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The Barbershop is Back

In an Age of Salons and Stylists, Men of Distinction Are Returning To the Time-Honored Pleasures of a Barber's Care
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

The slender young barber prepares a steaming towel in the marble basin and announces that it was Alexander the Great who first ordered his troops clean shaven so enemies couldn't grab them by their beards.

"I enjoy reading about the history of my trade," remarks the tonsorialist, who goes simply by the name Anderson and presides weekdays at Harrison James, a men's shop with a clubby ambience that occupies an entire Manhattan townhouse.

Anderson's client, reclining in a century-old Koken barber chair, watches raindrops trace amoeba-like patterns on the skylight above. The barber stands behind the chair and slowly draws the hot towel--the first of maybe half a dozen, depending upon the toughness of the beard--under the chin, across the cheeks and up and over the eyes. Anderson has confidence in his skills. No white coat or vest for him. He's hung his stylish suit jacket on a nearby peg and hasn't even tucked in his necktie. Anderson will not stain that tie with shaving cream. The prospect of a nick on the cheek from Anderson's blade seems so remote that the client may nod off.

This is the experience of the shave distilled: incredible relaxation as the barber first wraps the face in warmth, then applies the sharpest of instruments.

It is an experience to which many men are returning. After years of trusting their tonsorial care to hairstylists and reduced to shaving their own faces, they are finding their way back to professional full-service barbers, who are steeped in the history of the trade and trained to cater to a man's specific needs. What's more, the lucky men who do are finding that the time invested pays off handsomely.

The Brazilian-born Anderson is deliberate. He apprenticed in his homeland before moving to New York, where he worked for a year in a Japanese-run barbershop. "Their techniques are very meticulous. I really wanted to learn from them," he says. "They spent two months teaching me how to apply hot towels."

Anderson's next client may be savoring a smoke in the cigar lounge downstairs, but Anderson is in no hurry. Another hot towel follows the first lather application. Then he massages more lather into the beard. "Keep it moist," he says, explaining that canned creams and gels dry out too quickly on the face. He inserts a blade into his open razor, a gift from an old Italian barber. "For the first pass you always go with the direction of the grain of the beard." There are several passes.

Anderson will spend upwards of half an hour removing a man's whiskers. But smooth cheeks aren't the only reason those who grew up on canned foam and throwaway safety razors find their way to the barber's chair. Anderson reports that men have begun to make appointments for after-work shaves--a way to unwind after a tough day. Or buff up for the evening ahead.

It is the return of that male sanctuary, once practically doomed by pastel-decorated styling salons blaring rock and roll. And with it comes a certain level of style that almost became extinct as well. Anderson warns men against "beauty school graduates" who wield scissors but remain clueless when it comes to even the classic men's haircut. "The back of the hair must be gradually tapered and men should wear sideburns to midear length," he insists. Anderson feels the sideburns "give character to the face."

Harrison James is just one of a number of barbers who are providing men an alternative to the salon. Geo. F. Trumper, a London landmark since 1875, advertises the "rare service of providing a traditional shave." According to Ian Matthews, himself a barber and manager of the establishment, "We're getting a lot of men who come in once every two weeks for the experience of having the whole thing--a shampoo, haircut and shave."

Victor Cook, who brings 45 years of gentlemen's hairdressing experience to management of the barbershop at Austin Reed of Regent Street, the London men's and women's clothier, detects a "resurgence in shaving among younger men." He adds, in discreet tones, "We do find that a lot of young ladies are buying vouchers for all of our services for their future husbands."

At Gornik's Drucker in Beverly Hills, California, which has been shearing and shaving men since 1936, owner William Gornik has voiced concern that the traditional barbershop ambience of sports talk and stories has been at risk. (Ronald Reagan was a longtime client. The shop now sends a barber to the former president's home.)

Gornik leaves no doubt as to where he stands. That's a 100-year-old barber pole standing on the Linden Avenue side of the Wilshire Boulevard shop. "This is a shave shop," he declares. "We hone razors and we strop them." And he detects signs of a swell in demand. "There are a couple of talent agencies around the corner," Gornik reports. "And those guys are coming in. And visitors from New York and London want shaves." Gornik is determined to bring along the next generation. At the shop he lathers up his sons for pretend shaves.

At Trumper, Ian Matthews is "not quite sure how the club and Italian barbering somehow married together, but it's what we try to re-create here." Re-create is too modest a term. Trumper's Curzon Street shop is Victorian, though Matthews admits a few of the original doors disappeared over the years as the shop expanded.

Matthews supplies a wealth of shaving lore: The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans shaved to signify rank and even divinity. Men have plucked their whiskers and shaved with sharpened seashells. Steel blades came along in the nineteenth century. "There's nothing in the Anglo-Saxon stuff to say there were barbers around, but when you go far back in the Mediterranean, it was the place where everybody seemed to be able to get the best shave," according to Matthews, "The best barbers used to be Italians. I was trained at age 15 by an Italian."

At Trumper, "You've got the old clubby kinds of sounds, the clicking of the scissors and maybe the running water, so it's a kind of therapy that can hypnotize," says Matthews. The idea is for clients to "sit back and drift away." Matthews does allow that he is "looking to add an old clock with the tick" to the place. Of course, change has limits. "We're not going to introduce music."

Each morning a number of clients fight London traffic to enjoy a "relaxed start to the day" with a Trumper shave. "We tilt the chair back and your mind goes in a different tangent," Matthews says. "After the towel is pulled off the face, immediately you feel the warmth of the shaving brush and the cream and its heat. It's all going round the face and it's lovely and fluffy."

Matthews views with dismay the fact that in some quarters--the United States, for example--health regulations prohibit application of lather to a gentleman's face with a badger hair brush (or any type, for that matter), which might spread germs from face to face. "When you dine in a restaurant, you assume the linen and china are hygienic, do you not?" he asks. Many Trumper regulars maintain their own brushes and razors on the premises in "small and discreet leather washbags" known to that particular client's barber. (At one time U.S. barbershops provided cabinets for the storage of regulars' shaving mugs and brushes.)

"Because we've knocked all the resistance out of the beard," says Matthews, "the client just feels the blade sliding through the whiskers, not along the skin." (Trumper barbers use an open razor with a snap-in blade or even a Gillette with a heavyweight handle on clients with highly sensitive skin.) A postshave hot towel application cleans the face and a cold towel follows to close the pores and "bring the client back to life."

Then it's time to enjoy a cigar on the premises. "We encourage it," says Matthews. "We're rather European in that regard." He suggests the ideal time to light up is after the shave, when Trumpers offers its clients coffee and biscuits. The coffee and tea service was introduced in 1994, after much discussion.

While Trumper caters to "gentlemen of leisure" (read: titled) who arrive after breakfast, Americans touching down at Heathrow need not worry. "We can always fit them in," says Matthews. And he'll personally attend, if he's free. But potential clients should be warned that the shop manager himself draws on only 25 years' experience in haircutting and shaving. Barber Monty Park started at Curzon Street 65 years ago as a lather boy, an apprentice who prepared the client for the master barber's razor.

Trumper hires only experienced barbers, but it's a sign of the times that shaving experience is not widely shared among young gentlemen's hairdressers. Matthews notes that while the term lather boy is no longer used, the position remains at his shop. Trumper puts new employees to work preparing beards under the tutelage of senior barbers. They move up as the older men become confident in their skills.

When it comes to haircutting, Matthews insists that Trumper is "not a short-back-and-sides barber as we used to be." But then again, there are limits. Matthews has thundered in the British press against that "nonsensical and useless" men's hairstyle--the ponytail. His solution: if Savile Row tailors simply declined to sew bespoke suits for ponytail wearers, the style would die a quick death.

Matthews concedes that his clientele is "probably weighted toward Tories." (Margaret Thatcher reportedly preferred her cabinet ministers clean shaven.) Matthews himself regularly traveled to 10 Downing Street to cut Prime Minister John Major's hair. Before he could wield scissors or razor in the official residence, Matthews was required to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not that the British government had cause for concern about a gentleman's hairdresser revealing matters of state. Trumper declares--in writing--that unlike that fictional Mediterranean barber and go-between, Figaro, "it is well known that barbers can become confidants of clients--and one of the basic rules is that this confidence is sacred and never broken!"

Trumper draws the line with cabinet ministers and backbenchers prone to that traditional Tory pastime, the sex scandal. Matthews insists, "We don't sell anything for the weekend." He explains that British barbers traditionally offered--and some still sell--condoms. On Friday afternoons a gentleman's barber would discreetly query whether his client was properly equipped for weekend sports.

Edwardian nooks don't seem to be confined to their country of origin. Eric Malka and Myriam Zaoui, a couple with a background in the cosmetics industry, opened a small shop on East 62nd Street in Manhattan to sell all kinds of shaving items, ranging from straight razors to brushes, colognes and aftershave balms. Demand proved so strong that they followed with the Gentlemen Barber Spa, an intimate Madison Avenue shop that boasts a barber's chair in a rear alcove.

Throughout the day, men drop in for appointments with Boris. He's a veteran of the trade in Russia, where, he notes, barbershop shaves never went so much out of style as in the West. Boris employs generous amounts of hot lather and many, many short strokes with his open razor. The secret to a good shave, he assures clients, is stretching the skin taut and taking off a small amount of beard at a time. Boris applies oil before the shave to soften the beard, and afterward uses an alum block, a medicated stone that serves as an antiseptic.

Myriam Zaoui is determined to add a New Age twist to the shaving ritual. She has formulated essential oils, distilled from herbs and flowers, for preshave and aftershave treatments. The shop's 40-minute "Royal Shave" includes a facial mask.

The Gentlemen Barber Spa's proprietors encourage men to take up shaving as a hobby, if only on the weekends, when they have the leisure. Their selection of straight razors comes from Solingen, the renowned cutlery center of Germany. Boris is pleased to demonstrate the over- and underhand grips. After all, most men haven't grown up watching their fathers lather up, strop and whisk away their whiskers with heavy straight razors ("cut throats" in British parlance).

Austin Reed's Victor Cook explains that during Edwardian days, English parents presented their sons on their 21st birthday a set of seven razors, each blade engraved with a day of the week.

For a slightly more modern take on British men's grooming, the ground-level hairdressing at Austin Reed of Regent Street offers Art Deco splendor. The firm of Osbourne & Garrett (sadly defunct) was constructing barber chairs for Austin Reed during the 1930s, the same decade that the Spitfire fighter was making its test flights. While the few surviving Spits are displayed in museums, the barber chairs remain in daily use. A couple of hot towels in an O&G chair can induce a shave client (who's nearly flat on his back) into believing that the gent in the next chair is an RAF squadron leader just back from an afternoon of splashing Messerschmitts into the Channel.

Manager Cook began as a hairdressing apprentice in 1952. Early lessons, to be sure, included how to apply hot towels and lather up clients. But Cook recalls that after only 13 weeks, he was wielding a blade, "purely because an elderly war veteran demanded 'the lad' shave him." He's had a straight razor in his hand ever since.

No injector blades for Victor Cook: "I use the cut throat." The stated reason: "I'm old and I'm obstinate." But Cook is quick to share his belief that the difference in shave closeness between traditional straight razors and safety razors is comparable to the advantage that the latter provide over electrics.

His goal, Cook insists, is to "send a man out with cheeks as smooth as a baby's bottom."

If a London Bridge can now span a lake in Arizona, surely a hairdresser can establish a very proper English barbershop to cater to gentlemen on the shores of Lake Michigan. Eight years ago, barber Kirk Merchant obtained a franchise from London's Truefitt &Hill and set out with a passion to replicate on Chicago's North Michigan Avenue the look and feel of the venerable London shop.


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