Tuesday 24 April 2018

Robert 'Scissorhands' Chambers stays a cut above

Robert and Lillian Chambers
Robert and Lillian Chambers
How the Sunday Independent reported Britt’s arrival in 1982

Jillian Godsil

Robert Chambers could well go down as the sharpest name in Irish hairdressing. He is the man responsible for putting the Five Point Haircut on the tonsorial map in the capital - not to mention the Beret Haircut, the Shag and the Haddington.

Another wikientry might be the time in 1982 when he brought Bond actress Britt Ekland to Ireland to open his then flagship salon on South Anne Street. Later in the evening she appeared with Gaybo on the Late Late Show, but not before she opened Robert's salon in style - making the cover of this Sunday paper as she did so.

Hairdressing is in the Chambers' blood. Robert's father had a very diverse career which included working on the Pacific Railway line in the States. He was an engineer responsible for blasting through the Rockies, but also had a sideline cutting co-workers' hair.

That is not so strange when you consider most parents in the last century would have cut their children's hair. It is only in recent decades that this stopped being the norm. Back from the Rockies in Ireland, Robert's father continued cutting the family's hair while farming for a living - and, as a consequence, two of his sons picked up the scissors professionally.

Robert's schooling finished unceremoniously by his own hand when he was 14 years old. A clever child, he had been promoted two classes ahead of his age in St Patrick's Cathedral School - but the result had an unexpected effect. Faced with significantly more difficult lessons and trenchant bullying by one older boy, he "handed in his notice".

His father did not demur and was willing to have him at home on the farm, but his mother insisted he got a "qualification". Robert was particularly good with his hands and so decided to attend the technical school in Naas. Two years later he had a Group Cert with a distinction in technical drawing, as a precursor to becoming an architect. (He later discovered that he had come First in all Ireland in that technical drawing examination).

"This training stood me in good stead," says Robert. "Hairdressing was coming of age in the Sixties with form overtaking function. Vidal Sassoon had begun to introduce innovative haircuts which demanded precision cutting.

"I was not to know it, but this technical training gave me a natural advantage when armed with a pair of scissors."

It was also to prove handy in the physical construction of his early salons.

Robert's oldest brother, Richard, had already signed up as an apprentice in Jules on St Stephen's Green in Dublin and was finishing his four-year stint learning the ropes when Robert joined as a trainee - and from the first moment he loved it.

He quickly progressed and was looking forward to his first payrise when he heard of another hairdresser cutting some waves across Irish heads in a basement establishment called The Witches Hut.

Robert met then proprietor Tony Rodgers and agreed to jump ship. It meant losing his pay rise and time off earned in the first employment - but Robert could sense a bright future ahead.

He joined as the most junior trainee but quickly rose to the top. He was popular with the clientele and soon built up a loyal following.

"It was the heyday for hairdressers," says Robert. "We were like overgrown children with large egos. We were often late for our clients but the more preposterous our behaviour the better we were liked."

He pauses. "It's not like that now, I hasten to add."

Robert also understood the power of marketing. He began doing photoshoots with Ireland's top photographers of his latest haircuts, using them for publicity and posting them on the salon walls.

His popularity meant that he was made manager of a new salon on Nassau Street, this time on ground level. He stayed there five years but he knew that he wanted to own his own salon. A premises became available in Dun Laoghaire and over the course of a weekend, he had secured the loan and purchased his first salon.

"It was purple throughout and even had carpets in the cutting areas," laughs Robert. "As soon as I signed up to the loan I realised I was technically unemployed and it was a race to get the salon ship-shape. This is where my technical training came to good use and I was able to custom-build the shelves, counters and furniture for the cutting floor."

It took another eight years before Robert returned to town, this time on South Anne Street, with a vast 24-seater salon. Britt did the official opening and more than 30 journalists turned up to cover the event.

"Now I was established, so it made sense to open an academy," says Robert. "I tweaked the formatting over the early years, eventually settling on a 16-month course as the optimum timeframe."

Again Robert was creating new innovations and his popular academy was the first hairdressing school in Ireland.

"In 1995, I finally sold the salon on South Anne street. Around that time, my new flagship salon took shape in Grafton Street. I always knew I wanted this venue. When the new salon was ready, the team walked our clients - literally mid-haircut - around the corner into the new setting and continued the haircuts. Robert Chambers on Grafton Street had arrived."

The next ten years saw the consolidation of three different businesses under the Robert Chambers branding. The main RC Salon, then a second funkier salon called Lunatic Fringe with the academy run on the third floor. All three businesses operate separately and a second premises was also taken on Upper Liffey Street, just off Henry Street.

Overall, more than 40 people are currently employed across the three platforms, with two of his four children - Tamar and Athos - now working full time for the company.

Athos is a professional hairdresser with a master colourist degree, as are many of the other stylists. Tamar combines managing large clientele - both cutting and colouring - with running the actual business. Cut from the same cloth as her father, she recently moved from the Lunatic Fringe floor to the Robert Chambers floor and introduced the idea of giving the clients a glass of wine or prosecco as they relax.

Robert is far from retiring. He cuts hair two days a week and oversees the business with Tamar. He may continue working for another ten years or he may retire before then. He is not sure. He does know however, that whatever he decides, his name is in good hands.

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