It’s become hard not to notice. At first, it was just the odd moustache among the faces passing by, or maybe an unusually dapper gent at the table next to you or a carefully coiffed quiff on your local barista. Over the last couple of years, what might once have passed for the occasional homage to a bygone era has slowly but surely revealed itself to be something significantly more.
In suburbs across Sydney, a new breed of barber is springing up and with them a renewed appreciation for the age-old art of men’s hairdressing and straight edge shaving. Offering services and surrounds that owe as much to old school traditions as they do to modern technique, these renaissance barbershops are bringing follicular flair back into fashion while also defining the look of the time in much the way their predecessors did.
Dan Dixon, owner of The Chop Shop in Kings Cross and Bondi – which specialises more in ‘custom hair’ – believes the appeal for many men comes from knowing that the experience is one steeped in tradition.
“The chair, the surroundings and the entire process involved in going to the barber is something our clients really appreciate,” he says.
He acknowledges the old school exponents of barbering with genuine veneration, referring to them variously as artists and magicians.
“These old guys have dedicated their entire lives to the art of being a barber,” Dixon says.
That said, despite the renaissance barbers taking their cues from the experts of old, it’s a different game today. “No one’s really doing exactly what the old guys used to do; everyone’s putting their own spin on it,” Dixon says.
In part, he says, the world has gotten in the way of offering those same standards. Where a barber would have once proudly sharpened his straight edge on a leather strop each morning, today only disposable blades are allowed.
“A true barber on a straight edge is a magician,” Dixon says. “They can do a straight edge face shave in their sleep.
“It’s a dying art though and one that I think will be lost to future generations.”
It’s why he believes it’s so important that the ritual and tradition are maintained, as a means of keeping the artistry alive and the sense of ‘secret men’s business’ that goes with it.
Tony Vacher, operator of the venerable Sterling Hairdressing Parlour & Barber Shop in Surry Hills, agrees. “That nostalgia is definitely a part of the appeal,” he says.
A well-known figure among the modern barber movement, Vacher believes it’s also the sense of history that the authentic atmosphere and surrounds creates. “The atmosphere is what really makes guys comfortable,” he says. “It’s more of a hangout than your modern hairdresser, and it’s more of an overall experience too.”
Vacher says his clients are really receptive to old-school techniques. “The hot towel, the lotion, the entire process – they want to experience what their grandad experienced.”
It’s why he goes out of his way to find old products “that smell right…so you can walk out smelling like your granddad.”
Vacher says the call for straight edge shaves has increased out of sight over the last few years. “I used to get maybe one person a month coming in for a straight razor shave,” he says. “Now it’s more like six to eight a day.”
Asked what’s driven the renewed interest, Vacher points to shows like Boardwalk Empire, with its world of 1920s bootleggers and bad guys, as well as the ever-dapper Don Draper of Madmen. “I think in some respects, those shows have awakened an awareness in guys about what they can do, and it’s also given them a sense of permission to actually make a statement with their style,” Vacher says.
“Guys are really re-embracing the idea of taking more pride in their appearance, of expressing a sense of individuality through the look that they go for.”
And then, he adds, there’s always the danger factor. “There’s something pretty daring about letting a stranger hold a sharp razor to your throat and trusting that you’re going to come out the other side.”
For fine tuned cuts:
Sterling Hairdressing Parlour & Barber Shop(link to our piece) – Surry Hills
The boys from Porteno and Shady Pines often get a cut and comb here. It’s a 50s hairdressing experience – from cuts and clippers to cut-throat razor, shave cream, pomade, Brylcreem, talc brush.
The Chop Shop – Kings Cross & Bondi
Their unique style is influenced by hotrods and the art of tattoo.
Ziggy’s Barber Shop – Darlinghurst
Modern old school barber shop (for ladies and gents) with a twist.
Hawleywood’s – Newtown
Cuts, shaves and shines. Originally from the US, they have opened a shop in Newtown.
Grand Royal Barbers – Darlinghurst & City
Barber’s chairs from the 1940s and other barbershop memorabilia passed down from Steve’s great, great grandfather.