How Towie became the mane attraction for follicly challenged NI men
Gone are the days when men simply wanted a short back and sides. Lee Henry talks to three local barbers about modern high maintenance styles for the boys
When it comes to male grooming, every era has its defining aesthetic. From the clean-cut, Brylcreem sharpness of the Forties and Fifties came the floppy-haired hippy rebellion of the Sixties. Perms had their heyday in the Seventies, of course, while the subsequent decade was, for some, a back-combed, hair-sprayed golden age of creativity, for others a New Romantic nightmare.
In the Nineties, wilful grunge dishevelment battled against a rising tide of mainstream pop prudishness, exemplified by the ubiquitous "curtains" look endorsed by boy bands on both sides of the Atlantic, with neither camp claiming a definitive victory in the battle for mops and minds as the cultural No Man's Land that was the Noughties came into view.
Since then, it's been every man for himself. Only recently has there emerged a distinct follicular identity synonymous with our current times - the ultra sharp crew cut with added length on top and matching beard look - and one Northern Ireland barber points the finger of blame for this generation's obsession with "sweet dos and killer trims" firmly in the direction of pseudo-reality television.
"It pains me to say it," admits Neal Toner, owner of Just For Men Male Image and Grooming salon in Newcastle, Co Down, "but the whole craze among kids right now for male grooming has come about, in a big way, because of television shows like Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex. Suddenly, they're all obsessed with skin fades."
Toner describes that particular technique as "difficult to execute". "It involves shaving the hair on the sides of the head right down to the bare skin, then fading up, keeping maximum length and volume on top," he says. When cut correctly, the client's hair rises in an impressively symmetrical spike/quiff or is combed over to the side and held in place with expertly-branded new men's hair products, the parting accentuated with a clipper.
More often than not, such cuts will be mirrored by a neatly trimmed beard - think Ryan Reynolds rather than Karl Marx. Combined, they form a look that harks back to the Twenties and Fifties, which may adequately be described as "Arctic explorer meets office clerk".
No doubt you will have come across the look on the high street, or via social media, in pictures posted by cousins, nephews, brothers or sons. It's not mothers taking photographs of their handsome offspring any more - it's the offspring taking photographs of themselves. The selfie generation and the rise of the barber cut are a match made in heaven.
"The current trending in Northern Ireland of retro male haircuts and beards require the unique skills offered by a barber," says David Craig, owner and Master Barber at The Derry Barber Company. "At the same time, the growth of digital communications and social media has significantly helped to promote the industry and been a driver in its current popularity.
"Barbers are now able to showcase their work to a much wider customer base, and this in turn has raised the expectation of men in terms of what constitutes a good haircut. The media has also shown that the modern celebrity takes great care in his styling and grooming, and that too has helped.
"I'm pleased that men are beginning to take pride in their appearance and to showcase their looks as they see fit."
The academically, if not follicly-challenged, muscle-men turned post-modern soap opera stars who populate the aforementioned reality television shows may have had an undue influence on the new generation of haircut crazy teens and young men, who have bought into the primping and preening movement in their droves, but in reality, the traditional barbers has never fully fallen out of fashion.
Craig adds: "Barbering is one of the oldest professions in the world, playing an important role in many civilisations, from the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks right up to modern times. Back in the Nineties, when I started cutting hair, barbershops were usually hidden away in backstreets and frequented by older men, but even then I had confidence that the heritage and craft of the profession would endure.
"It's heartening to see that barbers have experienced a surge in popularity in Northern Ireland. Ironically, in today's increasingly introverted, technologically advanced society, with a growing metrosexual male identity, the culture and services of the traditional barbershop setting is one which has remained steadfast. Perhaps barbershops are becoming a nostalgic refuge for those seeking the culture and values of a bygone era."
Many canny business owners have, with this in mind, designed or refitted their premises to capture that old school authentic vibe, installing period decor - Belfast sinks, polished steel barber stations, glossy framed prints and retro radios - to achieve the desired effect. With music playing, televisions showing the football, free tea, coffee and, on occasion, beer at hand, and lots of mirrors to check themselves out in, Northern Ireland's confident kids are queuing up for their cuts.
Gone are the days when cigarette butts and piles of hair were brushed into shop corners and chain-smoking barbers were dressed all in black. Today's barbershops are slick, well-fitted and welcoming places, staffed by men with bow ties and braces - or polo shirts and sleeve tattoos - to attract customers who want to buy into that distinctly male community.
Clients are now made to feel special and positively encouraged to ask for advice on styling products, new cuts and even what kinds of outfits will suit their look. In turn, old taboos are gradually losing their hold. One-to-one consultations on how best to deal with receding hairlines, for example, are becoming ever more popular.
Peter McCloskey is one Northern Ireland's most successful barbers, an award-winning hairstylist and owner of Peter Olivers, which has five barbershops in or near Belfast.
"When I began cutting hair, I could see that most men preferred a barbershop to a main street unisex salon, but that most barbershops hadn't moved on since the Sixties or Seventies - they were very dated and therefore no young men were coming into the trade," he says.
"That has reversed dramatically in recent years. Men have always been fashion conscious in Northern Ireland, but sometimes the barber has let them down. Now, clients are much more discerning and aware of the importance of a good haircut and how it makes him feel. They'll demand that their barber is up to scratch, so to stay in business we need to keep pushing the boundaries, with regards to ambience, shop fitting, customer care and quality of service.
"Like most modern barbershops, we offer hot towel shaves and have a grooming spa, but, at the end of the day, the most important part of the business is giving an excellent haircut. We take pride in giving our customers haircuts to suit them as individuals."
A slight rise in prices have not put customers off. Typically, gents cuts in the new-look barbers costs around £10, with beard trims £3, hot towel shaves £20 and grooming products anywhere from £10. The average customer attends every three weeks or so, yet it is not uncommon in the current market for clients to visit on an almost daily basis.
Some barbers have consequently started charging small fees for skin fades, allowing clients to have their back and sides clean cut on the way to work, or during their lunch breaks, without the need to shell out and wait around for a full-priced cut.
"I have customers who come in three times a week because they consistently want to maintain the 'fresh from the barber chair' look," reveals Craig. "Or they want a cut throat shave on their head and do not like any regrowth at all. They spend £10 each time."
Regardless of the reasons behind the rise in demand among men for the barbershop experience, for Toner, as for so many other highly trained barbers like him operating in small but perfectly formed commercial units across Northern Ireland, business has never been better.
"For us, it's been great. We opened Just For Men in 2010, and it's been a roaring success. We've never been busier. Let's be real, young men are becoming much more vain. They look good, so they feel good, and who can blame them? In this day and age, it's about trying to enjoy the small things in life. Finally, our clients are into their hair just as much as we are."
In the years ahead, inevitably fashions will change. The metrosexual male, at the moment so unashamedly proud in his appearance, will morph into something entirely new as men's sensibilities evolve. Future trends may well mimic the unkempt looks of the past - the demand for close shaves, skin fades and barbershop camaraderie may taper off.
Craig, however, will continue to offer his services with clipper and comb in hand.
"For me, it's a labour of love," he says. "It's about doing what we do best and enjoy most.
"I come from a long line of barbers, and I'm as passionate about being a barber now as I've ever been. I recently visited a young man in Foyle Hospice who is heroically struggling with a terminal illness.
"Despite all his frailties, he asked his wife to contact us because he desperately wanted to get his hair cut. I could not and would not charge this customer at this time. It is days like that - when I am able to make men feel good about themselves - that convinces me I have the best job in the world."