Barbering is in the midst of a serious revival. Thanks in large part to the popularity of period television shows and films like Peaky Blinders and Fury, men the world over are once again embracing the fine art of the hard part and straight razored fade. It seems that the time has never been better to dip one’s toe into the warm waters of barber-dom. But how, exactly, do you go about getting started?
There are not as many barbering schools as there are cosmetology academies, and the ratio of barber shops to salons is roughly 41,340 to 210,000* (*According to Statistic Brain). Which means, there are about ? the opportunities for a recent barber school grad to get real-world experience when compared to a new-grad stylist. Also, the barber-boom is a bit of a recent phenomenon, which makes it a little harder to navigate. But barbering is big business, so it’s important to hit the ground running and set yourself up for success early on.
We tapped the brain of one of the most successful barbers that we know—Matty Conrad—for some tips on how to get started in barbering the right way. With two successful shops (& one restaurant/lounge/barbershop hybrid) all of which opened before being a barber was “en vogue”, Matty certainly knows what it takes to make it in the industry that he helped to shape.
With the meteoric rise of the tonsorial arts, many salons have tried to cash in on the latest trend by incorporating some elements of “classic barber culture” into their space. Matty calls this “gray-washing” doesn’t exactly think it’s the right way to get ahead in the barbering world. Instead of marrying two similar worlds together, trying to slap a barbershop in the middle of a salon is a lot like: “putting a garage on barbie’s dream house, it doesn’t quite work. Men have a very finely tuned bullshit meter, and if it’s not real, they are going to know it right away.”
The decision to keep barbering in a space of its own helps to preserve and celebrate its unique culture and attract a loyal clientele that will stay with you for years to come.
The idea of being authentic is not just about where you work; it starts with the very decision to choose barbering over conventional cutting, coloring, and styling in the first place. There is a different culture when it comes to barbering and it will either resonate with you….or it won’t.
You have to do what speaks to you, independent of trend—be it in the real world or of the hashtag variety. The only way to be truly successful in any career —especially barbering— is to feel it deep in your guts. Somewhere to the back and left of your stomach, there will be a little glowing nugget of “Yes. 1000x yes. This is me; this is where I belong.”
Matty Conrad put it in a much prettier way when he said, “It has to speak to you on a heart level. I got into this vintage lifestyle and barbering and married the two because it reminded me of my grandfather. It reminded me of bravery and integrity and a more craftsman approach. It reminded me of things I aspired to be.”
Barbers are not simply beauty school grads who specialize in men’s cuts—there is an entirely different educational process, level of technical training, and mentality. The caliber of craftsmanship expected from a quality barber requires an amount of dedication that can’t—and shouldn’t be—faked. Many stylists are impressed by the level of technical skill that a well-trained barber can achieve, but it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. While the amount of time and money spent in barbering school is comparable to cosmetology school, there is an extensive amount of “on-the-job” learning that will happen afterward.
Matty Conrad’s suggestion is to walk into the best barbershop in town—the kind of place you would want to get your own hair cut in— right after graduation and ask for a job. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and be ready to do whatever work is necessary to be successful.
This is the part we talk about the one thing that you can’t have if you want to be a successful barber: an ego. Remember how we mentioned that barbers have their own unique culture? Well, it’s a very supportive one. Instead of pitting themselves against one another in a never-ending clash of the razor-wielding Titans to determine who will be crowned king (or queen, there are quite a few female barbers out there) of the hydraulic chair, the league of barbers works together to support each member equally, in the interest of elevating their craft as a whole. This idea is explained beautifully, by the story of Sugar.
Sugar is a barber at Matty Conrad’s Victory Barbers & Brand, in British Columbia. He had started out in cosmetology school and made it all the way up to his first color lesson before he walked out of the school and into Victory Barbers & Brand, to ask for a job. See, Sugar is colorblind and while it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to have a successful career as a hair stylist, the amount of time and effort needed to learn the craft well made Sugar realize that he would rather put that into something that he was truly passionate about: being a barber. So he walked into Matty’s shop and asked for a job—any job—for no pay. He said that he was willing to do anything, and everything that the shop needed—for free—in exchange for barber training and he wasn’t lying.
In the short window of time that Sugar worked for the shop for nothing, he did everything asked of him and more, without complaint. His work ethic and humility so impressed the other barbers at the shop, that they all wanted to take him under their respective wings and teach him to replicate their individual strengths in the craft. As a result, Sugar learned many different aspects and approaches to barbering, eventually coming into his own and starting to take his own clients. Due to his extensive and varied training, Sugar’s skill set was unparalleled. He quickly skyrocketed to success and even a little celebrity, via one impressive Instagram account that showcases a lot of barbering and a little of everything that goes along with it (think road hogs, tattoos and a variety of whiskeys). And now, a mere two years later, Sugar is en route to Holland, to accept a prestigious award and further training from the Reuzel crew—the mothership of old-school barbering.
The real beauty of Sugar’s story isn’t in his incredible rise to success; it’s in the reaction of those who helped him get there. You would think that there would be an element of jealousy or resentment at Sugar’s new-found success. After all, it was really a direct result of his co-workers’ investment in his training that go him there. Instead, they are proud of their shared protege. The barbers of Victory proudly show off Sugar’s work and brag about him as though he were a favorite son.
The moral of this story? Listen to your gut, put your nose to the grindstone and check your ego at the door. Maybe you too can one day live out a dream like Sugar, or at the very least carve out your own unique (hard) part in the wonderful world of the artisanal barber.
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