Greygory Vass and Felix Lane reflect on a decade of queer hairstory
BY CARRIE LYELL
The first time I walked through the doors of Open Barbers was 2014. I was still finding my feet in London, having only moved to the capital a few months before, and felt very much on the fringes of the queer community. I was missing home, missing friends, and missing a sense of belonging.
What a warm embrace it was, meeting Greygory Vass and Felix Lane that day. Not only did they take care of my curls, they took me under their wings, and gave me access to a community that I so desperately needed at that time. As I wrote in DIVA back then, Open Barbers provided a safe, inclusive and fun space that I had never experienced before, where I felt able to talk about “coming out, unrequited love and anxieties I didn’t even know I had”. I had a profound sense that Open Barbers was providing something unique. Something extraordinary.
Seven years on, they are still providing that – and so much more. From pop-up beginnings to queer barberdom, Open Barbers has grown from an ad-hoc, every-few-months offering started by Grey and Klara Vanova, AKA Barberette, into a permanent, full time salon, with a team of 10 people. Ahead of their 10th birthday, I called Grey and Felix to talk about the past, the present and the future of Open Barbers.
First thing’s first, how’s my hair? “It’s so good!” grins Felix. Thank goodness for that. I’d been so nervous before our video call, making sure my DIY hair cut was on point. It’s not just vanity, though. Like so many queer people, my hair is tied up in my identity, and not being able to visit the barbers has been a genuine struggle. “There’s so much inextricably linked,” nods Grey. “Issues with hair and dysphoria and mental health and wellbeing. For some, it’s one of the few ways they have agency to control how people read them. [It can be] really essential.”
OPEN BUT CLOSED
It’s been a really strange time for barbers and hairdressers – finding themselves more valued than ever, and yet still fighting for survival. The situation is perhaps even more bleak for queer spaces, some of which were under threat even before Covid. How are Open Barbers coping with their doors closed?
“There’s us personally and then the business and the broader team,” says Grey. “The answer is slightly different for each. There’s a side to do with your sense of purpose and wellbeing, not just as hairdresser, but also as someone who runs a queer space. So much of my sense of identity, purpose and wellbeing is wrapped up in that. Like, ‘Who am I when I’m not cutting hair at Open Barbers?’
“Then there’s the financial side… One of our clients set up a GoFundMe [for us]. All of that money has gone to those in our team who’ve needed it. The team have pulled together in this crisis, supporting each other. There’s been a lot of camaraderie. Some of us have been really struggling… some of our team have children. Some have mental health issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and all of the anxieties that it generates. It’s not been great, definitely, and for the business, we’ve not been able to run the things that we want to run, but if you look at it from a ‘What have we learned?’ perspective, people have learned hairdressers are really valuable resources and spaces. And we’ve learned we are really valuable and special people and we need to take care of ourselves and each other.”
Felix agrees. “I think as Grey says, we’ve realised having a physical environment that people can come into, whether for an appointment or just to be there and hang out, is really valued by people. Because we’ve been in it for such a long time, the last 10 years of our lives, it can be quite hard to step back and see that. But that’s what’s happened during this time. Being without it has given us a new perspective on it. We have a physical space that people can come to, free of charge, and just be there. People are really in need of that.”
The few months that Grey and Felix were able to open their doors last year were completely different, they tell me, again bringing home the importance of what they’ve been providing for the last 10 years. “People weren’t able to engage with us in quite the same way,” Felix says sadly. “It became quite clinical,” Grey agrees. “You come for your appointment and you leave and you make sure you don’t touch anything and don’t get too close to anyone. We had to literally put all the sofas, all the chairs, all the soft furnishings, anything that was not mandatory to the hairdressing experience has been put in storage. So Open Barbers looks…” he trails off, with Felix chipping in: “It looks really bleak”. “A shell,” adds Grey. “We’ve still got stuff on the walls so you can see there was once a trace of vibrancy in the space. But it feels really weird, and people comment on that a lot. They’re like, ‘This is so strange. Open Barbers feels sort of empty’.”
That clinical, transactional experience is the antithesis of what Open Barbers is about, and what sets them apart from so many other salons. The pair can’t wait to recreate the kind of experience they were able to offer pre-pandemic once again. Thinking back to those happier times, what have been their highlights of the past 10 years?
“One of the big highlights is that we’ve managed to grow from me and Grey and Klara at Bar Wotever once every couple of months to having a permanent, full-time, open-every-day space that’s just for us and that we can be in charge of,” smiles Felix. “That feels worth celebrating. And the fact that we’ve managed to do that without changing our pricing ethos. From the beginning, people pay what they can afford on a sliding scale.”
While they’ve refined the process somewhat since the money in a bucket system back when I first had my hair cut with them – “We’ve now progressed to technology” laughs Grey – at its heart, Open Barbers is the same as it ever was – accessible and affordable. “The minimum has always been £2 and still is,” Grey says. “Even then, no one is ever turned away. We searched very hard for a till system that would accommodate [our ethos]. We never wanted to have situation where a member of staff has to operate the till for the clients, so that there would still be that honesty system and still that degree of trust, but also that level of discretion, so if someone can only afford to pay £2, they don’t have to declare that.”
As the physical space has grown, so has the Open Barbers team, something which Grey is very proud of. “I remember back in about 2015, when we were on the cusp of registering as a formal Community Interest Company, looking at me, Felix and Richard – the first person we worked with – who all looked quite similar and had similar hair. We were like, ‘This is going to be a problem’. It’s going to mean only people who look like us will come to Open Barbers, and that’s not what we wanted for the future of the project.
“Since we moved into a bigger space, we have the physical space to be able to have a bigger team. We made a very conscious effort to make sure that we were working with people, and building the trust of people, who would like to work with us who offer different skills and have different identities to us. We’ve now reached a point where we’ve got 10 people working for Open Barbers, including one non-hairdresser who does the more administrative work.
“Half of our 10 people are people of colour, and 70% of those people are women and non-binary people, and there’s a huge spectrum of genders and identities and ways in which people are non-binary as well. 100% of our team are queer or trans in one way or another, and we’re really pleased about how we’ve got to this point. It really shows in terms of who comes to Open Barbers now and who we’ve perceived to be a space for.
“I don’t think we’ve arrived – we could definitely still be doing more for people of colour and trans feminine people. We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back and say our work is done, but we’ve definitely made huge progress around that side of things and we know that’s the right way to be going. To make sure we’re not creating a template for sameness and repetition.”
Another highlight for Felix has been watching Open Barbers blossom into a space “where a lot of other things happen”, quite apart from hair cuts. As well as providing a space for services such as therapy, massage and acupuncture, Open Barbers offers community in a way that is quiet and gentle but completely necessary.
“People come to socialise with one another. People come to do their uni work or their work work, or just to spend time there. People might come on particular occasions of significance, like Pride or Trans Day of Remembrance. If they don’t want to go to something big and loud, they might come and sit in the space. We don’t necessarily make a massive fanfare about it, but we hold space for people on days that might be important for queer related reasons. They don’t necessarily have to talk about it or declare it, but you can be here and we’ll acknowledge and hold that space for you, that something’s happening today.
“We can invite other people into Open Barbers in a fuller sense. [The space we had before] was so tiny. It was really difficult for people to hang out because there just wasn’t room. Now, there’s plenty of room for people just to be there. It feels really crucial that there is that space in London. Space that’s free and space that’s daytime and space that’s sober and space where there’s no cost outlay to be there. To have managed to do that in London, which is notoriously expensive and difficult to exist in, I feel proud of that. We feel proud of that.”
COME AS YOU ARE
It feels right that as Open Barbers feeds the community, the community feeds Open Barbers. “One of the reasons the space feels so collective is the community literally built it,” Felix explains. “Not only did they donate money but they donated their time and their decorating skills. The walls were painted by the people who use the space.” Grey agrees. “So much of Open Barbers was built out of the crowdfunded money from the community, and the space is still being constantly rejuvenated by the people who use it.”
From the collection of books and zines that is constantly growing, to the notice board that is “always bursting” with queer friendly businesses, services and projects and the art on the walls, Open Barbers represents a nurturing, symbiotic relationship, the importance of which is difficult to overstate. I know how valuable finding them was to me all those years ago – how many thousands of others have a similar story about Open Barbers?
“We have a client who’s been coming to us for a number of years,” Grey shares. “There was a period in time when they didn’t come for a while. Then one day they came to the salon. They didn’t have a booking – they just wanted to sit in the space. They came a few days in a row, just to sit and spend time in the space. I thought, ‘Oh, that person’s back again, that’s nice’. But then I was chatting to a different client and turns out they’d had a conversation with this person. This person had basically gone into a pre-coronavirus self-isolation experience. They’d completely shut down and been unable to leave the house.
“Coming to Open Barbers was the first thing that they decided to do, as a process of recovery from this breakdown that they’d had. It was a very private experience for this person. That’s just one example of many where a space like Open Barbers provides a really important alternative space for much quieter, more private needs that people have, and the low level socialising that people need to be able to do. When I discovered that we were providing that space for this person, it was a moment of encouragement for me. What we’re doing is important and what we’re doing is being used by people in ways that we’ll never really know.”
Being able to provide space for those small, private moments is incredibly valuable to Felix too. “Being open for such a long time, we have clients that have been with us for many, many years. Some of them started coming to us when they were children or teenagers. We’ve seen them grow into adulthood. We’ve seen their identities change, talked them through stuff going on at school… Obviously we cut their hair and that’s nice, but also, we have a space where queer young people can see happy, queer adults doing their lives. We’re like, grandpas!” he laughs.
“Obviously there’s the children and young people growth and development,” adds Grey. “But there’s also the changes people go through at any stage in their lives that might be trans related or other big transitions in people’s lives. People do tend to be quite loyal to hairdressers and they come for years and years so you do go through those changes with people.”
It’s an incredibly intimate relationship, really. And how lovely that with Open Barbers, those changes never need to be explained. You can come as you are. “One of the decisions we made quite early on was making sure that people always can essentially reinvent themselves every time they come for a haircut,” Grey says. “They can have a different name, a different pronoun, a different identity or a different aesthetic, and that nobody feels that they have to choose one and stick with it or be consistent in that way. We made those decisions early on quite intuitively but it feels those things have remained really important because some people have been coming to us and have come out as a different thing: name, identity, pronoun.”
The last 10 years have seen the physical space that is Open Barbers change, and Grey and Felix have witnessed many of their clients going through changes as well. Simultaneously, they’ve gone through changes themselves, evolving both personally and professionally. If they could give themselves at the beginning of their Open Barbers journey some advice, what would they say?
“For me, it’s about trust, and having faith in the fact that you don’t have to know and do everything yourself,” Grey says. “We live in a society [that values] people who ‘single handedly’ solved a social issue or crisis. We love the hero and think that’s the right way to live, personally taking all the responsibility or all the credit. But actually that’s not how it is.
“There are lots of voices, lots of contributions, lots of labour. Some people can give more than others at different times in terms of effort and energy. I think having trust and faith that it’s okay to have periods of time where you have more capacity, and periods of time where you have less, and knowing that if you build a community with you then other people will step up and step forward. The crowdfunders always demonstrate that. That literal ‘put your money where you mouth is’ scenario. But also, we’ve built a big team now and have a lot of people who step forward and say ‘I will help you’. So I think maybe that’s the advice. Having trust in that and having faith in that. That we don’t have to shoulder everything as a solo project.” Felix agrees. “The collective will be the thing that pulls us forward and enables us to continue.”
When I walked through Open Barbers’ doors in 2014, I’d never experienced anything quite like it. These days, similar projects are popping up across the UK – some inspired by Open Barbers – and more “queer aware hair people” is something which Grey and Felix are energised by.
“It’s quite exciting,” Grey says. “At the beginning we used to feel, not entirely a lone wolf, but we felt like we were starting something and there was this enormous thing to tackle. We didn’t really have the resources or the skills to know how to create social change. But when you know that you’re not alone, and you know that you’re contributing to something and there is a general energy going in that direction, it feels so much more possible and so much more exciting.”
That’s another thing that sets Open Barbers apart – a sense of collaboration rather than competition. “A lot of mainstream hair spaces are set up around the idea of competition and winning and being the best,” says Felix. “We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in community and collaboration. We don’t want to be the only people doing this. We’re not interested in winning the game of being ‘the queer hair people’.”
Instead, the pair want to share knowledge and experience and be part of a movement towards “open-mindedness” in the hair and beauty industries. “It certainly feels like there’s more of a movement and it feels like it is starting to address not only how services are being provided to clients but the industry as a whole. People who work in the industry,” says Felix. “I think as we build relationships with clients, I certainly feel with some there’s a real depth of connection and there’s a sensitivity there, and we want to create an environment where there’s a bit more parity in that. Not only in the power dynamic of ‘We’re going to do what you want for your hair, we’re not going to tell you what you want’, which is an issue for clients in the hair industry, but also, understanding that I might be providing a service for you but we’re both human beings experiencing life, and I might need gentleness from you as a client as much as you need gentleness from me as a service provider.”
A PRECARIOUS FUTURE?
Our conversation segues from present and past to the future of Open Barbers, which, admittedly, feels like a hard thing to imagine right now, given that their doors are firmly closed. The pandemic has put their plans to reach more people with workshops, subsidised hair cuts and home visits on hold. But considering the social and economic impact of the pandemic on our community, it’s more vital than ever that Open Barbers exists, and that they’re able to make it out the other side of this pandemic in one piece. I for one want to see them celebrate another 10 years at least. “10 more years!” laughs Grey. “I like your optimism…” For now, and for obvious reasons, Grey and Felix are thinking only about the immediate future.
“First of all, we’ve got to survive. We’re doing the financial projections for the year ahead, and it’s not looking great. We’re looking at making a loss of about £30,000.”
It won’t be easy, surviving this storm, but the pair have plans up their sleeve to build their reserves back up through various funding applications and a birthday fundraiser, which launches in March. “Assuming all of that goes well and we generate the funds we need to survive, the immediate future is to try and restore ourselves to our former glory and more. Getting our social space back into existence again, getting ourselves back up to capacity.”
Those things “could take a couple of years” Grey admits. But if the last 10 years have taught us anything – it’s that this pair are in it for the long haul. “There’s an energy out there, and I feel like now we can see that we have a role to play in that. We can build and continue this movement, and really start investing in this movement of change. So I think that’s it really. That’s the future for the next 10 years. Just carry on doing what we’re doing. Keep growing. Keep responding.”
Help Open Barbers survive the pandemic by donating what you can at openbarbers.com/ten when the campaign launches on 1 March. Rewards include a birthday tea towel designed by Amy Pennington, a digital portrait by Dom&Ink and a birthday print from Camp Books.
GREY’S TIPS FOR CUTTING YOUR OWN HAIR IN LOCKDOWN ✂️
“Have a look online and see what tips and techniques are out there. My experience is just my hair style and type so it’s a bit limited but one my big top tips would be to wash your hair first because very often, with short hair, if you haven’t washed it and it’s not at maximum floof level, it’s a bit harder to cut. So usually, pre-washed hair and wet hair if it’s longer, or dry it if it’s something as short as mine. Go little by little and take your time! If it’s hair like mine, start with the longest and get gradually shorter rather than starting with the shortest, because it’s quite difficult to blend from the shortest into longer. If your hair is longer and you’re using scissors, take off a little bit at a time rather than big chunks as when it dries, it’s going to shrink up. I would also say don’t expect it to be salon standard. It might be you can’t have exactly the haircut that you would normally want when you go to a salon, but you might be able to give yourself something that is more bearable than what you’ve got, so an interim haircut or something that’s just a bit less stressful to have for now.”
OPEN BARBERS’ FAVES TO FOLLOW 📲
Klara Vanova, who started Open Barbers alongside Grey
A project to tackle bullying in the hair industry
Queer hairdresser Craig in south London
Queer hairdresser Sam in London
Queer hair services in LA for POC queer youth experiencing homelessness
Global alliance of salons committed for positive experiences for LGBTQI+ people
LA-based queer and trans owned salon
Gray, a queer barber in Amsterdam
Queer hairdresser in London
Nail Transphobia founder
A non-binary barber in west London
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