Inside One of Britain's First Queer- and Trans-Friendly Hair Salons
Open Barbers in London is a pay-what-you-can place for everyone to get their haircut without gender discrimination.
If you identify as transgender or gender neutral, going to the hairdressers can be a daunting experience. Even knowing where to go can be a hassle as both traditional male-oriented barber shops and female-targeting hairdressing salons tend to have very set ideas of how our hair should be cut.
Even in unisex salons, customers perceived to be female are often expected to pay more than those perceived to be male. If you're trans or gender neutral, getting a haircut can be disappointing, frustrating and ultimately demeaning. Not only might you leave with a style you don't want, but in the process a complete stranger may have made an offensive and upsetting judgement about your gender.
This is why Greygory Vass and Felix Lane, two trans people from London, have launched a £25,000 crowd-funding campaign to secure their queer and trans-friendly hairdressing salon, Open Barbers, its first permanent home. Greygory says the idea for the salon, which he co-founded in 2011 with Klara Vanova (who now runs the salon Barberette) as a pop-up, came from personal experience.
"As a child, going to a hairdressers was always a really uncomfortable experience for me," he explains when I visit Open Barbers' temporary home, which they share with a pop-up book shop in Kennington, London. "I'd want short hair, but the hairdressers would always want to make it look feminine. I didn't realise at the time, but there's this idea that girls can't have short hair and if they do, it has to be in a very particular style. As a teenager, I tried to go to a barber shop with my dad and they wouldn't serve me because I wasn't a boy."
Greygory cut his own hair until he was 27. "Then when I came out as trans, I realised there were lots of other people who'd had similar difficulties and were continuing to have these difficulties in their adult lives. People in their 20s and 30s are still being told they can't have certain haircuts by hairdressers."
Two clients booked in on the busy weekday I visit Open Barbers have experienced these difficulties themselves. Laura Milnes is a cisgender female who describes herself as "the most loud-mouthed advert" for the shop. "I tell everyone how amazing it is. I'd been told so many times in the past that I can't have the haircut I want, even though it's on my head! It's like, why can't I have that? Just because of my gender?"
Nat, who uses the pronoun "they", says that after meeting Greygory and Felix three years ago, it took them a while to book their first Open Barbers appointment. "I didn't start coming here straight away because I had really long hair and I was really terrified about getting it cut because I'd had really unpleasant experiences in the past," they recall. "I think some time around a year and a half ago I decided it was time for a big change and I came along and it was great and I've been coming ever since."
Greygory and Felix's entire business model is designed to dim memories of these unpleasant experiences. Clients aren't rushed in and out with some kind of identi-cut; appointments proceed at a speed with which the client is comfortable and the styling process is defined by collaboration.
"The staff here aren't all-powerful experts who deliver what we think is the right cut for that person," Felix explains. "It's led by the client - they're the person who's in charge of what's happening and we're here to listen to them and facilitate for them whatever they want facilitating." There's no set price, either. Clients pay "what they can", between £10 and £40, and Greygory and Felix offer five appointments a week where clients can pay a cheaper fee of between £2 and £10.
"We don't think haircuts should be something that only people with lots of money can access," Felix explains. "There may be particular reasons why queer and trans people struggle financially and they need to be able to access a haircut that isn't super-expensive. Lots of people imagine this system wouldn't be sustainable, but actually it works really well. Open Barbers now sustains me and Greygory in full-time employment and also covers all the costs of the business, which we run as a not-for-profit enterprise. I don't ever feel that people abuse the system."
I believe him. After watching the warm, respectful and intuitive way that Greygory and Felix interact with their clients while cutting their hair, I can't imagine anyone not wanting to pay as much as they can afford. Open Barbers isn't really like any other hairdressing salon or barbers' shop I've visited before. I didn't even get my hair cut and I left feeling significantly less stressed than when I walked in the door.
"We've realised that some people won't know what to ask for when they arrive because they've never been given the opportunity to find that. And that can lead to people feeling a lot of anxiety and sometimes defensive - they tell us about all the times it's gone wrong for them," Greygory says. "Often people share things with us and we share things with them," Felix continues. "You may be helping someone in a moment where they need support and that can lead to a strong bond. I feel quite strongly that we're trying to create a community relationship between us and the clients. That's something that's really important to us. It's not just that you come in, get your hair cut, have some small talk, and then leave. We try to make it a more rounded experience and create a space where people can be who they want to be and share what they want to share and ask for advice."
This is why Greygory and Felix have decided to relocate Open Barbers to a new, larger, permanent home. If they reach their £25,000 crowd-funding target, they'll start renovating a space they've found near east London's Old Street in January and hope to be moving in by March. "We're feeling quite a lot of responsibility in a way, because it's not just about moving into a new hairdressing salon," Greygory says. "This is a great opportunity to build something that rarely exists. At the moment, there isn't really a daytime, non-alcohol-centric kind of social space that is led by concerns around queer and trans issues. The new space will provide a space they can have refreshment, read books and look at the community noticeboard; or they might want to bring their laptops and just use the Wi-Fi. We want it to be a place where people can just be."
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