How To Choose The Right Barber
Mr James Dean in a barbershop in New York, 1955. Photograph © Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
What you should be looking for – and expecting of – the person who cuts your hair.
“A good barber should be the calm in the eye of a storm,” says Mr Stephen Powell, who started the London barbering school, Total Barber, 12 years ago. “You should be able to go to him when you’re hungover; have some hot towels put on your face, face creams, a coffee, and boom, you’re ready to go. I’ve been the best man at four different weddings because I’m a barber. I’m like Batman’s butler – dependable.”
All the more reason then, to choose the right one: “Men don’t think much about their hair and expect miracles. It’s usually bang-bang and you’re out. I’ve been barbering for 30 years, and realised that the quality of barbers is quite low, so I thought it would be a good idea to train people up. I aim to ensure people from all walks of life get a good start in the industry and we give free courses and reduced courses to people from difficult backgrounds.”
Inspired by barbering, past and present, CUT Festival: The Art of Barbering, which runs from 24 February to 5 March, at various east London locations, shows just how much choice there is when it comes to barbers, and why it’s vital to carefully choose the one that’s right for you.
Here then, are Mr Stephen Powell’s top tips for finding (and recognising) a top-class barber.
He’s got great technique
“A good barber knows instantly whether to use scissors and a comb or clippers,” says Mr Powell. “A lot of it is down to hair type. The scissor and comb method is better for thin, typically British, mousy hair. Clippers can make that kind of hair look patchy and streaky, it needs the softer finish of scissors and comb. It’s generally better for more elegant, refined looks with a higher level of finish.”
According to Mr Powell: “Clippers are better for people with thick, dark hair who want a sharp, graphic finish. Turkish lads, for instance, often have a number one or two clipped into a tight, strong cut. Having said that, a very skilled, classically trained barber can create that kind of look with a cut-throat razor.”
Flexibility and a mastery of different techniques sets barbers apart: “A good barber should have a blend of different skills and different techniques, and should know what technique suits what hair type. From the classic looks you see in Mad Men, to the longer ‘pop star’ haircuts of Justin Bieber, Oasis, and Rod Stewart; people who look cool – all of those cuts are done by barbers.”
He can handle a receding hairline
Wigs are like political scandals: the cover up is often worse than the original crime – so don’t try it. Hair loss can be distressing for a lot of men, and managing it is one of main skills in a barber's repertoire: “A good barber will have techniques that trick the eye, to draw it away from receding areas, and make the hair seem thicker. Obviously, there are limits to this. We’re just barbers!”
They’ll be precise and specific in their use of language and also show you what they’re about to do. For instance, when discussing the finish you want around your ears they might say, “‘Shaped and soft around the edges?’ or ‘Tight and close?’” – the latter is sharper and more defined, the other gentle and flowing.
“A good barber will always ask, ‘How much shorter?’ and then show you how much they’re about to take off,” says Mr Powell. They will be specific with measurements, ie, 2cm, and double check with you just before they’re about take it off. A good barber will also appreciate any pictures you can show him: “Barbers love having a photo to look at, it makes it that much easier to put it together for you.”
He nails the details
“The back of the neck and neckline are crucial,” says Mr Powell. “You know how you can tell if a man is stylish by looking at his shoes? In barbering, you can tell if a man has had a good haircut by looking at the back of his neck.”
He’s full of advice
A good barber should be a pit stop for stresses of life and should be a place where he can get all his grooming and beauty needs attended to. “During the Victorian era, barbers were filled full of tonics and lotions, and face creams, much more so than today,” says Mr Powell. “A good barber will know what works for your hair, skin, beard and eyebrows, and will be like one stop shop for all your grooming needs. He should be able to offer a new product without making it seem like the person is being offered it.”
An extra tip:
Unless your first cut is a complete disaster, it’s worth giving the same barber more than one try. This is because, says Mr Powell, a key sign of a good barber is that they develop a relationship with their clients, and learn what they need. “It takes an average of three visits to a new barber to get the best out of him, with the third cut being the best,” he says.