Old-school barbershops are making a trendy comeback.
YOU can spot an Indian barbershop a mile away as you can’t miss the trademark barber’s pole in red, white and blue stripes.
Most guys who grew up in the 1980s and 90s have probably stepped into one for a quick haircut before, if they hadn’t already been hauled to the Indian barber by their mothers when they were young boys. In fact, some men in their 60s and 70s will only go to Indian barbers, refusing to enter modern hair salons as they are quite suspicious of the services. They’re probably also not comfortable with the idea of a woman fussing over their hair.
However, the number of these traditional barbershops is fast dwindling, due to the mushrooming of trendy hair establishments and emerging talented hairstylists in the country. That is, until recent years, as old-school barbershops seem to be slowly gaining popularity in the hair industry again.
In the Klang Valley, establishments such as Truefitt & Hill and Joe’s Barbershop are making their presence felt. Both offer a range of no-frills stylish haircuts, as well as classic hot towel shaves.
We Need A Hero’s fittings lend a Mid-Western cowboy saloon air.
At Truefitt & Hill, it is seen as the continuation of a two-century old British legacy which began in 1805. The name is considered the oldest certified barbershop in the world, hailing from London.
It opened its first outlet in Kuala Lumpur in 2012 and offered the feel of a typical English barbershop with traditional leather barbershop chairs in a masculine environment.
Last year, two more Truefitt & Hill outlets were opened, with a few more in the pipeline for the rest of Malaysia as the brand expects the market to grow.
According to the operations manager of Truefitt & Hill Malaysia, Cathal Eoin Lenihan, their customers are no longer only limited to mature and refined gentlemen.
“Younger men have increasingly discovered the necessity of fine grooming and it’s not unusual to see them at our outlets. In line with this, our barbers provide some of the latest styles in haircuts and shaves,” he explains.
Regarding Truefitt & Hill’s additional services, Lenihan says: “We offer waxing or beard trims too, and if a guy so requires, manicures, pedicures, facials and threading services as well. Complimentary shoe-shining is also available.”
A new name on the scene is Joe’s Barbershop, founded in 2013 by Malaysian rapper, producer and songwriter Joe Flizzow. It started with one outlet in Subang Jaya, Selangor and a second one recently just opened in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
Flizzow explains that the barbershop trend isn’t something new in Malaysia. His salon style merely serves to reinvigorate the popularity of barbershops.
“If you look at P. Ramlee and Jins Shamsuddin, or other men from that era, they have always been very stylish with their hairstyles. The current generation is just waking up to the need of getting a proper haircut again,” he quips.
Flizzow adds that his establishment is very much influenced by American barbershops, or more specifically, New York ones. The idea behind it is about going to a “place where everyone knows your name”.
He points out that Joe’s Barbershop clientele is unique and diverse. Apart from walk-in customers, celebrities and businessmen are also regulars.
“Our youngest customer is three years old and our oldest, 70. And it’s not only just men. Women are also coming to see us. We even had (actress) Nora Danish coming in to get a side shave once!” reveals Flizzow.
Cutting across borders
Singapore and Thailand are also seeing a surge in old-fashioned barbershops. In Singapore, places like We Need A Hero is being branded as a one-stop grooming destination exclusively for guys. The core of its business comes from providing top of the line haircuts and shaves for the modern man. Other services range from brow grooming and waxing, to even skin treatments like IPL (intense pulsed light). All these are carried out in a comfortably, stylish setting, reminiscent of a Mid-Western cowboy saloon.
“It’s driven by the demand for masculine hairstyles and grooming services which unisex salons don’t usually offer. Celebrities like David Beckham, and pop culture characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper have also played a part in setting the trend,” says senior group public relations manager Janet Lim, on behalf of Spa Esprit Group (which oversees the running of We Need A Hero).
Describing the difference between barbers and hairstylists, Janet says the former specialises in haircuts and facial hair grooming for men, while the latter caters to a unisex clientele.
“Men want a place where they can feel comfortable as they get their grooming needs tended to; a place that offers quality services without being too intimidating or flamboyant,” she adds.
There is also Sultans of Shave, said to be aimed at reviving and revolutionising one of the oldest but less-than-glamorous back alley barbershop.
The co-founder and director, Lewis Lim, says that men are returning to barbershops because modern ones offer an ambience and the haircuts young adults are looking for.
“Barbers have revamped their image. The current ones also engage the younger generation effectively by showcasing their haircuts and offering styling tips on social media,” he adds.
Comparing barbers with hairstylists, Lewis says: “The tools of the trade are different. Whilst a hairstylist relies mainly on a pair of scissors, a barber has to be equally adapt with the clippers, scissors and a straight razor.
“One reason for the revival of the old style barbershop is popular culture. Shows like Man Men, Suits and The Great Gatsby have made men sit up, and take notice of the slick and classic look.”
Zeroing in on Thailand, guys in Bangkok can look to Three Brothers Barber Shop which specialises in 50s-style quaffs and undercuts. This new addition to the city’s barbershop scene is seen to be all about retro rockabilly hairdos. Reportedly, the barbers of the establishment offer masculine haircuts – à la Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and James Dean.
A male perception
So what do Malaysian men have to say about the barbershop trend? Zhafry Rahmat, 26, thinks that it shouldn’t be seen as a trend per se.
“It’s a cool thing because every man wants to look good. When you see someone all groomed up coming out of a barbershop, it stirs something in you. That’s when you want to step up your game too.”
Zhafry, who has his own T-shirt label, is also of the opinion that men don’t get the haircuts they ask for when they go to hairstylists. He feels more often than not, it’s the total opposite of what they want.
“For me, I feel it caters to my exact needs. Even though I’m bald, I have specific ideas of how it should be and only a barber would know how to meet my demands,” he adds.
Richard Augustin, however, isn’t sold. The 39-year-old freelance editor goes to the old-fashioned Indian barber for his haircut.
“It’s mainly the price point, and also the fact that these new barbershops have long queues. I might try it out one day to see what the fuss is all about. But right now, I’m happy with my regular barbershop.”
When you consider how Indian barbershops in Kuala Lumpur charge an average of RM10 for a regular haircut and swanky joints like Truefitt & Hill charge RM95, he has a point.
For Augustin, the traditional barbershops work just as well.
“The Indian barbers provide a great service: they’re quick, cheap and efficient. I think we shouldn’t overlook the fact that they’re also an integral part of the fabric that shapes our society,” he concludes.