It was standing room only at an absolutely RAMMED Coterie in London last night (July 3). The event, ‘Twenty-first Century Boys’ – an exploration of modern barbering and the men it serves – was hosted by Creative HEAD editor Amanda Nottage and ended up being a rambunctious romp through grooming, culture, hairdressing and beyond, that took the 130-strong audience of stylists and creatives on one helluva ride!
Menswear buyer and grooming journalist duo Olly Smith and Lee Kynaston kicked off proceedings, with astute observations about the growth of men’s fashion and the grooming market over the past two decades.
Lee highlighted that the rise of David Beckham – and his increasing pride in grooming and style – acted as a gateway, giving everyday men “permission” to be more interested in their clothes, skin and hair. Olly added that in recent years, social media has also played a huge part, allowing gents to display further pride in their appearance and creating new avenues for trend discovery and development.
“Now, I think we’ve reached a new milestone,” said Lee of the current grooming climate. “”Men don’t need products to be labelled ‘for men’ anymore. They’re more open. If it works, it works.”
Session stylists Jody Taylor and Luke Benson then took to the stage and explained that their love of barbering developed in their teen years, but strengthened when they realised just how versatile grooming can be.
“When I was practising and just starting out, I was always cutting my mates’ hair,” Luke explained. “I loved how relaxed it felt – we were chatting away like we could be down the pub or anywhere.”
“My interest in hair started at 15/16 when I got into ‘rude boy’ styling,” said Jody. “We spent all our money on these Versace jeans and had to have the hair to go with it – all about the image! I wanted to know how my Greek mates’ straight hair managed to fall into these perfect curtains and why my curly hair wouldn’t.”
The final pair to join the line-up were barbers Johnny BaBa of the chain Barber Barber UK, and Matt Robinson, owner of Mister Robinson’s in Rugby. In explaining what barbering means to them, they both agreed that it’s all about making people feel more confident.
“Barbershops are where people tend to get together to feel OK about themselves,” explained Johnny, who added that he got into the profession after observing his grandfather’s business in Ireland.
All six panellists agreed that young people have been pushed into homogenisation by social media, and that pursuit of perfection is erasing individuality.
Soon, the subject of Johnny’s controversial approach to barbershop culture was brought to the table. Throughout his five businesses, he operates a ‘no women’ policy (including partners and staff), to keep each shop as a male-haven, where “men can feel comfortable being men.”
Luke was unsure about what he saw as an exclusionary practice and challenged Johnny to admit whether he would retain some of his most valuable members of staff if they elected to change gender. The audience also questioned whether women were welcome in Johnny’s chair.
“Woman don’t want a barber cut, they just want a cheap cut,” he stated. “If they want their hair short, they can get a Sassoon cut, otherwise just take the clippers and easily do a shave themselves.”
“I have a business because there are enough people out there who want what I deliver,” he added. “Spouses on seats take away from profitability, and I’d rather provide a service that some people want that try and please everyone. You just can’t, not everyone is your customer.”
As the panel debated just what qualifies as a ‘masculine/manly’ environment these days, Lee suggested that modern masculinity has fractured, diversified and is more complicated than it has ever been.
“That mirror my dad looked into and knew he was ‘a man’ has shattered now,” he explained, citing Unilever’s marketing u-turn for mega-brand Axe/Lynx as an example of the mainstream rejecting ‘laddish’ stereotypes.
“One of the best things I’ve read about modern masculinity,” he continued, “is a quote by (artist) Grayson Perry: ‘We need to think of masculinity like a piece of equipment. Some men, like soldiers, need it all the time, others might need it at the weekend and others not at all.’”
Johnny argued that many of his customers are still “traditional men”, with minimal interest in other grooming practices and fewer facets to their male identity, but Luke disagreed.
“Masculinity isn’t one thing though,” he argued. “Johnny, I bet loads of your ‘traditional masculine’ clients shave their balls and you just don’t know it!”
“The things that start as drops in the ocean, these somewhat niche grooming practices, can develop to become normal,” added Lee, stating that statistically, the vast majority of men actually do some form of ‘manscaping’ – a practice that was far less acknowledged ten years ago.
“The hard sell, in my experience, is still make-up for men,” he continued. “There’s enthusiasm when they see what it can do – hiding last night’s hangover from the boss, for example! – but it’s yet to be fully embraced. Men DO have more spray tans than women now though!”
The panel were unanimous in their decision of what one element is currently proving the most toxic for both the grooming industry boom and modern men – empty, commercially driven influencers.
“Social media selling is so fast that you also lose the experience element of retail and brand connection,” said Olly.
“It’s so shallow and rife with dishonesty,” Lee told the audience. “Instant gratification and the focus on this perfectly crafted image are eroding blogging and social media… Recently, I overheard an ‘influencer’ discussing with guests at dinner which shot could be made to look the most authentic!”
“I had someone bring their own paid photographer to a shoot,” added Jody, “just to get hundreds of shots of them being photographed. D***head!”
“It’s got to come to a head soon,” agreed Matt. “Elevating these people to god-like status and for what? Edited photos of themselves? It’s just so wrong.”
“To me, barbering is exciting the moment because we can literally be ourselves, and I want to pass that on,” he added. “My message of ‘Keep it handsome’ is all about that… paying it forward. Giving people the confidence to ‘just do you’ – for your clients and beyond.”
We’d like to extend a HUGE thank you to American Crew for their help with the event, including the fabulous goody bags – every guest walked away with a bag of products including limited edition pomades celebrating Elvis (the KING of men’s grooming).
The Coterie returns next Tuesday (July 11) with a pop-up appearance in Glasgow! If you’re in the area, and fancy seeing and hearing from LCT17 Men’s Award winner and It List 2016 ‘Entrepreneur’ Ky Wilson, plus the legend that is Errol Douglas MBE, head to the Creative HEAD store now.