Hair transplant and weaver extraordinaire Koray Erdogan started off from humble origins, rising to the top of Turkey’s billion dollar hair transplant industry.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Koray Erdogan is The Great Gatsby of Turkey's hair transplant industry. He likes to throw lavish parties to mingle with Istanbul’s well-heeled people and sometimes with his peers, who happen to be the world’s leading hair transplant and weaving experts.
In the summer of 2015, Erdogan, who is not related to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hosted a global conference in Istanbul to discuss the latest hair weaving techniques. To promote the event, he did something unusual for a doctor of his repute — he produced a hip hop music video. The video features him as the lead actor and singer. The plot goes like this: in the middle of a surgery, he spots his colleague sitting by a piano. He grabs a glass bottle and strikes it hard on the man's head. As the glass shatters into pieces, he takes a few strides, puts on sunglasses and a faux chinchilla coat. Then the hip hop beats blare.
“He has a very big ego,” a former co-worker of Erdogan's, who preferred not to be named, told TRT World. “He makes it known he is a rich guy and he could basically afford anything he likes.”
The idea behind producing the video was to project his conference as an “invite only” affair, and attract an elite pool of doctors.
“He wanted simple lyrics so he could memorise them and sing them at ease,” the former co-worker, who also wrote the lyrics, said. “It took us hours and hours. Each time, I rewrote it, he made me rap it in front of everyone.”
The plan worked. The creative doers, at the top of their hair weaving game, attended the conference. A gala dinner and a boat party on the Bosphorus followed. The high-society professionals from around the world clinked their glasses, while a belly dancer and a DJ kept them in high spirits.
The evolution of hair transplantation
Erdogan made his debut in the hair grafting business in early 2000. He assisted leading hair surgeons of the time, who performed an old-fashioned ‘strip’ surgery on patients. The technique left a permanent scar at the back of a patient’s head — as it involved cutting up the skin, extracting strips of hair follicles and grafting them to the bare areas. For most patients, it was a traumatic experience.
At the same time, the industry was going through a groundbreaking evolution. A new hair-restoration technique called Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE) showed extraordinary results in hair restoration, causing much less discomfort to patients. It didn’t even leave any scars on the scalp. The disruption allowed the business to expand dramatically, making old hair restoration techniques obsolete.
Erdogan was quick to upgrade his skill set. He attended a workshop run by Alex Ginzburg, an Israeli hair surgeon who’d mastered the art of FUE. Erdogan opened a private clinic in Istanbul in 2001, targeting wealthy clients specifically.
Istanbul was attracting a large number of tourists by the turn of the millennium, meaning the timing of his venture was perfect. Between 2002 and 2005, foreign tourist arrivals spiked from 12.8 million to 21.2 million. Many of them came for medical attention, which increasingly included hair restoration therapies.
Within a decade, Turkey had become a leading country in the hair transplant business, with a net value of one billion dollars. In 2016, about 700,000 hair surgeries were performed around the globe. Some 100,000 of those were performed in Turkey.
In Istanbul today, it’s a common sight to see men with white bandages wrapped around their swollen heads walking down Istiklal Street, the busy shopping thoroughfare in the heart of the city, an indication of the country’s booming hair transplant trade. Located between both Europe and the Middle East, Turkey offers world class medical facilities at affordable prices — a surgical procedure that costs around $15,000 in the US or most European countries is performed for $2,000 to $4,000 in Turkey.
More and more clinics are popping up across the country. In Istanbul alone, there are 350 licensed clinics that specialise in hair restoration surgery, and several hundred are operating illegally in the city’s underbelly.
With the growing business, Erdogan earned the reputation of being one of the pioneers of the trade. He’s in his heyday, charging at least $9,000 per surgery, and has won several accolades. He’s also the vice-president at the World FUE Institute, a prestigious global platform that seeks to enhance hair restoration practices.
Over time, Erdogan has not only enhanced his craft, he has also learned to comfort people who come to him with great hopes. Some patients come with unrealistic expectations, hoping that Erdogan will revive their hair to youthful margins.
Many patients recognise the gravity of their hair loss, so they expect Erdogan to create some impression by lowering their hairline. From his interactions with patients, he has come to develop a nuanced understanding of why people dislike baldness and feel such a strong urge to have their hair back — an awareness that is crucial in the marketing of the hair trade.
The psychology of hair transplants
On a cold December morning last year, Erdogan arrived at his clinic in the outskirts of Istanbul. The clinic has the feel of a posh boutique hotel, with dark gray wood flooring and bright white walls. Aquamarine furniture and a white piano adorn its lobby. A young pianist was playing La Musique de L’amour, a mesmerising composition by legendary French musician Richard Clayderman — the pianist is a permanent fixture.
Erdogan, a tall bespectacled man with closely cropped silver hair, walked purposefully into the clinic lobby. From his receding hairline, it's clear that he too is losing hair, but he had styled it carefully to hide the balding spots above his temples. He greeted the receptionist and the doorman, and disappeared into one of the back rooms.
Most of Erdogan’s staff are graceful Turkish women in their 20s and 30s. They assist him in hair surgeries, manage his finances, interact with potential customers and guide them throughout the process; from booking appointments to dealing with other logistics.
One of the female staffers shepherded a customer into the clinic, who introduced himself as Jose Casas from Spain. Casas had a pitch black beard and wavy hair, which looked like a darker and milder version of the footballer Luka Modric’s flowing locks.
As he entered the lobby, he glanced over every detail of the room. The sound of a piano coming from a corner brought a smile to his face. He began to laugh and joke with his attendant, who goes by the name of Ximena, in Spanish.
In casual banter, Ximena asked Casas: “Are you scared of growing old?”
“Yes and no,” he said, fumbling with words as he tried to explain his reasons for going for hair transplant surgery. He doesn’t look bald from any angle. His fringe still falls onto his cheekbones and his hair at the back is thick and healthy, which touches the collar of his shirt.
So why did he come all the way from Spain for hair restoration surgery? For Casas, it was deeply psychological.
“I had my look. I used to slick my hair back with gel,” Casas said. “Now I can’t do that. I don’t feel low morale but I feel like something in me is missing, that I am not really me anymore.”
At first glance, Casas wasn’t bald, but as he lifted his fringe, the beginnings of his baldness could be spotted. When he applies sculpting gel, slicking back his hair, the balding appears more prominently, a sight that disturbs him.
Through FUE surgery, he wants to increase his hair density so he can fall back on his old habit of using sculpting gel to slick his hair back.
Casas had bought gifts for the surgeon: a package of chocolates and a bottle of wine from his private vineyard in Spain. He said Erdogan is “the only one” who could return the shine of his youth.
Sitting behind his desk, Erdogan wore a surgical scrub costume and had a stethoscope dangling from around his neck.
“He may continue to lose density here,” he said while examining Casas. “I will fix the front line, no problem, but in the future, he probably will have to come here again.”
Casas said he would like to visit again and gave written consent to Erdogan for the first round of surgery. Erdogan gestured to Ximena, who led Casas to a room where the blood samples were taken.
The power of hair
Erdogan talked learnedly about old and new hair weaving and transplant techniques, and the psychological impact of hair loss on men. He believes that certain aspects of the human psyche — self-worth, confidence, attractiveness — are entrenched in the idea of having hair; and the desire to sustain those traits is helping the hair restoration industry grow at a faster pace. `
“Hair is power,” he said, leaning forward on his chair. “You know in nature, all animals, especially male animals; when they want to attract female animals, they use their fur.”
“Even in history,” Erdogan continued. “You know Julius Caesar from the Roman Empire? He was suffering from hair loss, so he created a specific crown. Emperors, powerful men, even in the age of the Vikings, they used some animal face masks to cover their hair loss. In history, all men camouflaged their baldness. And they always tried to find solutions.”
Julius Caesar did indeed suffer from hair loss. Several historical accounts suggest that he wore a laurel wreath only to hide his shining scalp.
Erdogan argued that the human response to hair loss has nothing to do with “appearing more attractive.”
“I think it’s mostly about self-confidence,” he said. “You know the famous before and after photographs? When my patients come back with long hair, I can see their happiness and self-confidence.”
Born in 1969 in Bursa, a city ringed by the low-lying foothills of Mount Uludag, Erdogan finished his bachelors in medicine at Hacettepe University in 1994. He specialised in thoracic surgery, performing surgeries on cancer patients.
By 1999, he had grown disillusioned with the stream of his profession. “In thoracic surgery, you remove lung cancers,” he said. “But a year or two later, you learn the cancer is back in a more dangerous form. It was a depressing sight. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
The main motive behind Erdogan’s switch to the hair restoration business, he said, was to achieve solace by making people happy.
“When you make people happy, it sets you free. You have a purpose in your life and you enjoy living it,” he said.
Certain things in his trade are sensitive. Erdogan explained how people's expectations vary from culture to culture. Arabs, he said, tend to opt for more aggressive hairlines.
“They want their hair to look like it looked in their teens,” he said, slipping into a chuckle. “Italians, Americans and Australians are aggressive too. But French and most people from European countries are conservative in their approach.”
In the hair weaving business, conservative expectations mean people seeking high hairlines to compliment their age.
“We have some tricks for such patients,” Erdogan said. “We take out hair strands from the donor area [the back of the head] and plant them in the recipient area [the front of the head]. We match the hair density between the two parts and create a good looking illusion.”
Casas sought an aggressive look. And it was possible for him to get one since he still had plenty of hair left in both his donor area and scalp.
Born and raised in Vigo, an ancient wine town in northwest Spain, Casas was inspired by his carpenter grandfather. “He had a very strong personality,” he said.
As a child, Casas would watch his grandfather every morning while he combed his hair. Like Al Pacino in The Godfather, Casas’ grandfather had a pushed-back hairstyle without a part. In his teens, Casas imitated his grandfather’s look on occasions, like his first date. He embraced it fully in his twenties. But as he reached his forties, his hair had thinned so much that the hair gel exposed his scalp.
“I want to be like I was before,” Casas said. “I am not depressed but something has changed in me. My wife says, ‘Jose you look too serious these days. You don’t joke anymore’.”
“It was a big decision for me to come here,” he continued. “My wife supported me. I called her in the morning and thanked her for supporting me. I feel happy,” he said.
At noon, Casas got his head shaved. Erdogan shot a laser beam on his forehead and used a black marker pen to draw a curving line over it. Casas seemed nervous, tapping his toe with urgency.
Soon after, Casas was anaesthetised and taken to the surgery room, where Erdogan was waiting for him in his surgical gown, his head covered with a black bandana, a sign that distinguished him from his coworkers.
The sedative kicked in. Casas sat calmly in what looked like a sophisticated version of a barber’s chair. Using tweezers, Erdogan began punching the needle into the skin on the back of his skull, tweezing out the hair strands one by one. He then replanted them on the front of Casas’ head.
Half an hour later, Erdogan returned to his office while the nurses continued the procedure. A few strips of painkillers, a medicated shampoo and a hat were packed for Casas. He would be sent back to his hotel soon after the surgery and asked to visit the clinic for washing the next day, and visit again for a check up six months later.
Casas came out of the theatre at sundown. His head was covered with white gauze and an elastic hairband. The new hairline made his face look thinner. He was effusively ecstatic, giggling and cracking off-colour jokes. Perhaps the sedative was still exerting its effects.
“I’m back to me,” he said loudly, and immediately burst into a laughter. “I feel so good. I am me, me, me!”