The return of the short back and sides as the must-have hairstyle for fashion-conscious teens and twentysomethings is having a helpful impact on the country's beleaguered high streets: more barber shops sprang up last year than any kind of business other than charity shops.
While bookshops, technology retailers and music stores all suffered, barbers have bucked the economic downturn. More than 150 new shops opened in the UK last year, a 6.24% rise, according to figures from the Local Data Company (LDC). Fashion is a key explanation of the leap in numbers, particularly the popularity of retro 1920s and 1950s cuts with short or shaved back and sides and a styled top that require regular return visits to keep in shape.
There's the "ivy league" – a classic short cut, which can be smooth on top or "textured", as worn by Arsenal footballer Aaron Ramsey and Twilight star Robert Pattinson. Or the "varsity" side parting – trimmed at the sides and back and groomed on top. A shorter version of the 1950s quiff – David Beckham's latest look – is also hugely popular. Or for a rather more radical look there's the "fusey" cut – shaved sides and long on top – favoured by Joey Essex from the TV soap The Only Way Is Essex.
Film stars and footballers – like Beckham, Gareth Bale, Xabi Alonso and Theo Walcott – are the big style icons. "Whatever Beckham has, people follow him," says Paul Taylor of Taylor Taylor barbers in Sheffield, which was set up by his grandfather in 1927. He says the latest trends demand greater use of clippers and shaving equipment that can only be found at a barber's. "Guys recognise it's a skilful profession quite different from a women's hairdresser's," says Taylor.
Mike Taylor, director of the British Barbers Association, says: "Men are looking after themselves a lot more and have finally realised that the barber is the best person to cut their hair, not a hairdresser." He says the male grooming industry as a whole grew by 3% last year – not bad during a recession.
Karen Waldron, the owner of Berkhamsted-based the Barber Shop Group, which has 12 shops, says barbers are booming during the economic downturn as men look for a cheaper option than the unisex salons they might have used in the past. "They don't want to go to Toni & Guy, it's too expensive," she says. On the other hand, men are more willing to spend money on pampering themselves, with rising demand for hot-towel shaves and waxing.
Another driver behind the barber boom is economics. As other retailers close down, barbers are able to get rent-free or low-rent deals on small shops in a way that wouldn't have been possible before the financial crash. "Lots of people don't want these little shop units, which are an ideal size for barbers," says Matthew Hopkinson of LDC.
As a result the number of barbers on high streets and in shopping centres has grown by 8%, while growth on local shopping parades is slower and the number of barbers in out-of-town retail parks has fallen.
With no requirement for a licence or qualifications, it is relatively cheap, quick and easy to set up mirrors, chairs and clippers, making a barber shop an attractive option for those who find themselves out of work or looking to start their own business. The BBA has been trying to improve standards and introduce a licensing system to prevent untrained barbers from opening up and undercutting established businesses. It says new rivals are a cause of concern for barbers who have invested in years of training and investment.
Waldron, who set up her own business 31 years ago after becoming one of the first female barbers trained in a traditional shop when she was 16, says her salons have faced increasing competition as some of her own staff have left to set up their own businesses nearby. Aylesbury, for example, now has eight barbers. "They're all people I've trained," she says. "Everybody thinks it's a quick buck, but in many cases they have just saturated a town."
Fierce competition keeps prices down. Philip Ashia of Active Barbers in Tooting, south London, says he has seen more than five barbers open up nearby in the last year alone and business has been tricky as customers try out new rivals.
His afro shop is something of a local social club, as shown in the YouTube hit Smokey's Barbers. He stays open until late and has created an atmosphere that keeps people coming back. "Lots of guys just come to hang out, but they often end up having their hair cut," he says.
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image: © Ivy Dawned