Tuesday 17 September 2019

Can men make the cut?

Writer Eoin Butler swapped his usual home-grown haircut for a high-end 'girlie' salon experience, complete with Prosecco and a price-tag to match

A cut above: Eoin Butler is treated to a glass of Prosecco at Brown Sugar before getting a trim from stylist Debbie Carr. Photo: Tony Gavin
A cut above: Eoin Butler is treated to a glass of Prosecco at Brown Sugar before getting a trim from stylist Debbie Carr. Photo: Tony Gavin

Eoin Butler

If reports this week are to be believed, Ireland's Department of Health may soon introduce new regulations that would outlaw the practice of high end hair salons offering complimentary alcoholic drinks, like gin and tonic or Prosecco, to their customers. This action would follow similar crackdowns in the UK and New Zealand earlier this year.

On the face of it, this might seem a heavy handed overreaction to a problem no one is quite sure actually exists. Anecdotal evidence suggests that customers at the salons (and barber shops) who offer this service, by and large, choose not to take it up. And those who do, tend to limit themselves to one drink.

Reaction to the story online similarly seemed to suggest not everyone was taking the Department's proposed initiative very seriously. Broadcaster Louise McSharry tweeted: "Yes, because THIS is at the root of problematic drinking in Ireland." Another Twitter user Mari McMillan commented, tongue-in-cheek: "I'm sick of being trampled and vomited on by crazed-looking women as they lurch out of salons screeching and cackling and being leery."

As the mini-controversy played out in print, on the airwaves and on social media, many important points of view were noted from salon owners, their customers, alcohol counsellers, psychotherapists and advocates of responsible drinking. But there was one key constituency whose viewpoint the media somehow neglected to canvas. And that was my own personal demographic - completely disinterested bald men - which may explain why I was dispatched to the Brown Sugar hair salon on South William Street in Dublin to investigate.

After all, if the ladies were boozing while personal grooming, then what else might be going on at the hairdressers?

I was welcomed by senior stylist Debbie Carr. My coat was taken and I was offered a glass of Prosecco, which I accepted in the name of research. I was shown to a seat and handed a newspaper to read. There were four customers being attended to, all well-heeled women over the age of 35, all drinking mineral water.

Assistant Helen Sweeney washes Eoin's hair. Photo: Tony Gavin
Assistant Helen Sweeney washes Eoin's hair. Photo: Tony Gavin

I picked up the paper and studiously avoided making eye contact with any of them. Things seemed calm for now, but I've seen enough Danny Dyer documentaries to know that, in volatile environments such as this, trouble could kick off at any moment.

My appointment opened with a consultation. Debbie talked me through it. "This is where we would discuss what we're going to do with your hair," she explained. "You might want to tweak your colour a bit or your style."

I noticed some magazines lying around. Do people ever bring in photos of celebrity haircuts they want to copy? "Of course," Debbie replied. "Images are great because it's really hard for people to explain what they want sometimes. Obviously, if it's unrealistic, we'll say it's not going to work for your hair type. But we can compromise and get as close to the image as we can."

What about me personally, I asked? What options do I have? I was guessing, pretty much, none. "Pretty much," she laughed. "But, you know, you could always put in a bit of colour, or bleach it up, do something crazy like that."

Blade runner: Debbie Carr shaves Eoin Butler’s head as he enjoys a drink at Brown Sugar. Photo: Tony Gavin
Blade runner: Debbie Carr shaves Eoin Butler’s head as he enjoys a drink at Brown Sugar. Photo: Tony Gavin

She asked about my normal haircare routine. I told her I owned an electronic razor. Why shell out ¤10, when you can cut your own hair for free? I enquired what an appointment at Brown Sugar might cost a person. Depending on the service provided, she replied, anywhere between €90 and €250. Holy crap! Forget free drinks. At those prices, customers should be offered complimentary overnight stay and breakfast.

In the therapy room, Helen Sweeney rinsed my head with a Dermal scalp shampoo. "We'd usually use this on men because it's nice and cleansing and most of them don't have a preference." Do many men visit hair salons? "Of course, all the time," she replied. "Businessmen, all sorts." I told Helen I'd visited a barber in Juarez, Mexico this summer who'd taken a blow torch to my ear hair. "Oh my God," she laughed. My self-confidence has been rock bottom ever since. I've really gotten a complex.

She noticed my Prosecco was empty and asked if I wanted a top up. Why not, I replied. Now we were having fun.

Back outside in the salon, Debbie tried to sell me on embracing the whole experience. "Everybody has a thing," she enthused, as she trimmed my hair with a razor. "Everybody has something that's their thing they do as a treat for themselves. For some people, it's the gym. For some people, it could be football. So why can't it be coming to a salon? It's designed to relax. We've never had anybody come here who hasn't left saying 'Oh my God, that was amazing. I feel so great!'"

I noticed some flecks of grey in my beard. What's the prognosis, doc? How long had I got? Five years? Ten years? Six months? "We won't put a time span on it. Besides, a lot of men are letting it go grey these days." The Gary Lineker look? "Exactly, you can enhance the grey and get that kind of steely grey. It looks really well. Probably a lot better than the salt and pepper look. We offer a whole range of services like eyebrow threading..."

Eyebrow threading? "You know, where we clean up your eyebrows using a specific thread. For women, it's more about brow shape. For men, it's more about taking care of the eyebrow. We clean off all the downy bits of hair."

I had to ask her about the salon's alcohol policy. "When Brown Sugar opened up first, we were one of the first salons to offer hair and make-up as an option. Then, I suppose, we wanted to take it to another level, to make it quite exclusive. So we started offering Prosecco. More recently, we added gin."

What percentage of customers would take up the offer? "Maybe 40pc would take an alcoholic drink. But even of that 40pc, half the time, when their service is finished they haven't finished the drink." Had she ever witnessed any boozy antics among her customers? Verbals? Argy-bargy? Ripping up furnishings to use as missiles when they feel the haircut has gone against them? "Never, ever, ever. Honestly, I'm here 12 years. We get bridal parties in - it's nice to be offered a glass of Prosecco. Most people are happy to be offered it. But for the most part, they don't take it."

I made my excuses and left. Her clients may have been on their best behavior, but I was ready to go off the rails - I knew a nail salon that did lock-ins. If I hurried, they might just squeeze me in.

Irish Independent

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