Ask most men almost anywhere in the world to list some of their earliest childhood memories and I bet that their first visits to the barbershop will almost always make the list. I can still vividly recall my childhood visits to Johnny Threespins, the sole barber in small the English village where I grew up. His nickname came from the triple twirl he’d give kids on his chair before setting to work on the same short back and sides we’d all inevitably end up with. For three generations of villagers he was our stylist, counsellor, entertainer, source of gossip and occasional rogue: I still remember him kicking my mum out after she asked him trim to my sister’s hair. Barbershops, he told her, were the realm of men.
While today’s barbers have a less archaic attitude towards women, their business stays firmly focused on men – and what big business this is becoming. After the trade reached dire straights in the 1990s, as the line between barbershops and hair salons began to blur, shifting men’s attitudes to style and grooming have reignited a global trend in barbering. Across Australia, my last home, I watched the franchising of barbershops explode with hip new establishments popping up in every half-trendy suburb, all promising cut throat shaves, slick-backs, pompadours and enough oils and ointments to tame even the shabbiest beard.
For the ancient trade of barbering this resurgence has certainly had its merits: a horde of creative, talented young guys and girls are now picking up scissors and keeping classic cuts alive. But there is something missing from this new wave of overpriced and over-hyped businesses. While I am sure that the many trendy barber shops that have recently sprung up here in Singapore offer a decent service, I can’t help but feel a little bored as I peer through their windows. The leather-apron-clad, emotionless-looking barbers trimming the finely manicured beards of their clientele don’t look like much fun. I fear the modern barbershop, despite its warm traditions, is becoming a sterile environment.
This weekend I moved into a new village about as far away from the wild Northumbrian hills as one could imagine: Holland VIllage. As I wandered down the dusty halls of one of the suburb’s ageing shopping centres, I heard that familiar buzz of the clipper, mixed with a healthy dose of Led Zeppelin. I approached One+1 Barbershop and a feeling of familiarity came over me. The place was humming with activity. A Japanese father was gesturing to a barber showing him how he wanted his very nervous-looking son’s hair to look; a wealthy expat chatted politics with another barber while the gent next to him received one of the most elaborate comb-overs I’ve ever seen.
One+1 didn’t offer an abundance of beard balms but there was a contagious vibe of comradery among its staff. I left with a half-decent haircut and got a rundown of the village’s history, some tips for dinner and a reassurance that the spirit of barbering is alive and well.
Nolan Giles is Monocle’s Singapore bureau chief.