Spa Men

Writer Graeme Park.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Writer Graeme Park.

Age Before Beauty

Should we stick with the cutting edge and avoid older barbers, or will we find wisdom in the many lopped locks of a mature stylist?

Beware the young doctor and the old barber, or so the old saying goes. The implication being that the young doctor has much to learn, while the old barber is so out of touch as to be unable to deliver the trendiest hairstyles.

Medicine is, of course, a science we couldn’t live without. But, for the stylish gentlemen, a bad haircut is a fate worse than death, so finding the right grooming practitioner is essential. And unlike a doctor, the diagnosis isn’t dictated: a man and his barber have to work together. While the consultation and cut is usually under an hour, the resulting style can define the individual for weeks. It’s therefore not just important to pick the right barber, but to know how to get the most out of them.

Nowadays, it’s easy to find hairdressers at the cutting edge of follicle fashion. Hip young scissors slingers plaster their wares on social media platforms like Instagram. Having taken a leaf out of the tattoo artists’ book, they not only showcase their salons, but sell services as a ‘lifestyle’.


“Men’s hairdressing has come a long way in the last decade or so,” says Matthew Gavin, barber at Ruffians in London’s trendy Covent Garden. “Like any profession, barbers can lose touch with what is fashionable,” he says. “It’s not necessarily an age thing, though. There are plenty of excellent older barbers who use years of accumulated knowledge and skills to push the boundaries. A good barber is one who is engaged and excited, not just one with a learnt skill set.”

The Covent Garden barbers is one in a small chain of award-winning hairdressers that originally began in Edinburgh, Scotland. Its location in London City Centre is three tube stops – or a two-pub stop crawl – from Central St Martins school of fashion: arguably the epicentre of global style. Indeed the venue itself is the very epitome of the contemporary ‘brand-barbers’.

Customers are greeted with a cocktail and encouraged to relax in a welcoming lounge. The interior is part industrial warehouse, part weathered, preppy beach house and furnished like a turn of the century gentleman’s club. There are wingbacked leather chairs and in the winter you can sit by a real, albeit small, fire. The wrought iron, bleached wood and leather finishes are masculine, yet considered. It is all things to all men.

Gavin explains that among the latest trends in men’s hairdressing is a softer approach to the distinctive crops and fades that have been fashionable in recent years. Though similar, new styles borrow less from classic barbering techniques and more from women’s hairdressing to produce hairstyles that are less visually striking, but have a natural flow in their appearance.

With any style, it’s important for the customer and barber to work together. Gavin says, “For me, it’s extremely important to take time to get to know my customers and understand what they want. They might want the latest style or a creative cut, and I can do that. But if they’ve only got five minutes to get ready every morning, I can recommend something that will work better for them.”

With his shoulder-length hair and light stubble, Gavin doesn’t have the same close-cropped hairstyle and carefully curated beard that seem ubiquitous with the Instagram barber brigade. But, he explains, most of his regular customers share his predilection for long locks. He says, “Guys with longer hair are often relieved when they see I don’t have a short style. I think it’s important to find a hairdresser who has a similar style to you. They can be your counsel and advise you on the trends they are following, knowing that you’ll appreciate the same kind of thing.”


On the other side of the world is a barber who, if the old saying is to be believed, one should definitely be wary of. Steven Wan is the Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s head barber who has spent more than four decades working in the hotel’s Gentleman’s Retreat.

His impressive résumé includes dressing the tresses of the entire Sir David Wilson family, the former Hong Kong governor; being the preferred stylist of Dorothy Bush – George W’s grandmother and matriarch to the entire Bush dynasty; and playing an important role in many state functions, having handled the hair of many a visiting diplomat, including Henry Kissinger.

Wan exudes passion for his work, and it’s not just visiting dignitary who seek his services either. According to the hotel, at least 95 per cent of patrons request his services specifically. Like Gavin, he believes that the most important part of hairdressing is the relationship between barber and their customer. In this area, Wan’s age is an advantage – he is now on his third generation of local clients. He says, “Many of my customers introduced their children to me. Now I’m cutting their grandchildren’s hair.”

So while your health may benefit from being wary of the fledgling doctor, when it comes to your hair, building a good relationship with your barber is more important than their age. Another handy piece of pop-wisdom to keep the stylish man looking good for years: find a good barber and grow old together.

“A good barber is one who is engaged and excited, not just one with a learnt skill set”

~ Matthew Gavin


My Reading Room

The Ruffians Barbers in London’s trendy Covent Garden


Matthew Gavin shares his tips

• Find a barber that shares your style. “If you like the same things, your barber will be able to advise you on a style that works for you.”

• Be realistic. “If you don’t have very much hair, then a long style isn’t going to work for you.”

• Be honest. “If you’ve only got five minutes to get ready in the morning, don’t expect a style that takes long time to create to look good every day.”

• Trust your barber. “Tell them what you want. If I know what you like, how much time you have and what you want to achieve, I can give you a style that will look good during the week, with a little more time at the weekend, and brilliant on a night out.”