a passion for their clients, Apao said.

“We’re a very close-knit family,” she said of her colleagues. “We all love what we do.”

Lee Ann Apao. Photo by Léo Azambuja

Studio 203 carries two hair-coloring brands, Aveda and the German brand Goldwell. For the last 16 years, Apao has been educating for Goldwell, one of the top brands of hair coloring in the world. She said Goldwell is such a high-quality product that she is able to cover grey color at a level nine.

Goldwell is pricey, but it is worth it, and it provides continuous education and support for hairstylists, Apao said. The company, she said, has probably taken her to where she is today as a professional.

Because Apao is the only professional in Hawai‘i currently employed by Goldwell USA, she provides education to other salons that use their products in the state. This means she has to keep up with training and certifications. Last month, Apao went to New York for a certification, and a few days later left for Utah for regional training in a hair show.

“I get to travel three times a year all over the U.S. because of Goldwell,” she said. “Especially coming from a small island, if you would see the runway shows, it’s just like Victoria’s Secret runway shows. Exactly like that, but it’s all about hair. And I get to come back to Kaua‘i and teach the stylists who carry only Goldwell.”

When Apao was a little girl, she wanted to either be a school teacher, a flight attendant or a hair stylist.

“I was too short to be a flight attendant, and I didn’t have the patience, or I didn’t want to go to school for four years to be a teacher,” she said. So she decided to cut hair, something she was passionate since she was young. She went from stealing her mom’s scissors to cut her friends’ hair in the cane fields, to doing her friends’ makeup and nails, to getting a professional education.

Lee Ann Apao. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“I went to school and I loved it. I loved it because it was rewarding. I could make people feel beautiful, look different and it made me feel good,” said Apao, adding that in the beginning, she didn’t have many clients, so she and her colleagues volunteered in pageants.

Some of the most rewarding things about her job are helping her clients to boost their confidence, to feel better about themselves, and also getting to know them, their stories, their culture, the places where they come from, she said.

“I love my job. I get to do this every day. I love it, and I get to see different people every day. I won’t do the same thing every day because each person is different, each person is unique,” she said. “They get to trust me. I get to tell them what I think would make them look beautiful. It’s amazing. I just love it.”

The clientele at Studio 203 is about 60 percent women and 40 percent men. They take anyone from keiki to tutu. Appointments are highly recommended. They may take walk-ins, but only if there’s a cancellation.

Studio 203 Salon is on 3173 Akahi St., Suite 101, right next to Tip Top Café. Call (808) 246-6203 or visit to book an appointment or for more information.