Barber shop duet: Conor and Hugh McAllister's clients include Hollywood star and presidents - now they're putting pen to paper
For brothers Hugh and Conor McAllister, barbering is in their blood. With clients including Hollywood stars and even presidents, The Grafton Barber duo have finally put their expertise to paper. Katie Byrne meets the pair to talk beards, mullets and their new book
There was a time - and it wasn't that long ago - when barbershops were run like conveyor belts. Men would wait in line for half an hour only to leave with an indentikit short-back-and-sides style, and a tin of pomade if they were feeling fancy.
While women got lengthy consultations and luxurious head massages, the male hairdressing experience was largely focussed on two vertices of the iron triangle. They were fast and cheap - but not always good. "Twenty years ago, men were going to ladies salons to get a proper cut," explains Hugh McAllister, joint-owner of The Grafton Barber.
There was a huge gap in the market, he adds, and he and his brother Conor set out to fill it when they opened the doors to the first Grafton Barber in 1994. Instead of the bum-on-seat factory line, the family-run barbers focused on providing a standout service. They took customers' coats from their shoulders, they served a selection of teas and coffees and they never, ever asked their clients if they were "going anywhere nice on their holidays".
"Fifty per cent of hairdressing is with your mouth," laughs Hugh. "So we would have a few rules. For example, if you don't know the customer, you don't ask them what they do for a living."
Hugh and Conor have barbering in their blood. Their Belfast-born father, Hugh Snr, cut his teeth as a barber at the age of 15 before becoming a wig and toupee salesman (the Barry Levinson film An Everlasting Piece is based on the real-life adventures of Hugh Snr and his best friend Colm McEvoy as they tried to corner the toupee market during The Troubles).
Hugh Snr and his wife Bernie opened their first hair salon in Belfast in 1961 and continued to expand the business into Dublin after moving their family to the capital in the early '70s.
They taught their sons the trade of unisex hairdressing and Hugh and Conor went on to work on movie sets like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.
As larger-than-life characters, it's no surprise that the McAllister brothers often struck up friendships with the actors that they worked with. In 1994, Conor was the on-set hairstylist for the film Space Truckers, which was shooting at Ardmore Studios around the same time that he and Hugh were preparing to open their flagship store on Grafton Street.
Over the course of six months, Conor established a rapport with the lead actor, Dennis Hopper. The men shared stories and experiences and Conor still remembers the day he told the actor about the business he was opening with his brother. Without being asked, Dennis offered to launch it for him. The first Grafton Barber opened to a fanfare of publicity a few weeks later.
Today, the family-run barbers counts Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and his father, Brendan, among their celebrity clients, while President Michael D Higgins has a standing bi-monthly appointment.
Meanwhile, the brand has added over 40 franchises, an eponymous grooming range and a newly released men's grooming manual - written in conjunction with Executive Style Editor of independent.ie Caitlin McBride - to its growing empire. The book includes everything from tips on shaving and skincare to pointers on socialising and social media.
The Grafton Barber brand has moved with the times - think beard oil and free beer - but their ethos, says Hugh, has remained much the same. "Our tagline is 'Barbers for gentlemen and their sons'," he says. "A life-long client will bring in his sons, and then his sons will bring in his sons. It continues on from generation to generation."
Hugh says men tend to be more loyal to their hairdressers, unlike their female counterparts who often chop and change with the seasons. Nonetheless, they work hard to cultivate brand loyalty and they've realised that holding on to staff is part and parcel of holding on to clients. "One of our barbers, Eddie McEvoy, is 84 years old," says Hugh. "He's been the hotelier John Fitzpatrick's barber since he was knee-high."
A loyal customer base also helps a business weather sales slumps and recessions. "It's a pretty steady business model," adds Hugh. "And even if you haven't a penny in your pocket, you'll always make sure to put your best foot forward and stay fairly well dressed and well groomed."
As one of the first modern barbershops on the block, The Grafton Barber was nicely positioned for the male grooming boom that is now valued at $50 billion globally. Of course, the phrase 'male grooming' might be something of a misnomer given that female purchasing power has helped to drive the rapid growth. "A lot of women buy grooming products for the men in their life," explains Hugh. "Take the two to three days before Christmas - 70pc of the people coming in are women buying vouchers for men."
Irish men were actually a little slow to embrace the concept of male grooming at first, he adds. They didn't want to seem vain or overly pampered. The new generation, on the other hand, have no issue with booking in every week for skin fade maintenance and beard trims.
"A lot of men would own hairdryers, hair straighteners and roller brushers now, which you would never have seen 10 years ago," he says. "They're more likely to bring in photos too. Ten years ago, one man in a 1,000 would bring in a photo of a hairstyle he liked. Now, with smartphones, they bring it in and show you very discretely. Especially 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds - they have no issue in showing you what they want."
Younger clients often produce photographs of Cristiano Ronaldo's ongoing hair evolution while older gentlemen like George Clooney's clean and classic look. The Peaky Blinders haircut (short back and sides with longer length on top) is still going strong, but the moustachioed hipster look is fading out. "The hipster look nearly looks stupid now," says Hugh.
Of course, one ironic trend often supersedes another. In recent months, Hugh has been bemusedly observing the reemergence of a hairstyle he hoped he would never have to see again. "We have CCTV in all our shops and I was watching it the other day when I saw one of our barbers giving a customer a mullet. "I rang him up afterwards and said, 'I don't know what you're after doing to that poor chap's hair!' And he said, 'He's in every 4-6 weeks to get that done! We have loads of customers like that'.
"I'll tell you, if that comes back into fashion, I'm giving up barbering…"
What about the beard? Will it eventually go the same way as the moustache? "There's no doubt about it, a beard can make an uninteresting face look interesting," he says. "And if you look at celebrities, you tend to find that they all look better with facial hair. But men are starting to remove beards State-side and we'll probably see that filtering out here over the next year or two."
Hugh reckons Irish men will start wearing tighter beards and longer hair over the next few years, which seems a plausible trend forecast given that they're now investing considerably more time and money into their haircare routines. "The quality of Irish men's hair has improved massively over the last few years with people watching their diet, getting fitter and drinking lots of water," he says. "And whether it's better haircuts, or hair transplant surgery, you don't see as many bald young guys around."
That's the other side of the male grooming boom. While hair restoration surgery was once cloaked in secrecy, it is now much more out in the open. The new generation of men have seen celebrities like Wayne Rooney, Robbie Williams, and James Nesbitt - who has written the introduction to the new Grafton Barber book - normalise the procedure and the stigma is finally fading. "Men are now a lot more open and don't mind boasting when they've had it done," he says. "It's a helluva long time coming and I'm feckin' delighted."
After 24 years in a male-only industry, Hugh and Conor know a thing or two about men's grooming. And after building a brand from a basement on Grafton Street, they have plenty of pointers on how to get ahead in business. The brothers have combined their collected wisdom in their first book, Grooming & Etiquette for Gentlemen & Their Sons, and if you'll forgive the awful pun, it's a cut above the rest.
Seven steps to the perfect shave
Smooth shaving is a skill, but one which many men are left to navigate alone after teenage mornings in front of the bathroom mirror with any old razor. The Grafton Barbers encourage fathers to teach their sons the value of this daily routine. Here’s how to select the tools of the trade and how best to use them.
Razor of your choosing, but make sure it isn’t blunt and that it’s clean, or else you’re guaranteed irritation both of your skin and that of a second-rate job
Aftershave for afterwards
1. Firstly, gather your ingredients together over a sink with a mirror. Run the tap until you get it to the right temperature (hot but not boiling). If you’re not patient enough to wait for the tap, you can boil a kettle, then pour the water into a bowl and dip a towel or cloth into it. Carefully place the towel on your face and wrap yourself in it and leave it for a few minutes, which will loosen up the bristles of your facial hair while also lubricating the skin. This pause before you begin is important, but if you’re in a mad dash at least wet your face with warm water. If you’re in no rush at all, the steam from a hot bath makes an ideal shaving environment.
2. Apply a good shaving oil, one made with mineral oil helps loosen the bristles to ensure a smoother shave. The secret is to get the bristles to stand up nearly straight all over the face. To do this, massage a small amount of oil into your clean, warm face.
3. Apply the soap with your brush: use a circular motion, it gets the bristles to stand on edge. Brushes also provide a level of cleanliness you cannot get while using your hands.
4. Let the razor do all the work — hold it at a 45-degree angle, but remember there’s no need to apply pressure or press it into your skin. Be sure to use a blade that’s sharp and at room temperature. If you are someone who has moles, or you’re a teenager going through puberty with acne, it’s even more important to see exactly what you’re doing. You can shave over any bumps in your skin, but gently. Be sure to wash the lather off as you go so the blade is kept clean. You don’t need a fancy blade to do your job effectively. Like most things, it’s more about technique than the price of the product.
5. Now clean your face — give it a good wash in fresh, cool water to help close your pores and seal your skin. Then clean and dry your kit and put it away until tomorrow. A gentleman always tidies up after himself, especially if he shares a bathroom with others.
6. Don’t forget to check your work with care and precision — there’s nothing worse than spoiling the look of a job well done with stray, neglected patches.
7. Enjoy your shaving! It’s an experience that allows you to display pride in your appearance and after which you can immediately see the results of your hard work.
Ten skincare tips
1 ALWAYS WASH YOUR FACE. It might sound obvious, but think of everything you’ve done during the day — your commute, work, the gym, cooking — can you imagine not washing your hands at all during that period? Your face is exposed to the same amount of external influences, so it’s important to remember that it also deserves a good scrub at the end of a hard day.
2 EXFOLIATION IS KEY. Women have enjoyed the benefits of exfoliation for years, but now men are also jumping onboard. Whether you have a beard or freshly shaved skin, exfoliation should be an essential part of your skincare regime. You should also use a quality face cloth to remove excess oil. Don’t be afraid of skin cleansing machines (there are some on the market for €30) and, depending on the condition of your skin and how powerful the exfoliant is, some can be used up to three days per week.
3 SHOWER EVERY DAY (OR NIGHT). Showering gets rid of the excess oil on your body, in particular around the face, neck and back where it builds up during the day. If you’re prone to breakouts, showering will help defuse the potential for new spots, which are caused by a build-up of sweat in the sebaceous glands. A warm shower will also open your pores and allow you to better reach any areas you’re cleansing.
4 ‘GENTLE’ IS ESSENTIAL. If you have sensitive skin, for example, or psoriasis, eczema or another skin condition, exfoliating can be too irritating — sometimes even water can be too much of an irritant. In this case, you should visit a dermatologist and get advice individually tailored for you. But most men should adopt a softer approach to skincare, so as not to overly irritate the skin.
5 INVESTIGATE THE QUALITY OF YOUR LOCAL WATER SUPPLY. You don’t have to become a crusader for water quality, but you can manage your expectations if you educate yourself on the effects it has on your skin. For example, if your local water supply contains lime, you would deem it undrinkable; so imagine what it’s doing to your hair and skin. Water softeners tend to be an expensive option for improving this, but shower filters are available at a more reasonable price at DIY stores.
6 GET TO KNOW YOUR MOISTURISERS. When it comes to moisturising, sometimes a gel is best. Every skin type is different, but gels provide more of a protective layer for your skin, which is an essential barrier, especially if you’re living in a city, which is more prone to pollutants. Psychologically, most of us feel that a cream goes ‘deeper’ into the skin, but unless you suffer from extremely dry skin, it’s not imperative.
7 ALWAYS USE SPF. This one has been hammered into most of us for the last few decades, but still, nearly all of us are guilty of not sticking to it on a daily basis. Every man, woman and child should wear SPF every day. If you think about it from an economical perspective, not only does it protect against UV rays, it also moisturises. So, if you’re on a tight budget, an SPF from a skincare range can be a double act for you!
8 READ THE LABEL. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get caught up in enticing marketing. Dating back to the early days of beauty, there were three types of creams available (all for women): hand cream, cold cream and face cream. Most of these products have been manoeuvred into different purposes to increase sales and it’s important to be an informed consumer. If you look at the ingredients, and an eye cream and face cream have the same elements, then there’s no need to purchase both.
9 GO NATURAL. Why does anyone need to add chemicals to a product that’s intended to naturally generate moisture? The more chemically infused products you use, the more you will need, so be mindful of exactly what you’re putting on your face. If you don’t understand more than 50pc of the ingredients, then chances are the product is more artificial than strictly necessary.
10 YOUR SKINCARE REGIME SHOULD COVER MORE THAN YOUR FACE. Investigate a body wash or gel for head-to-toe cleansing. If you have drier skin, a body wash or in-shower moisturiser can be of additional help to keep your skin feeling and looking supple.