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Open Barbers: More open than ever

Florence Oulds visits Open Barbers and finds them thriving in their new east London home.

Florence Oulds

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 13:31:03 GMT | Updated today

Now that they finally have a space all to themselves, Open Barbers are doing all they can to provide a friendly, accessible service. 


Back in April 2014, DIVA's Carrie Lyell paid a visit to Open Barbers, a London-based hairdresser that specialises in cutting the hair of LGBT clients. This may sound strange, as surely "LGBT hair" is the same as any other hair, but I think Greygory explained it best back in the original article: "Open Barbers is more than just a salon to get your haircut. It's a social space and an affirming place to finally be accepted for who you are."


At the time, Open Barbers was operating out of a spare room in the back of another hairdressers, but now, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, they have a gorgeous space all to themselves, just a short walk from Hoxton overground station. 

The new location not only gives Open Barbers space for more chairs to introduce more stylists, like Rachael (long hair, curls and Afro textures) and Mable (colour services), but more opportunities to develop the space in a way that serves the LGBT community. 


The new space was specially designed with accessibility and community needs in mind, with the team doing large amounts of the renovation themselves-a feat which was delightfully recorded on Twitter


New features to the shop include level access floor, a hair wash chair that can be removed for wheelchair users, wide areas of space within the shop for easy navigation, a gender-neutral disabled toilet (including a lower mirror and basin), sofas, tables and chairs, a "zine library", and a bookable, private room in the back for haircuts that "require more discretion".


I spoke to Sukie, a regular customer of Open Barbers, about what it was like to visit the new space in a wheelchair, and how they found the experience: "It was better than any other hairdressers that I've ever been to. At another hairdressers, the entire time I was there, just with my crutch not even with my wheelchair, I was stared at, they made me use stairs, their bathrooms weren't accessible, and I was misgendered the whole time, and that's basically the standard experience for wanting to get a haircut when you're disabled and trans." 


Their most recent visit to Open Barbers was the first time they've been there in a wheelchair, and they were relieved to find that not only was this not a problem in terms of manoeuvrability, but also that it "wasn't a big deal because they already knew that I had a disability because they asked me about it, and that's the kind of question they would ask, 'how can I help you?' instead of 'tell me everything about your illness so that I can be prying.'" 


Another appealing part of the experience for Sukie is Open Barbers' sliding price scale, where you "pay what you can" for an appointment between £10-£40, with five £10 or lower affordable appointments available each week, which is vital for those on lower incomes who require Open Barbers' specialist service. 


In this way, it is evident that for this salon, accessibility is something actually in practice, not just "a box to tick" as Sukie finds it is with other community spaces where "they never thought they'd actually get someone in a wheelchair entering the building."


Every part of an Open Barber's appointment is tailored to reduce stress and improve comfort. When I first visited in 2015, part of the problem I faced at "normal" hairdressers was not knowing exactly how I wanted my hair cut, and being even less certain how to communicate that to an ambivalent barber. 


Like Carrie, when I first arrived I was greeted with the offer of tea, and before the scissors had even come out or the clippers were turned on, Greygory sat me down and showed me a handmade book of possible haircuts. By pointing at the parts I liked, rather than having to know what a "number 3" meant, we created a kind of haircut mash-up that was exactly what I wanted. After the cut, we wrote down instructions for my haircut in more technical barber speak, allowing me to get the cut elsewhere when I wasn't in London. 


Part of this process has been formalised by a recent collaboration with Amy Pennington, an artist who documented and illustrated cuts done by the barbers, collating them into a "look book" for visitors to skim through and see what Open Barbers have to offer. The drawings themselves have a distinctive style, showcasing the hair and occasionally other features like glasses and eyebrows, but nothing else. Amy's art is a visual representation of their ethos that it is what you want and your individual hair that matters, not what other people would presume about you based on your perceived gender. 


One of the new challenges Open Barbers faced with having their own dedicated space and public shop front is how they could facilitate a positive integration with the local residents who would walk in off the street, thinking it's just like any other barbers. When I spoke to Greygory before the move, one of his main concerns was how to keep working towards a safer space for LGBT communities, while keeping an open policy to all, regardless of their prior understanding or knowledge of the ethos of the salon. 


A few months later, once settled in and fully-furnished, he told me a delightful story about how a group of local teenagers wandered in, enquiring about haircuts. Greygory hesitated for a moment, unsure how to explain the space and its necessity to them, before finding he didn't have to: when one of the teenagers asked if it was it called "open" barbers because it's "open all the time" before Greygory could even reply the teenager's friend interjected, saying it was because it's "open to everyone."


In writing and talking about Open Barbers, it's hard not to be almost Evangelical about them, and to not encourage literally everyone I know to book an appointment there, LGBT or not. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible, as the waiting list for an appointment can be a month long, which isn't a problem if you book long enough in advance, but can be discursive when you're in dire need of a trim, so I always recommend getting your name down long before you need a cut to avoid disappointment. 


Open Barbers is an excellent example of how to make a business and a space friendly, accessible, and supportive, even if you're not cutting hair or serving the LGBT community. A philosophy of examining the process of a service, taking nothing for granted, and thinking about how things that could make an experience unpleasant could instead make it affirming is something all businesses and services should strive to emulate. 


Up next: an "Open Dentists" please! 




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