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An Ode to the Barbershop

From the black barbershops of New York City to the best of British luxury, the humble barber is a dab hand at cheating death and crossing cultures

Depending on who you ask, the barbershop has died a number of deaths over the years. Some say Gillette killed the barbershop with the introduction of the safety razor. Others will swear that The Great Depression and two World Wars were three nails too many in the barbershop’s proverbial coffin. There are even those that blame the barber shop’s demise on the unkempt and shaggy looks of the 60’s prevailing hippie culture (to this day, a long hairstyle cut into a shorter, more conservative short-back-and-sides is still known as a ‘hippie killer’ – a lyrical revenge of sorts).

Thankfully, rumours of the barbershop’s death have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the social, cultural and communal roots of the contemporary barbershop are stronger than ever. Writing on the power and the politics of the US’s black barber shops, for example, Jason Parham talks of how, ‘for all the regressive politics about sexuality or gender it sometimes harbors, the black barbershop has remained a space of pride, community, and reflection across generations.’ It’s a solid point and well-made. From Levels Barbershop of New York City to the LGBTQ safe-space that is Ninth Chapter Barbershop in Los Angeles, much of the barbershop’s enduring power stems from its strong communal ethos and unwavering dedication to local culture.

Half a world away in the Netherlands, that said same communal ethos (and more than a wee pinch of those said same regressive gender politics) can be found at Schorem Haarsnijder en Barbier. Schorem is an old school, men-only barbershop in the heart of the working-class city of Rotterdam. Pompadours, flattops, and slick backs are their stock and trade and they’ve gotten damn good at it too. According to founders, Leen and Bertus ‘the barbershop is and always has been the spider in the web called community. Back in the days it was the place to hear the latest gossip and news and you were always sure to meet a couple of old friends and on lucky days even make a new one.’

Not a big fan of fancy trends, Schorem (from the Dutch meaning ‘scumbag’) pride themselves on staying true to their counter-culture roots: ‘This is what we do, we don’t care about fashion or trends. We love the rock ‘n’ roll subcultures and that’s why we are so much into the pomps and quiffs.’

In the cities of Edinburgh and London, the award-winning Ruffians proves that the barbershop is alive, well-represented and up there with the best of them. Striking a balance between tradition and innovation, Ruffians positions itself as a lifestyle destination for the modern man that calls back to the barbershop’s communal legacy. In the words of Ruffians own Adam Bodini: ‘Over the last 5 years Ruffians has grown to represent more than just a place for a haircut to our customers. With our calendar of free customer events and collaborations, we hope to build a space where our Ruffians can come in-store whenever they want, even just for a chill.’

To this end, their bespoke coffee and whisky bars not only offer an added kick to your monthly sharpen up, they lay the foundations for a social space that celebrates an inclusive community, open communication and an all-important respite from the pressures of city living: ‘Barbershops are safe havens, they are an important hub for socialising and important [for] having some “me time,”’ says Bodini. ‘There is nothing wrong with a little pampering and we create an environment that makes that hour of your day the best one and leaves you feeling more confident.’

Of course, none of this matters without the barbering credentials to back it up, and Ruffians have said credentials in spades: ‘Many barbershops are known for only doing ‘blades and fades’, it is important [to us] that all hair types and styles can be looked after so we look for those with a strong hairdressing background.’ ‘We have a very mixed team at Ruffians with 40% of our staff being female. Our female barbers are some of the best in the company, their skillset is just insane.’

Together, the likes of Levels, Schorem and Ruffians are the tangible products of creative minds running wild with their own, personal concept of barbershop traditions. Whether that idea of tradition boils down to providing a common ground to celebrate particular communities and heritages, a laddish, boys-only space to shoot the breeze, or a more progressive space that values commitment to the craft over the strict presence of a Y chromosome is up to them. One thing is for sure: For something that has apparently died so many deaths, the barbershop sure does scrub up well.  EJ

Words by Will Halbert
Image Credits by Jelle Mollema Photography