On a busy stretch of the Garden District in New Orleans—miles from the frat-boy brouhaha of Bourbon Street—Aidan Gill is rebuilding the idea of the American male, one haircut at a time.
Walk into his shop and you're met with a monument to the history of barbering (here, it's almost necessary to call them "barber arts"): Glass cases on the wall display tonics and lotions of ancient pedigree along with old blades, powder brushes, and some downright-medieval-looking grooming devices. Gill himself is an encyclopedia of the barbershop: He can spout off the history of the trade back to 11th century monks while referencing arcane tools of the trade.
Customers are welcomed by a barber in a bow tie and neat shirt, who offers you a choice of whiskey, local beer, or soft drink before you sit down. New Orleans jazz pumps out of a radio in the back. Women are relegated to the front of the store, where they can peruse the selection of razors, aftershaves, and gifts, including books such as How to Raise a Gentleman. The back, where the haircutting happens, is for men only. It's no shocker that Playboy named Aidan Gill the No. 1 barbershop in America last year.
While he's honoring the trade's past, Gill is also trying to redefine its future. He's at the forefront of a trend that has been sweeping the nation over the past few years: the renaissance of the American barbershop and the rise of hip, young boutique salons.
Cosmetology and barber schools is the No. 1 fastest growing industry for 2011, according to AnythingResearch.com. The industry grew 29 percent since last year, with an average company size of $1.3 million. Charles Kirkpatrick, the executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, recently told the New York Times the number of licensed barbers had grown roughly 10 percent in the last two years, from 225,000 to 245,000.
Gill says the resurgence is long overdue.
"The whole deal through the '80s was unisex, androgyny, Boy George, solidifying the unisex movement," says Gill, a Dublin native who first got into the trade when the mod look was king (a look that still echoes in his rectangular glasses and crisp suit with blue bow tie). "The men's establishment has a value. I decided I would basically bring the barbershop back from extinction. People would give me stuff from flea markets because they couldn't sell it. The whole idea of the barbershop was junked." Since opening his first shop in uptown New Orleans in 1990, Gill has become a barbering oracle. Others seeking to follow in his footsteps contact him seeking advice, which he's usually happy to provide.
He's partly to thank for the old-school barbershop making a huge resurgence, as entrepreneurs from coast to coast seek to redefine the haircut from pesky weekend errand to pleasant cultural experience.
Even in New Orleans, the barber school is experiencing a level of interest that it hasn't seen in 50 years, Gill says.
"I think men are looking for the guidelines to be men," he says. "And the barber shop is at the cutting edge on the street."
Theories vary on what sparked the resurgence, but they all stem from one root: getting your haircut at a chain salon in a strip mall had become just so damn boring.
That's certainly not limited to men.
"I'm 35, I'm too young to remember when dudes were wearing white coats," says Jayson Rapaport, co-founder of Birds Barbershop, which has four locations in Austin. Birds is perched at the nexus of classic barbering craftsmanship and punk chic. Customers can drink Lone Star beer, read current magazines, enjoy free wireless, or kill some time playing classic arcade games, such as Joust. It serves men and women, young and old.
Rapaport started the shop when he says he realized there was no middle ground between high-end, pricey salons and low-end, disappointing chain shops.
"Now you've got these people putting together these really nice concepts," he says. "They're really working hard to bring back that feeling of the barbershop. That's kind of the appeal: you can replace dominoes with an old-school arcade game, you can have wi-fi and good music, and that new take is fresh."
Sam Buffa felt the same way when in 2006 when he opened the first F.S.C. Barber in Manhattan. He says the surge of interest in the field is the same return to craftsmanship that's spurring an artisanal revival of everything from pickling to T-shirts to home brewing.
"In general in America people been trained to think that college is their only solution," Buffa says. "There's sort of a lack the idea of telling people that you can make good money doing different crafts: Electrician, barber, baker."
F.S.C. was an instant hit: without any advertising, news of the shop, which features barbers in vests and carefully coiffed mustaches, spread via word of mouth. Buffa opened a second location in 2008.
Consumers are also becoming more appreciative of businesses that double as social centers, says Corvette Hunt, co-owner of Graceland, a combination salon and tattoo parlor in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York.
"In New York, people live in small spaces, they live on top of each other," he says. "I think the service industry recognizes that by giving people places that are comfortable and cool to hang out in."
Shops like Aidan Gill and F.S.C. charge $40 or more for a cut, higher than the typical $20 strip-mall trim. But owners say the recession actually helped business grow.
An old-school cut and shave reminds people of classic American values and times like the Great Depression when craft was valued highly, Buffa says.
Even when the recession was in full swing in 2008, F.S.C. got busier: their new customers had decided to abandon the high-end salon for the mid-range, classic cut of the barbershop.
The new entrepreneurs are adding more than a fresh coat of paint. Long gone are piles of two-year-old fashion magazines, rigid appointment regimens, the reek of hair perm chemicals and—the worst—a stylist who is too busy talking to their coworkers to ask you about your day.
Gill's shop is a monument to man, with Playboys old and new, a courtyard for smoking cigars, and an attention to detail that ensures the barber doesn't rush through a cut. Gill collects classic chairs and equipment—some a century old—with the intent of one day creating a proper barber museum. (His favorite piece is an 80-year-old flywheel hand-cracked Rolls razor. "I wouldn't want to have to shave with it every day but it works," he says).
At the same time, Gill isn't a slavish devotee to tradition. He'll be the first to tell you that an old-fashioned straight-razor shave is far inferior to one from a modern blade.
Customers at Graceland in Brooklyn—those who aren't busy getting ink on the same visit—can browse the store's thousands of records, featuring everything from psychedelic rock to hip hop, to soundtrack the wait.
"It makes every day completely different," Hunt says. "It creates an amazing atmosphere. The atmosphere of a normal hair salon is boring to me."
The rise in popularity of cosmetology and barber schools may be here to stay. Owners say the people applying for jobs in this new wave of shops are largely not part-timers just looking for some extra cash; they're pursuing full-time careers.
"They work five, some work six days a week," Buffa says. "This is how they make their bread and butter."
In Austin's Birds, most employees are either full-time hair professionals or are pursuing similar fields, such as working as stylists on photo shoots. Some of the employees come out of school with lots of experience already under their belts.
"They're between 20 and 30 years old, creative and artistic and they love hair," Rapaport says. "It's a special kind of person. You know quickly when you meet them they're into hair. This is just a way for them to channel their creativity and be able to make money."
In New Orleans, the barber school has brought back an apprenticeship scheme: students train in a shop for a year and get set up with a job after that.
Graceland attracts people who are interested in the artistry of personal style, whether it's hair or body art. And that's what has been drawing people back to the barbershops in the first place.
"It's all just kind of dedicated to the art of styling oneself and beautifying oneself and telling your story through your style," Hunt says. "We wanted to have this whole space that was kind of dedicated to that."