The Modern Barber

Heads up — Victoria has become something of a barbering destination, with more shops launching every month as men increasingly seek out trims, cuts, fades and shaves in masculine sanctuaries of style and swagger.

Matt Priestley, a.k.a. Redbeard. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Welcome, gentlemen, to the quiet revolution — in barbering.

We are, appropriately enough, in a house behind a hedge in rural Metchosin, partially shielded from Rocky Point Road by a rock wall, fruit trees and towering evergreens. There’s a sandwich board on the roadside advertising Redbeard Barber, a title that may suggest the proprietor — or captain — wields a cutlass rather than a razor, except that pirates don’t have email addresses.

It’s a century-old house of stucco and wood, gables and bay windows, black on grey. Neat but unremarkable — until you enter the parlour and find an eclectic mix of paintings and posters, a cuckoo clock, a sketch of a hot air balloon, another of a square rigged sailing ship and others that portray sea serpents. There’s also a beer poster, a guitar, and of course dozens of cans and jars of hair products. In the background, 1970s disco and pop music plays.

But what really sets this place apart is the cluster of bottles on the sideboard. Want a spiced rum or a rye with your Cut Throat? That will be $45, booze included, $40 for the Vintage Lumberjack look or $20 for the basic Lumberjack. This is a home, not a pub, so there’s no charge for the tipple. 

There’s Redbeard himself, Matt Priestley, wearing a white smock, a towel hanging from his hip, and in the chair a gentleman with very short but impeccably trimmed hair. Straight lines. What brought him here? “Excellent service, good ambiance, not pretentious, and it’s just down the road, a five-minute drive,” says Jesse Szczepanowski. He discovered Redbeard on a Metchosin Facebook page. A guy’s kind of place?  “Absolutely … laid back.”  

And this, in short, is part of the change sweeping the barbering scene in the Victoria area. Fifteen years ago barber shops appeared to be on the way out.  There were maybe half a dozen scattered downtown and a few more in the ‘burbs. Many men, as well as women, were going to hair salons. Now there are maybe 20 barber shops, with more, it seems, opening every month.

Understanding the Shift 

The new barber shops are flourishing, and not just because older men don’t want to spend money on stylists. Jesse Szczepanowski says men are turning to barbers, who, like Matt Priestley, are often young, hip, and trained in the current styles. The old traditions are embracing new trends: “They understand men’s hair. A lot of us are losing our hair and they understand how to cut men’s hair and do it properly.”

It’s a development that Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, believes is part of an urban renaissance.

“You’re seeing that urban hip vibe in the marketplace, and you’re seeing these young entrepreneurs responding to that, and one of the ways is through these old school, but new wave, barber shops,” he says. “Victoria is not the newlywed and the nearly dead.”

Matt Priestley opened shop in his Metchosin home two years ago, straight out of Gibson’s Barbershop & School in Langford, the only one on Vancouver Island. He’s been been so successful he’s booked three weeks ahead.

Part of the appeal of Redbeard is the fact there is only one chair, it’s quiet and intimate and Priestley develops relationships with his clients.

“It’s more personal,” he says. “Everybody who comes here tells me their entire life story … about their recent divorce … I find I have that personality where people just tell me stuff.” 

In short, it’s not a hair salon, and it does cater to an almost exclusively male clientele, although there are a handful of female customers. 

Men Need a Place

Priestley says that to understand the revolution in barbering, one needs to see its origins in Europe. He recommends the documentary Schorem about a Rotterdam shop. According to online dictionaries, schorem translates from Dutch to English variously as “scum,” “riff-raff,” “trash” or “lowlifes.”

The heavily tattooed barbers in the documentary are introduced as The Scumbag Barbers of Rotterdam, and one of their cuts is the Scumbag Boogie. They seem to swagger and strut as the narrator describes their style: “Barbering is a lost profession but being a barber is about taking care of people … Men need a place to be a man and that’s why we started the shop.” 

The concept worked: customers are lined up 20 deep outside the shop for cuts.

Back in Metchosin, Matt Priestley credits Matty Conrad, owner of Victory Barber & Brand in downtown Victoria, for being the trendsetter in the capital region. Victory opened 12 years ago. Just getting an interview with Conrad can be a challenge; I pursue him for several days, visiting the shop, phoning and emailing, until he calls back from Austin, Texas, where he’s promoting his line of products at a trade show. He now has four shops of his own, and his company’s products are sold in another 450 shops around the world.

Conrad says the resurgence in barbering reflects societal shifts over the past 40 or 50 years: “What really happened is that we had removed a lot of the ritual of the barber shop that had so much more to do with deep-seated traditional masculinity than it had to do with just getting a haircut. Boys would learn when they were little how men interact with each other. They would learn how to shake a man’s hand.”  

But in more recent times, men started going to hairdressers.

“Hairdressing and barbering are fundamentally different in the way they approach the shape of a head,” he notes.

“Barbering traditionally works with men’s bone structures, very square. The women’s is very oval. Hair salons traditionally adopted that very oval approach, focused on colour and texture. They labeled men who took care of themselves metrosexuals. The problem is I don’t know too many men who took it as a compliment. It didn’t do anything other than make them feel high maintenance and fussy. Around that time too, it seemed to me culturally all the women stood up and said in unison, ‘What happened to all of the real men?’”

What followed, Conrad says, was a period of hyper-masculinity: “Look at all the guys who grew beards; they dressed like lumberjacks even though most of them couldn’t swing an axe. They became very fashion forward. And with that barbering made a huge comeback, and the view of a barber shop now is still about more than a haircut.”

The Victory shop is a world of dark leather, polished metal, weathered floors, mirrors and memorabilia. Conrad says it recalls the times of his grandfather, a Victoria banker, “who wasn’t a high maintenance guy but he put himself together every day.”

Yet clearly the barber shop of today is not that of the 1950s. Check the Victory barbers on the company website:  lots of beards and tattoos, burly men and a few women, guys with muscled forearms who stared straight into the camera. It’s the attitude, dude. The cuts range from $15 for a beard trim through $35 for the standard and $45 for the classic hot lather shave.

“Diverse across the board,” barber Gabe Waite says of his colleagues. “We have all strived to master the classic barbering design, but then we all have our own flair or background and style of barbering.”

Award-winning barber Maurice St. Rose of MoCutz started cutting hair when he was on the Victoria Rebels Junior football team. In 2013, he started an apprenticeship under Troy Wilson of Status Barbershop, going on to compete in the London School’s 2015 Battle Of The Barbers, where he won best new talent and artistic freestyle. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

The Cutting Edge

That’s a common theme at barber shops across the capital region: creativity, artistry and innovation matched with respect for tradition. 

“I think men are just taking better care of themselves,” says Maurice St. Rose, whose outlet is known as Mocutz. His specialty is the fade, a series of progressively shorter cuts that fades into a man’s neck. According to his website, “his dedication to being the best barber offering Victoria’s elite the best service and style is unparalleled.”

St. Rose is unusual in that he works with a single chair in a hair salon known as Atmosphaire. But make no mistake, he is a barber. 

 As we speak, he’s giving Bryan Colwell a cut he calls a champ. It’s appropriate for a guy who introduces himself as the two-time Canadian amateur heavyweight boxing champion. The only hint of his background is a small scar on his forehead.

“It pays dividends to look good,” Colwell says. “Like, a good-looking dude is not just like an alpha male who just showed up on a construction site. Women want to see you suited and booted, you know?”

Of course, as Artor Gashi will tell you, you don’t have to pay $40 to look good. Gashi runs Brothers Barbershop on Fort St. with his two brothers. They do haircuts for $13. They get the hipsters looking for fades as well as the older guys who just want a trim.

“Not trendy, just solid,” says 55-year-old Philip Anderson, who’s travelled here from Texada Island. “They do whatever you want them to do,” adds 16-year-old Jayden Gauthier.

It’s Just Getting Bigger and Bigger

That message about being versatile is also what you’ll hear at Gibson’s Barber Shop in Langford. By day, they cut hair, and in the evenings and on Sundays it’s a barber school.

“Social media has changed the way men look at themselves,” says instructor Lynne Birch. “Before, they were a little more casual. Now, I think, with the whole social media, they’re looking at all of these hairstyles from all over and they get to see the world at their fingertips.”

The owner of Gibson’s, Sandy Yoachim, has never wielded a pair of scissors in her life, but her mother, brother and grandfather are all in the industry. She saw a good business opportunity in a growing industry when she launched the school.

“It’s been really exciting,” she says. “Every single student who has walked out of here has actually had a job before they left school.”

Many have a background in the arts. Reuben Parker, a native of Manchester, England, works on construction by day but considers himself a creative person and is drawn to barbering for that reason.

He says the course is a substantial commitment of time and money — about $8000 for tuition and supplies for seven months. But “barbering is really exploding, it’s just getting bigger and bigger all the time. Guys are getting a lot more open and experimental about their personal style so there’s a lot
going on.”

That means barbers have to change and adapt as well. It’s a question I put to the guy who’s been cutting my hair for the past 12 years, Burt Hill of Burt’s Barber Shop in James Bay.

It’s a small and traditional place, but they can do the modern cuts. Hill recently hired a 26-year-old assistant, Stewart Corkery, who worked in one of the fancy shops in Vancouver. Burt’s is gradually attracting a younger clientele.

Hill knows his best asset is his personality — he has a repertoire of anecdotes, witticisms, and one-liners — and the fact he provides a “little pocket” where men are comfortable: “You’re allowed to speak your mind here and that’s one thing that’s kind of nice.”

“You build a friendship, that’s where it is,” says Corkery.

Both say business is good and they’re in it for the long term.

Over in his more posh quarters near the Selkirk Waterway, Maurice St. Rose would likely agree: “Oh yeah, the future of barbering, it’s a real thing. I think it’s going to be around forever because I don’t think a robot will ever cut hair.”

This article is from the October/November 2018 issue of Douglas.