Men’s Room Boom

Tuesday, 14th April 2015by culture HQ
For your own safety, don’t mention the word ‘hairdresser’ in the same sentence as ‘barber’… you need to tread carefully around someone whose daily routine involves wielding a razor close to the throat!


Olde world classics, vintage rockabilly or sleek and modern in style… no matter what their vibe, barber shops collectively have a sub-culture that’s akin to a men’s clubhouse – a third place for guys to frequent away from their very defined stereotypical roles at home or work. Here they can hang out with the blokes, get a great cut and shave and have a few hairy unmentionables removed without asking… a man cave with benefits!


Thanks to shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and now Peaky Blinders, classic men’s grooming and fashion from eras past is very much in demand. Then there’s the whole facial hair phenomenon. For years beards were only seen on grandpas and bikies – until Indie hipsters made them oh so cool – and now every second dude is sporting facial hair from goatees to full-on Ned Kelly bushes. Let’s face it, the movement amongst men towards better grooming shows no signs of slowing down, as more males desire an escape from female-dominated salons in favour of their own more masculine quarters. As a result, barber shops are springing up faster than neck hair, only rivaled by charity shops in growth, which is good news for this traditional craft but also brings with it some concerns.


Did you know that barbering is the second oldest profession in the world, second only to the adult industry? That’s what somebody told me anyway. Track through history and you’ll see that barbers played a very pivotal role in society. In ancient history days barbers did so much more than cut hair, they also performed dentistry and surgery. Talk about a one-stop shop! When it came to cultural customs, it was believed that evil spirits entered the body through the hair, so the quicker and more regularly any fuzz was removed, the less chance you had to be possessed by the devil… Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and in addition to hair cutting, hairdressing, shaving (and the perfunctory surgery and extraction of teeth), barbers were also responsible for bloodletting, leeching, fire cupping and enemas. They even received higher pay than doctors…


Thankfully today the traditional art of barbering is limited to men’s haircutting and shaving in all its various guises, no surgery required. On the positive side, barbering enjoying a buoyant boost puts the spotlight back on hairdressing (even though hardcore barbers will hate that I said that), helping to bring a cool factor back to the industry that’s been mourning its absence for decades. So whilst it’s great news that more young people now want to enter the hair industry via a barbering career, this trend also presents some serious issues.


As there is currently no recognised formal barbering qualification available in Australia nor any licensing regulation, basically anyone can open up a barber shop tomorrow if they feel so inclined. With no requirement for a license or qualifications, it is relatively cheap, quick and easy to set up a basic outlet with mirrors, a few chairs and some clippers – making a barber shop an attractive option for those who find themselves out of work or looking to start their own business. And this is of great concern to experienced hairdressers and barbers who have invested in years of training, because whilst barbering might be the current flavour of the month for young people, that trend could very well backfire if seas of unskilled so-called ‘barbers’ take hold of the market.


Currently, the only formal education route for those wanting to pursue a career in barbering is a Certificate III in hairdressing. But let’s face it, if you’re interested in being a barber, why should you learn about updo’s, perming and extensive colouring when it’s largely irrelevant to your clients’ requirements? There’s no doubt about it, people want real barber training. They want the know-how to master a cutthroat razor and learn traditional male haircuts. To meet industry demands, Service Skills Australia is in the process of rewriting and updating the formal Barber qualification that was absorbed into the hairdressing certificate III back in the 80s. It is expected to be ready some time later in 2015.


Steve Monk of T53 Men’s Hair on the NSW Central Coast was one of the last to complete the national barbering qualification back in the mid-80s, graduating with distinctions. “After I finished the courses were changed to their current format, because the line of thought back then was that barbering was inferior to ladies hairdressing and that if you could cut ladies’ hair, you could easily cut men’s hair,” he recalls. Steve’s history in the field of barbering goes back 30 years. “When I was young I worked in a barber shop in Pennant Hills, NSW, where I learnt the importance of detail and precision. This was the 80s, and flat tops were the ‘in’ haircut. We cut all of our flat tops freehand. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but now looking back that did me a real favour. Flat tops are so precise, there’s nowhere to hide, so it really stepped up the need to be highly skilled in your scissor over comb technique.”


In response to the groundswell of demand for barber training and in the absence of any formal national qualifications right now, several RTOs have implemented male-focused hair cutting courses. Brisbane’s Matters in Gray offers a 32-week Barber Training course, which provides an outcome of 20 units of competency from the Certificate III Hairdressing qualification and includes modules such as structures for traditional and classic men’s haircut designs; beard and moustache maintenance, how to perform face and head shaves and techniques with hone and strop straight razors. Leading men’s brand American Crew has introduced its Partner School Program to many TAFEs and private education bodies around Australia, including the Heading Out Academy, Victoria University and Petersham TAFE. “It’s a very exciting time in the men’s hairdressing industry,” enthuses Phoenix Thompson, American Crew All-Star and Education Manager. “Our Partner School Program has been brilliantly received and we have many more institutions set to come on board in 2015 including the entire TAFE South Australia. The Partner School Program is a system of education that encompasses most of the men’s’ criteria of Certificate III in hairdressing. We don’t use the word ‘barbering’ – this course teaches hairdressers to do men’s grooming really, really well and includes everything from consultation and head shape assessment to strong scissor and clipper skills. We are also launching a new module in 2015, which will now include face and head shaves. It’s great for the teachers as it has written exams and other evidence gathering documentation to keep the auditors and government happy.”


Ask any barbering aficionado who’s nailing the craft in Australia and the name Sterling Barber Shop will be at the top of the list. Tony Vacher, owner of Sterling Hairdressing Parlour & Barber Shop, has more than 30 years experience in barbering and hairdressing under his belt and is renowned for his retro styling. The Sassoon-trained barber opened his business in Surry Hills five years ago, converting a warehouse into three unique spaces: a dispensary and shop-front, a 1950s-inspired ladies salon and a traditional 1930s style barber shop. Think old Hollywood glamour and rockabilly reinvented for now… sexy with a rock ’n’ roll edge.


Barbering and hairdressing is in Tony Vacher’s veins. His aunt was part of Vidal Sassoon’s team and encouraged him to take his first job there, but it was his uncle, a renowned continental style British barber in London’s East End, who really influenced and nurtured Tony’s passion for the craft. “I started working in my uncle’s barber shop sweeping the floor at the tender age of 13,” he tells. “It was 1976 and his shop was one of only a handful of high end barber shops left in London at the time. When I was old enough to go into the industry I trained at Vidal Sassoon, but every day I had off was spent with my uncle at the shop, learning old school barbering techniques. At the time I was embarrassed to tell my Sassoon mates I also worked in a barbershop, as being a barber back then was certainly not a cool thing. I just did it because I loved the tradition and I thought it was a valuable skill to have.”


The Sterling Barber Shop has a unique pre-WWII vibe, resplendent with framed pin-up girls, vintage barber chairs, cut throat razors and an aroma of talc and shaving cream that immediately transports you back to another era. It is one of the few barbershops that specialises in continental barbering and also offers original straight-razor shaves. Paul’s passion is combining his love of vintage hair styles and recreating them in a modern way – and he’s delighted to see the wave of popularity for barber shops the world is experiencing.


“I think in the 1990s and 2000s guys kind of let grooming slip, so when shows like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men came onto the scene, seeing these images on film and television made them long for a little pampering and want to get to know the feeling their granddad had when he was a young lad, walking into his favourite barber shop and sitting in the chair,” says Tony. “Barbering should be an experience.


“Both our shops, in Surry Hills and Chippendale, are true barbers using traditional barbering techniques, but we are not ‘anti-girls’ like a lot of the modern barber shops. Kate, one of my managers, is one of the best barbers I have had the pleasure to work with. I hope that in the last 25 years with our shops and barbering workshops that we have helped hairdressers and the public understand that barbering isn’t just a smash ‘em in smash ‘em out cheap alternative – rather that barber shops can be and should be a much higher end experience. We are extremely busy, so I guess people like what we do!”


Tony says that whilst the modern resurgence in all aspects of men’s grooming somewhat blurs the lines between barbering and men’s hairdressing, “the two are completely different. You can’t really call yourself a barber unless you understand how barbers cut hair. Barbering is a way of cutting hair without sectioning; it’s about using the distribution of weight rather than cutting to lines or set patterns to create shapes. We do our entire barber training with our apprentices in-house. Whilst there isn’t any specialist accredited barbering courses available at this moment, I think it’s a good idea to get a grounding in all aspects of hairdressing. Both skills are very important – you can’t really have enough knowledge.”


Like many highly trained artisans, Tony is concerned about the number of barbershops springing up all over town with a lack of credentials. “I hope that we can stop the worrying issue of unlicensed barbers – people that have no hairdressing or barber training whatsoever and are working as barbers and opening shops all over Sydney,” he laments. “We have to have a minimum standard for barbering to survive and we can only do this by getting on top of training. Then barbering will continue to b e a vibrant, exciting place for people to get their haircut and therefore be around for many years to come.


“We have to make barbering a respected profession once again. Even now when I do workshops, people say ‘yes but in hairdressing we are told not to use those or do that’, as if barbering is always second best. But it should really run alongside hairdressing. Everyone should have these skills in their back pocket – that way whether you are a guy or a girl you can be proud to say you are a barber.”


BIBA Academy owner Paul Divitaris is also enthusiastic about the global interest in barbering once again. “I started my career sweeping barber floors in Greece more than 50 years ago when I was a young man of 13 part-time after school,” Paul recalls. “I served coffee to the customers (it had to be Greek coffee) and applied foam for face shaves, trying to make a couple of Drahmas (the equivalent of five cents in Australian currency). When I left school I completed two years of the basic old-fashioned barbering apprenticeship in Greece and another four years of barbering and hairdressing when I migrated to Australia. When I arrived in Melbourne I continued barbering with one of my uncles in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. I know the art of barbering well.”


Whilst Paul is excited about the resurgence of barbering, he believes that very few institutions can deliver true barbering training. “The industry should now embrace it as a new concept,” he continues, “because it is very different to becoming a hair stylist. It is a more masculine, sharper and refined style of work. I believe BIBA is a leader in the resurgence of modern day barbering by offering bespoke courses for hairdressers who are tired of dealing with the frills and fancy stuff and wish to reinvent themselves with a new career path. If you’re a qualified hairdresser, you can gain the superior and specialised skills you need to become a good barber in six to eight weeks. It’s also a great place to meet handsome men…” he jokes.


“Barbering is back and it’s getting bigger every day! During the 70s and 80s ladies salons started to ‘steal’ the male clients from the barbers… and now its payback time. Eventually more and more barbershops will open up and there will be huge demand for men’s services. This is the re-birth of the booming era of barbering from the early 19th century up to the 1960s. It’s a very exciting time!”

Tuesday, 14th April 2015by culture HQ