Open Barbers is an exciting new project in queer hairdressing based in London. Clara and Greygory, who have been cutting hair for over ten years aim to provide a warm, intimate and affirming experience to people of all genders and sexualities, so that anybody can have the haircut that they want. Together they are challenging the hetero-normative and gender-normative attitude to cuts that dominates high street salons. In this interview, Clara and Greygory tell DapperQ’s Zoya what brought them in to our sphere…
THE PENNY DROP MOMENT
ZOYA: I’d really like to hear the story of how Open Barbers came about. How did the two of you meet?
CLARA: Grey and I have known each other since the end of March. I was cutting hair at Scala Erresos, Lesbos, and a mutual friend got us together. She said to me a few months later, ‘I have a friend who’s passionate about hair like you are,’ and we met up not long after that. When we met we got talking about the fact that there is no barber that meets the needs of queer people, and we started to think about what we might like to do about that.
GREYGORY: Interestingly, we met through a queer mutual friend – in fact, her name is AJ, do mention her, she loves to take credit for this! I think it was really important that we took this self-organised approach from within the queer community. It was really great to meet someone who has the same passions, same principles as me. It seemed like there was no reason not to create something together! There was this penny drop moment as we realised that we both want the same thing, we have the same dreams, even though we just met.
G: Clara, your story of how you became a barber is really interesting, but even I’ve never heard it in full. I think you should talk about that more.
C: Oh, okay… Well, I always wanted to do hair but I didn’t know how to start. I thought I was too old, but one day I just thought ‘it’s now or never’ so I applied for college in the evenings.
G: You had a full time job at the time.
Z: What was your job?
G: (Chuckles mischievously) Pornographer…
C: (Laughs) You wish! I had an office job. Then I found a job in a salon on the weekends. So I finished college, and then we met and I realised that I always wanted to be part of a community, to treat the salon as a community, a place where people feel comfortable getting information and chatting.
G: When we first met, you had already come to this idea of a place where trans and queer people could come and feel comfortable, but you never told me how you came to that idea.
C: Well, I had been to a festival where they had a barber shop. I was so excited, I always wanted to do women’s short hair. This barber shop didn’t cut hair, they just styled and applied facial hair, so it was like being backstage. I was so excited, and I wanted to implement that in the salon, not just cut hair but get people ready for events or show them how to do it at home, and that’s about community, sharing products, advice, and everyone can get involved.
Z: Hence Open Barbers –
C: Yes, open to everyone, especially those not in the mainstream.
G: Prioritising those in the minority.
C: People who are shy to go to a normal barbers, and who identify as queer. And reclaiming barbers as a female thing, because we want to develop a craft, and to work with facial hair too.
G: Personally I feel like barber best describes my skill set, and also that’s where our interest is, but I don’t know if I want to expand my skillset to become a hairdresser one day.
C: Sure, but I think even then, the name can remain – ‘Open Hairdressers’ doesn’t sound the same.
EXPERIMENTATION AND EXCHANGE
Z: Grey, how about you? How did you become a barber?
G: My own background is self-taught entirely. I started hairdressing on my own head, because I’d always attempted to have short hair cuts and I never achieved the level of masculinity I wanted at a salon. I remember, my Mum used to get our hair cut by a friend so I asked her to cut my hair like Jason Donovan, and she said she didn’t know who he was – I still don’t know if she really didn’t know, or if it was just a way of trying to discourage me, but it certainly did give me a sense that it’s not okay to want to look like him. I always admired the haircuts of men. So I experimented at home, shaving my own head. This widened out to friends, lovers, family, particularly my Dad. He now aims not to have his hair cut by anyone else, but maybe that’s just because he’s a cheapskate rather than thinking I’m actually a good barber!
Three years ago, I began to get into the queer scene, and made some dear friends who gravitated around gender identity and sexuality. I started to meet people who identified as queer, or as gender variant, and this sort of exploded my world! I met lots of like-minded people. After that, I started Queer Cuts Exchange. I would offer alternative haircuts and others offered something back. Hair cutting is something I really enjoy, and it was important for me that people reciprocate with something that they enjoy too. The exchange happened not based on skill level or some notion of equivalent value, but on the basis of people’s enjoyment.
This wasn’t necessarily about masculine haircuts – that was part of it – but the broader picture was that I wanted to offer something that people weren’t comfortable asking for. I wanted to help people with experiences similar to my own, of never getting what I wanted at a mainstream salon. It was about taking a respectful approach to how people want to express their gender. Then I met Clara through AJ, who was aware of my attitude to hairdressing and brought us together, and that meeting blossomed into Open Barbers.
Since meeting Clara I’ve tried to invest more in my skills, without compromising that priority I place on listening to people. We would never approach a client and tell them what looks good on them. We try to help them realise what they want. So although I want to be more skilled I would never want to dictate someone else’s style. I did a fantastic barbering course at a college, and that gave me more confidence and pushed me to get better. Also, Clara has high standards and that’s great, because that values the people we work with, rather than taking a lazy approach because people will put up with it. Doing a good job is a testament to the community we work with.
C: I really value the personality behind the hair. The client and I bounce off one another. Sometimes someone will say, ‘just do what you want,’ so you do what you think expresses them. If they’re happy with it, there’s this wonderful moment, and you feel it immediately if they’re not satisfied.
Z: I first met you both at a bar event called Barber Wotever, where you were cutting hair on a stage as a sort of performance. How did that come about?
G: We had a bombastic introduction to what was to come at a Queer Fayre at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. We asked Ingo if it would be appropriate for us to set up a stall at the Fayre to cut hair and she was okay with it. So we turned up on the day with our kits, and asked her where we should go, and she told us we were going to be on the stage. I thought this was a bit of a disaster, that only one or two people would come up because it’s so embarrassing to be on stage, but I was wrong. We were extremely well received. We ended up doing six hours of back to back haircuts, there were queues, we had to draw up sign up sheets, we had no breaks, it was exhausting! Afterwards we went to the pub and we were so high on the experience. I don’t usually drink, but I had a shandy and I got so drunk and giddy. After that we knew we had to do more.
So I talked to Ingo again and she agreed to give us an evening at one of their Tuesday night ‘Bar Wotever‘ events. The first time we just did an hour slot at the beginning of the evening, and we did four haircuts in one hour. Last time, we had the whole evening to ourselves, and we did 11 cuts! It was amazing to be so busy, and we made some great connections.
I cut the hair of one person who I read as male, but he confided a secret female identity and that was really touching. It happened in the process of cutting the hair, not during the consultation. It was a mutual confiding, because they read me as female but I identify as male. We had mutually mistaken each others’ identity, and that moment of mutual confidence meant they were completely entitled to their identity and so was I. That’s at the heart of what Open Barbers is all about.
Then there was someone who identified as female cisgendered, but in all her haircuts she’d never found someone who could give her the haircut she wanted. There was this amazing moment when she realised she could have a masculine haircut without it compromising her gender identity.
C: When you’re in front of a hairdresser’s mirror, you’re looking at yourself and at others. At Bar Wotever there was no mirror, and under those big stage lights you couldn’t see anything, so it became their own time, a way of creating time for themselves. Some people didn’t want to talk and then I left them to drift off in the rhythm of it.
G: If you try to make small talk it never really works. I used to try, but one time it was just clear that they didn’t want to have a conversation. So I stopped, and they closed their eyes, and got lost in the moment. What makes this really different to a normal salon is that when people do talk to you, they really confide in you. I don’t think that happens at a hairdressers.
C: However, when men go to a barber’s, some of them have the same barber their whole life, and they have something to talk about. With us, we are the same sort of people, even if the connections are just political.
CHAPS ‘N’ DAMES
G: A tutor on my course suggested that the best way for me to improve was to get a placement at a salon, so I’ve tried to bring the Barber Wotever experience to a salon. It’s important for me to get experience of styling, because I’m self-taught.
There’s an indie salon called ‘Chaps ‘n’ Dames‘ at Finsbury Park. It’s heteronormative, but it’s also quirky in the way that it’s decorated and its unique presentation. I popped in and explained that I was looking for work experience, and I explained that I identify as trans, as do many of my clients. I needed to know that they would be comfortable with that. My boss wasn’t very aware of queer identity, but he also wasn’t against it, so he kept an open mind. So I’ve been working there since May on weekends. We have a deal whereby I don’t get paid, but they don’t charge me for bringing my clients in. So now queer hairdressing creates a space for itself in that salon, people in the salon get exposed to it, and it isn’t ghettoised, you don’t have to go to a secret place to encounter it.
There’s been interesting interactions between my clients and the people who run the place. One client who we met at Bar Wotever, a white guy with long dreadlocks who finds it hard to have a relationship with most barbers or hairdressers, came in to top up his undercut and tidy it up. Then we started thinking about getting his beard attended to. He told us his name was Catweazel, which isn’t his real name. It’s from a cult TV series from the 1970s – he goes to conventions every year and dresses as Catweazel. I was going to sort his beard at a Queer Fayre, but he had to cancel that appointment so I invited him to come to the salon.
I was wondering how well received he would be, because the salon is a very different environment, and how his appearance would be received. He brought a DVD of Catweazel that we all watched together, and he brought a figurine. He was the first client of the day. In the end, everyone was on board. They thought he was awesome. The colorist suggested he could get his dreadlocks coloured in rainbow colours for gay pride. She doesn’t identify as queer, so for her to suggest it was wonderful. We brought queer identity to ‘Chaps ‘n’ Dames’ and for it to be accepted there is so impressive!
BEGINNING A JOURNEY
C: As it is now, we’ve only known each other for three months, and already so much has happened. Who knows where we will be one year from now!? It’s nice to be interviewed for DapperQ at the beginning of this journey.
G: We’re anticipating a marathon of haircuts next time we do Queer Fayre. We made a big banner because we were so excited, but we had to paint it with hair dye brushes, which aren’t suited for the job at all!
Images used with kind permission of Phil Mills