I’ve written about my fascination with the barbershop on my blog before, but I finally got the chance to find out what happens after my hair hits the floor and I leave with a fresh trim and a smart shape-up.
Taken from my Journalism Practice module, this is the working life of barber Vincent Ogunbiyi.
A row of well dressed men are watching Vincent Ogunbiyi perform his craft. As he tilts his customer’s freshly shorn head towards the light, he reaches for a blade.
He takes a step closer and makes slow, sweeping hand movements with the blade, taking extra care to follow the talcum powder line that acts as a guide on his customer’s forehead.
In between strokes, Ogunbiyi reaches towards his organised workstation, wiping away excess talcum powder, switching between his clippers and the blade and applying a succession of sweet smelling sheen sprays.
“The shape-up is the most important part of the haircut; it brings out your facial features. A good barber is known by the level of his shape-up; it’s part of his reputation and you have to get it right every time.”
“A man without a shape-up is plain, just like a woman without make-up,” says Ogunbiyi, as he sprays alcohol on his customer’s head and removes the protective cape.”
It’s just gone 8.30am on a bright but autumnal Tuesday morning at Slick Kutz, an Afro barbershop on the southern tip of Balham High Road, south London, and Ogunbiyi has cut the first of nearly 40 heads for the day.
As he sweeps the floor, a soundtrack of upbeat gospel and Christian rap sings out of the speakers, and a succession of customers walk into the barbershop.
Ogunbiyi flops in his chair, and reaches for his watch. “I opened the shop at 8am and I’ll be here until at least 10pm.”
As a barber in an inner-London area, Ogunbiyi’s customers have varying degrees of tastes and styles.
He finds himself constantly switching between styles; from Mohicans to low fades, close crops to simple shape-ups and beard trims to 90s-style high tops.
“A British-born African will have tighter curls hair to that of a British-born West Indian. Some will want unusual cuts or textured Afros, so you need to know the know the hair falls before turning the clippers on.”
The 54-year-old father of four notes the change in Balham’s ethnic make-up in the 12 years since he moved to the area and picked up clippers for the first time.
A cluster of chic cafes, bohemian bars and off-beat stores have sprung up along Balham High Road to cater to the affluent and well-heeled set who live in the area. But has this impacted on his customer base?
“The area has gone from black to white and Balham has become an offshoot of Chelsea and Battersea.
“There are just two black shops in [Hildreth Street] market and look at all the cafes and eateries; I mean, how many black people go to cafes?”
“We have to work hard to maintain our customer base and it’s all about the detail, the customer service.”
And the service he offers goes beyond just a simple cut and shape-up. “The key is the follow-up,” says Ogunbiyi. “If a customer has children, you send them a card on their birthday, give them sweets and keep them entertained when they come to the shop, and you recommend products to use on their hair.
“Finding a way of knowing them personally without overstepping the mark is imperative. If you make them feel comfortable and appreciated, they will always come back to you.”
“Being observant is important too. You must know when to talk and when to shut up, especially if his football team has lost.”
At Slick Kutz, the barbers each have their own customer base and take care not to step on the toes of their colleagues. Ogunbiyi works on commission so it’s frowned upon to cut the hair of a colleague’s customer.
Being discreet is a requirement of the job, and Ogunbiyi will only hint at some of his high-profile customers: a Sierra Leonean doctor who travels from Brooklyn to Balham for a close crop, a silver screen actor based in the US and a radio DJ, “I haven’t cut his hair for a while, but he still calls and invites me to his parties.”
As Ogunbiyi tops up his spray bottle with water, he notes the misconception many outsiders have with the perception of the barbershop.
Unlike Channel 4 sitcom “Desmond’s” in the early 1990s and US film “Barbershop”, Slick Kutz isn’t a place for people to kick back and relax, buy counterfeit DVDs and discuss the matters of the day.
“This is no joke, in fact we take our jobs seriously. It sends out the impression to a potential customer that we’re full and it drives them away. Everything – from the music we play to the videos we screen – is planned and well thought-out.”
Ogunbiyi moved to London from Nigeria in1999 after spending 20 years working as a crewmember for Nigerian Airways. At night, he moonlighted as a security guard, and during the day, he picked up the clippers and learned the trade.
“I shadowed two young guys – a Jamaican and a Ghanaian – and when I walked in, dressed in a suit, I told them that I wanted to learn and they laughed. They didn’t think I could handle it,” he chuckles.
His first customer insulted him constantly for three days. “He came in and said he wanted short back and sides and I didn’t know what he meant, so I went straight in the clippers and he jumped from his seat.”
“The same thing happened with my second customer and I spoiled his hair, but I had to be steadfast and learn quickly. Even though I have been doing this for a long time, I am still learning.”
The door swings open and an older, spectacled gentleman, dressed in a floor-length camel-coloured overcoat, sweeps in and greets Ogunbiyi. He removes his coat and porkpie hat to reveal a baldhead.
As he takes his place in the chair, Ogunbiyi turns to me, winks and says: “He’s here for his weekly beard trim.”
And with that, Ogunbiyi whips out the protective cape, and resumes his countdown from 40, as a row a well-dressed men get ready to watch him perform his craft.
♫ Jay-Z – ‘Roc Boys’