The Art Of The New Barber: Part I

Historically, the barbershop is no stranger to multi-tasking.

The profession celebrates a long and storied past; barbers were highly respected in ancient Egyptian culture, and the oldest barber organization in the world, the “Worshipful Company Of Barbers”, dates back to 1308 London. Over the course of the next century, barbers didn’t just trim hair; they also practiced dentistry and surgery. In 1450, they were restricted by parliament to practicing “bloodletting, tooth-drawing, cauterization and the tonsorial operations.” (Yes, you read that correctly.)

By the beginning of the 19th century, the barbershop had evolved into a community hub of sorts (no more bloodletting, thankfully), especially in African American culture. The act of grooming became a social affair; men gathered here not just for haircuts, but also for camaraderie and discussion on the events of the day. The barbershop was a temporary reprieve from the pressures of work and home.

The concept of the barbershop as social club experienced some decline in decades past, thanks in part to unisex salons and cosmetology clinics. Surprisingly, however, despite the rise of commercially available high tech razors, longer hairstyle trends, and a recent economic recession, the barbershop industry is currently thriving — and evolving.

Today, a younger generation is looking to the past to reimagine the barbershop, approaching the establishment as a sort of concept shop. There have been barbershop pop-ups in libraries, a multitude of barbershop/coffee shop hybrids, and Canadian musician Joel Plaskett even opened a barbershop that is also a coffee-shop-meets-record-store.

The creative spin intrigued us, and so we reached out to two different companies—a barbershop/eco-friendly pub, and a barbershop/cigar club—to learn more about this trend and where it’s headed.

Barber & Co.

Barber & Co. is a small Canadian chain with five locations in some of Vancouver’s hippest neighborhoods. It also recently branched into the Toronto market with a sixth location on the Ossington strip. True to the company’s visionary identity, the Toronto establishment places a heavy emphasis on the “Co.” in Barber & Co.; it serves not just as a barbershop, but as an art studio and cocktail den.

This approach is the resulting collaboration between Martin Rivard, a third-generation barber, and Jeff Donnelly, an established pub maven on the Vancouver scene.

For Rivard, the business comes as something of a family tradition; while he may not have intended to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, it was a profession that came naturally, and one that he took an interest in early in life. “When I was fourteen years old, I went to boarding school,” he says, “and I was the guy who would cut my friends’ hair!” Once he left home and began working as a barber in various countries, the profession became a natural fit. “It never felt like work to me and it still does not!” he reflects.

The idea of running a barbershop, however, wasn’t the first priority for the entrepreneur; he had initially intended to develop a product line before opening a brick and mortar. But plans changed. “When an opportunity presented itself and a space opened in Gastown, Vancouver, I went back to the drawing board,” he says.

The result was the first Barber & Co., a trendy barbershop that doubled as a hangout; the company calls it a “stately social club.” Looking to the forgotten barbershop/social clubs of the past, Rivard recognized a need in present day Vancouver (and now Toronto) to instigate a revival. “Men used to go to the barbershop for their gossip, sports, and political discussion,” he says. “Today, men don’t have that same secured space of feeling comfortable and relaxed, so we wanted to bring back a space (the traditional barbershop experience) where men can let loose without feeling intimidated.”

This marriage between a barbershop and cocktail den is also something you might say was inspired by Rivard’s roots; his grandfather was a Canadian whiskey connoisseur. “My first sip of bourbon was with my granddad,” he recalls. “He would let me have a couple sips of whiskey at family gatherings while discussing race cars — he was a fanatic gentleman.”

The Gastown location would become the first of six, an expansion that grew from sheer demand. “It was never the goal to open multiple locations.” says Rivard. “The demands and a couple lucky opportunities made this happen!”

Despite this early—and fast—success, there are no current plans to open more locations in Vancouver or expand to more cities. Keeping things at a relatively small scale allows Rivard to operate with a very hands-on approach. “I’m proud to be an independent company, and I’m behind the chair myself five days a week…I wouldn’t want this to change!”

Once the business was thriving as a brick and mortar, Rivard’s dream of creating a retail line would come to fruition as a branded Barber & Co. line of haircare, shaving, face, and body products. Cleverly packaged balms, oils, pomeades, waxes, and putties are available both onsite and online. The environmentally conscious will be pleased to note that they were designed with the Earth in mind. “I am committed to sourcing natural ingredients and packaging for my product line because I see it as expansion of my belief with nature — we [should] leave the earth in a better place than when we came to it.” This commitment was “challenging,” says Rivard, “but with determination and dedication, everything is possible.”

Barber & Co. is also home to its own Academy, an addition that the company added after opening their fifth barbershop. This felt like a natural expansion for Rivard, who believes that barbering and education go hand in hand. “The industry is always [evolving], and partially I don’t want the barbering industry to fall back into the trap of the 1980s-1900s when our industry almost died.”

The Academy, located in Vancouver’s Yaletown neighborhood, provides eight chairs and a lab. (This is also where Barber & Co.’s grooming products are developed and made by hand.) Here the company offers an immersive apprenticeship program in which students can learn about the trade as a lifestyle and career option.

“It’s important to pursue education to be able to accommodate all hairstyles, and provide the best consultations and services to our clientele,” says Rivard. This, he explains, is something that can only be achieved by continuous formation and education.

Indeed, with such a strategic eye on the future, it looks as though the work of the new barber will be a continuously evolving, innovative art.

Join us tomorrow for the second of our two-part exploration on the art of the new barber; we’ll be featuring a conversation with Jerry Filice, owner of the Village Cigar Company in Oakville, Ontario.