The Barbershop Renaissance

An old-school throwback has gone from strength to strength, with new establishments opening even during the pandemic. But is the changing face of male grooming as clean-cut as it appears?

Article by Ceri David

Milkman beard and moustache trimming scissors, $36, Photography by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Anna Lavdaras.

A barbershop opens in a closed-down Flight Centre, an event that is surely the most succinct summary of the present-day Australian high street. House of Handsome is dark and moody, rich with aged leather furniture and roughly hewn timber cladding. R&B spills out the door and there’s Jack Daniel’s on the drinks trolley. Opened in January, it’s the third venue for the chain, all in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, so clearly things are going well. “Business is great,” says the owner Ash Alizadehnia. “But you won’t believe how often people tell me I was brave to open a new shop with the world the way it is at the moment.”

On the opposite side of the street — no more than 75 metres away — is Al’s Barber Shop. The decor is considerably less curated. His two chairs are different colours, different heights, and the newspapers on the coffee table are not a vintage prop. The owner, Aldo Del Vecchio, has just finished with a client and laughs when asked how long he has been in the trade.

“You don’t want to know,” he says, sweeping tussocks of hair to one side of the room. Originally from southern Italy, he emigrated to Sydney as a child in 1963 and left school at 16 to pursue a barbering apprenticeship. He’s had his own shop for 40 years and reports that business is good. “Better than ever. Short hair is in — not as short as mine,” jokes Del Vecchio, who is completely bald. “In the ’80s, longer hair was in and a lot of the barbers went broke. Now it’s actually at the peak. If you notice, there’s barbershops opening all over.”

For years, the industry wasn’t much more than a quaint souvenir of a bygone era. Instead, men, by and large, went to a unisex salon or clippered themselves in front of the bathroom mirror. But when the likes of “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” came along in the late-2000s, they breathed life into the notion of the dapper gent, and the barbershop revival was on. Celebrities started wearing a quiff and an impeccable side part. Sportsmen followed suit and, eventually, so did the general public. What began as a nod to nostalgia proved to have legs and these days it’s rare to walk down a shopping strip without passing at least one stripy pole. In 2018, there were 1,290 barbershops listed in the Yellow Pages throughout Australia; today, there are 1,414. Some are sleek temples of masculinity, others are not much more than a hole in the wall.

Del Vecchio is delighted by his industry’s rejuvenation and full of praise for his new neighbour. “Beautiful salon. Very good. But expensive!” You’ll pay $40 for a haircut across the road, compared with his $25. “They have a different clientele — hipsters.” Which means he’s not especially worried about the competition. “I’ve got so many loyal clients,” he says. “There’s one, I’ve been doing his hair for 43 years — he has never been to anyone else.” He does, however, have concerns about the rapid growth of his industry. “These new trendy barbers, half of them don’t do any training. I don’t mean the shop opposite, just generally,” he says. “Four years, I was an apprentice. It was a couple of years before I even was allowed to cut anyone’s hair in the shop. Until then I was washing hair, sweeping and watching — always watching. Now it’s all changed.”

It would be easy to dismiss Del Vecchio’s misgivings as the old guard feeling rattled by industry disruption, but he’s not the only one raising questions. “The barber industry is already quite fragmented,” says Sandy Chong, the chief executive officer of the Australian Hairdressing Council. “There are the old-style barbers, there are newer legitimate businesses and then there are a lot of cowboys that are very quickly giving the industry a bad name.” Training, she points out, isn’t just about knowing how to give someone a good haircut. “Having a qualification means you’ve studied technical skills, plus work health and safety, infection and hygiene control. A trade qualification should always be necessary when providing a service using scissors, clippers and a cutthroat razor.”

As it stands, qualifications aren’t mandatory in most states, and even in those where they are — New South Wales and South Australia — they aren’t regulated. “I’ve started lobbying to address this concern as it affects public safety,” Chong says.

From far left: Rancé 1795 Sharisme Insensé EDP, $249, Truefitt & Hill shaving set, $500; Proraso After Shave Lotion, $26.95; Geo F. Trumper West Indian Skin Food, $35. Photography by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Anna Lavdaras.

TAFE NSW and other registered training organisations introduced barbering courses in 2016, thanks to student demand and pressure from bodies such as the hairdressing council. Before that, it had been three decades since the last accredited training program was shelved, and the only option for would-be barbers was to complete a full hairdressing course, which focused chiefly on techniques for colouring, perming and cutting long hair. Enrolments for the new barbering courses, with their emphasis on fades, sideburns, beards and hot towels, have increased significantly.

But training is just the tip of the iceberg. The barber sector is “the only part of the industry that is growing, but I feel the stats are very much underestimated”, Chong says. “Many operate ‘under the radar’, contributing to the black economy. Many trade cash only and there are cases of drugs sold on premises.”

Jan Gawel, the executive director of the Hair & Beauty Australia Industry Association, agrees. “Due to the rapid growth of barbershops and the influx of new employees and owners into the industry, there have been concerns around cash-in-hand businesses, the avoidance of super payments for staff and generally not offering staff their awarded entitlements. While this is not widespread, it is more prevalent in barbering compared with the more mature hairdressing side of the industry, where both employees and employers are more aware.

“We also know that the rental chair market is growing, and that’s a bit of a grey zone,” Gawel continues. “There’s nothing wrong with renting a chair to a freelance barber or stylist if it’s done appropriately, but there’s talk that chair rental is a way of getting around employer requirements like paying tax or superannuation.” Renée Baltov owns The Barberhood, two gleaming, architecturally designed shops in Sydney’s CBD that are regularly responsible for keeping actors, members of parliament, models and sportsmen looking fresh from the neck up. She isn’t keen to mention names, but it only takes a glance at the Barberhood’s Instagram feed to see that you could be enjoying the same $55 haircut as Prime Minister Scott Morrison  (Baltov insists that every client receives the same treatment, no matter how high profile).

Beyond haircuts, the Executive Face Shave ($59) is popular, performed with a straight razor, hot and cold towels and luxe products. “There are some real enthusiasts out there who even have all the gear themselves — the razor strop, the blades,” Baltov says. “It’s become a hobby.” Having grown up in her mother’s salons in Queensland, Baltov opened her first shop in 2015. She says that looking after her staff has always been a top priority. “We hire the best people with excellent hairdressing technique — and by the way, it’s not easy to do a really beautiful men’s haircut. Some of those fades are works of art,” she says. “But we also focus on amazing customer service skills. When we train our receptionists, one of the first things we talk about is matching the client with the barber who will give them the best possible experience.”

Her view is that the shadier corners of the industry have cropped up due to a lack of skilled workers that stretches back more than 20 years. In terms of locally trained barbers, with only five years since the new courses launched, there are still relatively few graduates and they are comparatively junior, leaving a shortfall that is met by skilled workers from elsewhere in the world.

Taylor of Old Bond Street comb, $39.50; Triumph & Disaster Ponsonby Pomade, $38; Taylor of Old Bond Street military brush, $150; and Baxter of California Citrus & Herbal-Musk deodorant, $33; Photography by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Anna Lavdaras.

“Fifty per cent of my staff is from overseas,” says Baltov, “and they have amazing skills that are hard to find here. For example, Australians may find cutting African hair more challenging simply because it’s not a hair type that’s overly common here. English and American barbers have this skill as a staple, and they can often help train and provide these skills to the Australian workforce.” In the past, these internationally trained barbers could be sponsored for a 457 visa, granting them the right to four years’ work in Australia. When that was abolished in 2018, the Temporary Skill Shortage 482 visa that replaced it was more expensive and less appealing, offering just two years. “Then, in March 2020, hairdressing was flagged for deletion from the list,” Baltov says. “It has remained for a year as all immigration decisions were halted and international borders closed due to Covid — but it will come off next year.”

With a limited pool of workers, tactics to secure skilled staff aren’t always above board. “I can’t speak for any of these operators personally, but I think the hairdressing labour skills shortage would be a huge factor in motivating people to act illegitimately, because they are desperately trying to find or retain staff,” Baltov says. “Instead of paying the associated fees such as superannuation, insurance and workers’ compensation, they’re scraping together what they can to attract people with cash-in-hand wages. For legitimate businesses such as mine, it makes it even more difficult to find staff.”

A third premises, planned for 2020, was put on the backburner due to the pandemic. “I’m happy to say we’ve kept all our staff by only keeping one store open and rotating them on split shifts,” Baltov says. “The business wasn’t making any money at all, but at least everyone could survive and pay their rent. But if I was to open a new store now, it would be very difficult because there just aren’t enough barbers in the country to meet the demand.”

It goes without saying that, on this side of the world, the impact of Covid has been felt most acutely by those in Victoria. Evan Rolton, a trailblazer of the Melbourne scene, having opened Rockit Barbershop in 2005, has had a hard year. “Not trying to be rude to the rest of Australia, but no-one knows what we went through because you didn’t live it,” he says. “We were shut for 18 weeks and we weren’t allowed to travel more than five kilometres. My shop is 7.5 kilometres away from my house, so I wasn’t even allowed to go and see if we’d been broken into or pick up stock that I was selling online.

From left: Taylor of Old Bond Street manicure set, $355, and razor, $185; and Marvis toothbrush, $8.95, and Whitening Mint toothpaste, $12.95; Photography by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Anna Lavdaras.

“We got 13 hours’ notice that we were allowed to reopen. If we didn’t have JobKeeper, I wouldn’t have had staff to man the store. Imagine three months of people wanting to get their hair cut. Places were booked solid.” After the initial rush, however, trade has dropped off. “My business is still only running at 50 per cent turnover because we’re based in the CBD and people aren’t back in the offices yet,” Rolston says.

While Covid has put pressure on the barbering bubble, it doesn’t seem quite ready to burst, with IBIS World reporting that revenue for the hairdressing and beauty services industry is only expected to decrease by 2.1 per cent in 2020–21, making it worth a forecast $6.6 billion. After all, hairstyling was among those services seen as vital for mental health, so closures were kept to a minimum. And of course, while barber services may be less expensive than hairdressers, men tend to go more often than women. “The male population accounts for only a small proportion of industry revenue,” says Matthew Barry, a senior analyst at IBISWorld, “but this segment is rapidly growing as young-to-middle-aged males increase their spending on industry services.” Which means it’s likely that barbershops will continue to pop up like mushrooms on a damp sports field before the industry reaches a tipping point.

Rolton isn’t worried about overcrowding in the market. “Before Covid, we didn’t use a booking system. You just walked in, wrote your name on a chalkboard and waited. For 15 years, we never even took anyone’s phone number, and they still kept coming back. The cream will always rise to the top.” He stops, almost as if he has caught himself being boastful — even though he has every right. “Anyway, the population in Australia has grown so much in the last 20 years. There’s 12 million men that need their hair cut. It’s supply and demand.”

He says authenticity is key. (It’s worth noting that Rolton is a barber without an enormous beard or waxed moustache, and without a single tattoo, “although pretty much every one of my staff have them. I’ve had staff ask if I mind them getting a tattoo on their face. I said, ‘It doesn’t bother me, but have you asked your mum?’ ”)

He sees businesses going to great lengths to construct a backstory. “Barbershops these days try to make themselves look old before they even start,” he says. “They spend a lot of money to create the feel of the shop before they even have one. You can make yourself look as cool as you like on social media, but at the end of the day you can only look after the people who are in your shop right now. That’s where you need to spend 90 per cent of your effort. That’s probably why we’re still here after 16 years.”

His veteran colleague Del Vecchio feels the same way, happy with his customers and unlikely to modernise just to keep up. “Well, I should get some new chairs,” he concedes. “Give it a coat of paint, you know? But not because of them. I just should.” Which all sounds like a lot of effort after 55 years on his feet. “I do sometimes sit down to read the paper, but all of a sudden 10 people will turn up, one after the other.” Of course, retirement would allow plenty of time for catching up on the news. “Oh yeah,” he says. “One day.” He carries on sweeping. “But I really don’t want to.”

None of the operators interviewed for this piece are under any suspicion of unlawful conduct.

A version of this article appears in print in our second edition, Page 46, with the headline:
“The Razor’s Edge”
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