A cut above

When I was a lad we didn’t go to fancy saloons to get a hair cut. Oh no. Short back and slap, and a tip for the races.  Barbers were for men back then, where men went - sometimes daily - for a shave, a haircut and a chat with other men and some manly advice - not solely horse-related - and a laugh. With men.

I’d have been eight or so when my dad started taking me to the barbers and it gave me a little peep into the secret world of the male. Slightly scary and nicotine-stained, but inviting too. Somehow that all seems to have been lost and now I, like many of us, put our hair in the hands of “proper” hairdressers.

I’ve had some shocking haircuts from barbers down the years - mostly variations on the 2-and-1 clipper job that scares the children, and recently some excellent cuts from a (female) hairdresser - so I’m not here to blindly defend the old-time values or gloss over misogyny, hygiene and safety issues. But maybe something important has been lost.

And it's not just the somewhere for men to relax together where they’re not swilling beer. It might just be that barbers, good ones at least, can give a man a better haircut than a hairdresser.

Steve Salecich believes barbers are best. He is “Steve the Barber”, the man behind Sydney’s Grand Royal chain. “There’s more attention to detail,” he says. “It’s about giving that guy a good service. We know how to cut men’s hair properly. We use a razor on the back of the neck, not clippers, and finish things off with a hot towel and some Bay Rum.” And then there’s the vibe. It’s relaxing. There’s no DJs, no wifi, none of the distractions of a mixed salon. They talk about sport - and have a laugh with the customers.

Steve did his training in the 80s when the "unisex salon" was on the rise and the traditional barbershop was dying out. Even then, he says, it was hard to find courses in men’s hairdressing. “It was brushed over,” he says. “Lots of people were not taught how to shave a man.”  But as a fifth-generation barber, he learnt the trade from his father, and 13 years ago, started his own shop.

"It’s become cool to get your hair done for ten bucks in the local barber."

Even in the 90s, he says, calling himself a barber was a bit risky. But now barbers are, it seems everywhere, and there are a lot of shops “jumping on the barbershop bandwagon but without the expertise,” warns Steve. 

Joey Scandizzo, who was was named 2012 Hair Expo Australian Hairdresser of the Year at the weekend, is all for the return of the barber shop.

Joey is predicting a “return to shortly cropped, classic men’s styles that’s definitely been influenced by things like Mad Men and The Great Gatsby. Basically a short back and sides has become popular again. And we’re also seeing a return of the classic barber – it’s become cool to get your hair done for ten bucks in the local barber’’.

Both Joey and Steve anticipate a revival of 80s hair - with shaved sides and long on top. “People are going to start growing out the length and playing with how that can be manipulated,'' says Joey. “You can slick it back, build it into a quiff; if it’s curly you can really enhance the curl – there’s a lot that can be done.”

So salon or barbershop? At the end of the day, it's down to personal choice. The sort of cut you want, the sort of money you’re prepared to shell out, the type of experience you want to have.  And it is only hair after all; usually it grows back, so next time, you can try something else.

The salons don’t fear the rise of the barber - there’s plenty to go round. “It’s great for the industry,'' says Joey, “because these guys are classically trained hairdressers, who understand that it’s all about the precision cut. You have to get the cut right to really achieve these neat styles.”

Barber or hairdresser? What’s driven you from one to the other?