There is a big difference between commanding and demanding attention, maybe the ritual of shaving teaches men to preference the former over the latter and if so, maybe it is men like Austin whom we should thank. I met Austin when he turned up at New Directions as a student in one of my classes a few years back. Like most short-course teachers, I didn't really get to know him then but over the months that followed Austin kept in touch as he developed and tested his ideas about, and understanding of, cosmetic science and product creation. As is often the case with new ideas, things take longer than expected and life gets in the way. Before long I realised that it had been over a year since I'd heard from Austin but on his side, things had been far from quiet, they had just gone in a slightly different and equally interesting direction as I was soon to find out.
Austin is a precision master barber with an impressive resume of experience behind him including stints with Vidal Sassoon in London and Anthony Nader and American Crew here in Australia. He currently works out of an immaculately presented private terrace in a trendy back-street area of Sydney's Surry Hills. He is the kind of guy who pays attention to detail, thinks deeply about his craft and recognises the significance of the shaving ritual in the lives of men, however they choose to present to the world. I met him at his place and talked over lemongrass and ginger tea about men, role-models, political correctness and, of course, shaving.
Austin didn't start out in as a barber, barbering wasn't cool back when he was leaving school, instead he commenced a scientific career combining work as a laboratory technician with a further education certificate. While that helped to explain his scientific approach to product development, I was still left wondering what prompted such an about-turn in career path? I probed further asking where his fascination for barbering originated. Immediately it became clear that for Austin this wasn't just a career, it was his life's purpose, his responsibility as a man. A way to quite literally wear his own personal values of self-discipline, integrity and self-respect in a way that both encourage and empower other men to do the same. For Austin, the impulse to connect with men through the long-trusted profession of barbering ran deep.
It was Kyan Douglas, the male grooming expert on ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' that first showed Austin he could seriously pursue a career in the male grooming space. The show ran from 2003-2007, during Austin's early adulthood at a time when he was one of only a few straight men on the Sydney hairdressing scene. The fact that Austin socialised in and felt comfortable with Sydney's gay scene was not surprising to me, he comes across as a ‘shaken, not stirred' kind of guy, very grounded and comfortable in his own skin while maintaining a preference for playing it his way and maintaining control. It strikes me that this is not unlike the James Bond character cited as a childhood role-model which, along with John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger helped inform the younger Austin's view of what makes a man. However, I kept getting the feeling that while these men were important role-models for Austin on one level, his real influence lay much closer to home.
Grandfather to father to son. Boom, there it is, generation after generation gathered around a basin and mirror, sharing moments of care and self-realisation. The sound and smell made by brush bristles creating lather in the cake of shaving soap. The quiet, purposeful strokes made as the blade travels across the skin, breath held, hand steady and strong. Splashes of fresh, cool water mark the start of something new, a re-birthing maybe. Slap, the back-to-reality patting of after-shave onto freshly smoothed cheeks, a reminder that life is tough, but you've got this, you are ready.
For Austin this wasn't just a memory, this was the purpose of life, that quiet, methodical ritual requiring discipline, skill and concentration. It was immediately clear that Austin's integrity as a craftsman and educator is bound up in these indelible, whole body memories. He isn't just a barber in the aesthetic sense of the word, Austin is a protector and defender of this space, the ‘men-only' business of taking blade to face, rough to smooth, raw to polished.
On that note we turned our attention to Austin's brand, Stag Men's Grooming, the logo of which depicts a Stags head nestled inside the incomplete outline of a circle. Symbolically the Stag represents protection while the circle represents the earth, a marriage of power and purpose that creates something visually beautiful and intriguing. The ‘less is more' approach suits what Austin is creating here, when you simplify life you prioritise your life and what demonstrates that more than the time-honoured tradition of barbering.
The range of accessories that Austin has created builds on the idea that the master barber doesn't rush or cut corners. The high-quality, heirloom-worthy shaving accessories in the Stag range feature three high quality safety razers that feel solid and substantial. They are beautiful to hold and have been designed in such a way as to encourage a light, smooth touch that rewards attention to detail. I contrast that to the re-usable razer I purchased for myself earlier this year and can immediately see the value in what has been created here. Mine, being light-weight and flimsy by comparison almost begs me to push down harder against the skin than the blade requires, often with painful consequences.
The razors more than live up to the lavish names they have been given:
The King, weighing in at 86g combines a matt black solid brass handle with a stainless steel, rust resistant head finished beautifully with gold electroplate.
The Knight at 80g is the gallant and more affordable workhorse, combining a zinc alloy head on a wide-grip chrome coated brass handle for an under-stated yet polished look that would sit well in any bathroom.
Finally, there is the Cavalier at 81g which combines a more elegant and suave chrome coated brass handle with the zinc alloy head in a product that feels sophisticated and polished.
The range of razors are designed to fit single disposable aluminium blades which, after a few shaves can be fully re-cycled. The whole idea of double or quadruple bladed shaves is, in Austin's opinion (and experience) a marketing gimmick. What he says about passing the blade over the skin once makes sense to me - less irritation, fuss and skin damage, less chance of developing in-grown hairs and post-shave issues.
These are products that are designed to last and as such they offer both long-term cost and environmental benefits. The brushes that Austin has developed come in two finishes, badger hair and synthetic. I try both on the back of my hand and notice the roughness of the natural hair vs that which has been constructed. As a chemist I appreciate the engineering that goes into ‘synthetics' and know which one I would try while at the same time appreciating the marketing benefits of choice for clients.
We put the shaving tools down and I take another sip of tea. I ask Austin about the role that Barbers play in terms of men's mental and physical health. I was curious to know if men open up to him, if, like the barbers throughout history, this is a place where quiet revolutions are plotted, where boys become men, problems are shared and solved, support networks are created, and if that were so I wondered if ‘confidant' was a role that Austin was prepared to play?
The conversation that followed assured me that men do feel comfortable talking to and with Austin, that the back-street but polished ambience of his location help facilitate that, creating a sense of safety without making it obvious that it is safety that is being sought. I come away understanding that to Austin and his clientele, masculinity is about two things: first, the protection of what matters and second, the education of the next generation. Those are two roles that Austin is more than willing and qualified to play. As he goes about his business, he is educating a new generation of men in what it is to re-connect with themselves and others, how to practice discipline and control in the balanced, considered way befitting of a gentleman. In terms of protection, Austin is protecting the inherent value of masculinity, something that men can sometimes feel is under-threat in this rapidly changing world.
As a woman watching on and telling this story I feel confident that through the medium of Barbering Austin's business will make a positive difference in this world. What Austin removes from his clients with that cut-throat blade is all that should never have been there in the first place - the self-doubt, insecurity and lack of direction that can undermine even the best of us at times. I wrapped up my chat just as Austin's next client appeared at the door but not before I was informed of a new shaving ritual focused skin care line that is waiting in the wings to be launched, all very exciting and no doubt worthy of another visit and chat!
The door of Austin's barber shop closes behind me and I step back into the world. Immediately I am struck with the change of pace, the difference between out here and in there. A line from a film pops into my head ‘is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?' Arthur Fleck (Joker)...
It occurs to me that maybe the resurgence in popularity of barber's shops have come at exactly the right time. These private men-only spaces where traditional thinking men like Austin can practice their craft while creating opportunities for men to be themselves unapologetically, in comfort are needed. Maybe Austin people like him are the antidote.
20 December 2019