Open Barbers & Barberette are two London hairdressing salons with a simple yet defining ethos: a gender free approach to hairdressing.
The core of this is a gender-neutral pricing system. Barberette’s services are charged based purely on cut, while Open Barbers works on a donation basis – neither salon base their prices on gender; they challenge the notion that this is any kind of deciding factor in acceptable or appropriate hair cuts. Describing their hairdressing service as being ‘for all lengths, genders and sexualities’ the focus is on inclusivity, and of celebrating the diversity of identities through the medium of hair.
Klara Vanova at Barberette
Felix Lane & Greygory Vass at Open Barbers
Klara Vanova and Greygory Vass founded Open Barbers in 2011. Originally a pop-up venture, they cut hair on stage at LGBTQ club nights such as Queer Fayre and Bar Wotever, before their rapidly growing popularity led them to set up a more permanent base in the back room of the Chaps and Dames salon in North London. Klara went on to found her own salon, Barberette, in Hackney Downs, while Greygory and his business partner Felix Lane now lead Open Barbers. It is currently located in Kennington, but will be opening in a new location (also in Hackney) in April.
All three have had their own chequered experiences with getting their hair cut. Greygory and Felix are transgender; they were raised female and found that seeking masculine cuts which mirrored their identities was not an easy feat. Meanwhile, Klara struggled to find a salon that would give her the masculine cut she preferred, while barbershops would charge her higher prices than male clients for the same cut. These personal experiences were the driving force behind the inclusive ethos they champion today, and their rejection of the often binary attitudes that are a permanent fixture of many hair salons.
The salons also operate as social spaces – people often pop in for a cup of tea and a chat, or to view the artworks exhibited on the walls at Barberette. The open environment also makes it a space of solidarity for those whose identities are not necessarily represented in mainstream salons. For example, it is a place where transgender individuals can share their experiences and receive support from people who have been through similar situations. As Felix states, his involvement with Open Barbers began as a client, and “most of the information I needed, and conversations that I needed to have about physical elements of my transition were had at Open Barbers and it was a big deal, it did change my life”.
We got together with Klara, Greygory and Felix to discuss their experiences of the salon as a gendered space and how they are working to break down barriers surrounding hair and gender, one haircut at a time.
Have your own experiences of getting your hair cut informed your decision to create salons with a gender-neutral approach?
Greygory I was raised female and when I was a kid I went to a barbershop with my dad to get my hair cut. They really flustered over it and eventually agreed to do it but it took about two hours because it was so out of their comfort zone to do short hair on a girl. In the future when I tried to go back they said “no you can’t come here, it’s only for men.”
Klara The whole experience of having your hair cut is a very personal one and it can potentially be an oppressive experience when there is a strong attitude of “men’s cut versus women’s cut’’.
Women with short hair may want regular trims but not necessarily want the fuss of going for long appointments or to pay for expensive haircuts. The alternative would be a barbershop but often they won’t cut women’s hair. I also found that on occasions where I did get my hair cut at a barbershop, I would get charged a higher price than a man for the same cut.
Felix When I met Greygory and Klara at one of their pop-ups as a client, I was transitioning – but not medically. I therefore wanted a haircut that served a particular purpose for me: to make me feel more masculine. In the past I’d been to hairdressers and ended up with cuts that were short but still very feminine, even though that’s not what I’d wanted. I’d had this sense of discomfort and of not being able to speak my mind. The experience I had with Grey and Klara was completely different – I was a total convert.
Greygory These formative experiences really impacted how we work.
In terms of your clientele, how would you describe the demographic?
Klara I have a very wide client base. While most of the demographic is LGBTQ, I like that straight men or women come here too. We have a lot of trans women who come to us for weaves and extensions.
Greygory It’s an inclusive environment, where anybody and everybody is welcome regardless of their gender or sexuality, the point is that they shouldn’t be pre-judged and I think that opening up a space to anyone who may have experienced discomfort in a salon environment will benefit from that experience.
Both salons have the feel of a community space. Was this always the intention?
Greygory Klara and I always wanted to open a salon that was also a social space, a tradition of barbershops and hairdressers. They become spaces where people gather and talk to each other. Our aim is to encourage people to make themselves at home, and extras like a ‘help yourself’ tea station, handmade magazines and open plan seating all contribute to this.
We have lots of imagery of clients whose haircuts we’ve finished around the place, to show that there is a spectrum of identities and possibilities with how you might want to have your hair.
Klara A community feel helps make people feel that they can talk to each other, to share whatever they’re into. At Barberette the walls are used for changing art exhibitions every month. I have a community board where clients can advertise events and their businesses. We are all looking out for each other, trying to help each other.
Barberette & Open Barbers take part in many pop-up events, often cutting hair in unusual spaces such as art galleries and in Klara’s case even a former police cell! Do you enjoy taking part in collaborative events?
Klara Pop-ups are how we started. They’re fantastic because they create a different dynamic, and it’s a great opportunity to promote gender-neutral haircuts. My favourite so far is a community art project I co-curated called ‘A Hair’s Breadth’,which explores how our hair is an expression of our identities. The project brought together photographers, writers and filmmakers, culminating in an exhibition in Angel, Islington.
Felix There’s something nice about bringing our ethos to places outside of London. Sometimes its helpful to go to someone else’s comfort zone, someone else’s space.
Greygory We’ll often be cutting hair in unconventional spaces like a university boardroom, a tent in a festival… a new experience for everyone, which creates an opportunity to reflect on what we expect or assume to be ‘normal’ for these kind of encounters. A recent event we took part in at the Syson Gallery in Nottingham led to many interesting conversations with clients on the subject of gender. Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity are actually very uncomfortable for everyone, regardless of how you identify in terms of gender and sexuality.
Felix Everyone experiences gender, and being gendered, everyday, and that can potentially be problematic for anyone. When we do pop-ups the chance of us meeting people from all different backgrounds is greater. We took part in a pop-up at Latitude Festival, and I got talking to a schoolteacher while I was cutting his hair. He said that after our conversation and hearing other people’s conversations, he would try to raise more awareness around LGBTQ issues at his school. Situations like that are really wonderful and make you realise the importance of having those conversations.
Interview Emma de Clercq Photography Panos Damaskinidis Special Thanks Klara Vanova, Felix Lane & Greygory Vass