Men like to get facials too. Only they are not comfortable doing it at a unisex salon, says Istayak Ansari, director at Lloyds Luxuries. This knowledge encouraged him and fellow director Krishna Gupta to bring Truefitt & Hill to India. Some years ago, while studying in the UK, Gupta had had his first thoroughly professional shave at a men's barber shop. The experience has convinced him that the London-based luxury barber shop chain would find a market in India as a place where men can be unabashedly vain.
Founded in 1805, Truefitt & Hill has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest existing barber shop in the world. Back in the day, it boasted clients such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra and members of the British royal family. Its barbers continue to cater to royalty, including regular visits to Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace to groom the Duke of Edinburgh. Lloyds Luxuries has the franchise licence to open stores in India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.
A barber's pole with blue white and red swirls stands at the entrance of the first outlet which opened in Mumbai a week ago. At 1,500 square foot, the shop at Khar looks about as big as most upscale salons. But there are fewer chairs and the decor is consistent with international shops - beige walls, prim grey wallpaper and brown wooden furniture - the sort of setting in which one might expect to see male characters from Mad Men or Downton Abbey.
Actor Ashmit Patel walks in dressed in fashionably faded clothing and glares, heading straight to the exclusive VIP area. The room with blinds, a shaving area, a manicure chair and a personal television is reserved for clients who seek greater privacy. In the branding phase, Ansari has been inviting film and TV stars, company executives and police officers to experience the new service. Also part of the outlet is a gift shop with ornate shaving kits, cigars from Cuba and the Dominican Republic, shoes, leather accessories and ice-making machines. A second shop will open in Colaba next.
India makes for an attractive market. Last year, the male vanity business grew 21 per cent to log Rs 3,800 crore and more players are expected in the segment, according to Euromonitor data. Ansari says Truefitt & Hill is targeted at customers 35 years and above who have adequate spending power.
Two master barbers, Genovel Rusu and Thom Robins, have been flown in from London. When they leave next month, 10 local barbers trained by them will take over. Unlike at trendier salons, customers in a barber shop typically prefer styles that are "conservative," says Rusu, before altering the adjective to "classic and aristocratic". His interest in hairdressing began when he was a student of modern dance in Romania. "The local shops did such a bad job. I would come back with uneven sideburns every time," he says. He began cutting his own hair, trying styles that did not exist. "Back then, I had hair," chuckles Rusu, patting his bare head.
Working for royalty is not a daunting task, say the visiting barbers, because "they are lovely people". There is a lot to learn from the way they carry themselves, says Rusu. Some of this learning is being passed on to barbers here, who are told to not merely shave but "groom" the men. Local trainees have good hands, says Robin, but they still have to develop an eye for quality and the art of making the customer comfortable.
The royal shave is one of the specialities here. It begins with exfoliation and softening of the beard with creams and repeated hot towel treatments. When the beard is finally shaved, there is no pain. It costs around Rs 1,200, while a haircut sets you back Rs 1,600-2,000. The same services in UK would cost the equivalent of Rs 6,000-10,000, Gupta points out.
Abhijith Mandya, a food scientist by profession, tries a "royal" haircut and is impressed with the attention to detail. Robins' tattooed hands - one bearing the image of scissors and the other a barber's knife - move in circles over the head, snipping astonishingly small clumps of hair at a time. The process lasts about an hour, intermittently punctuated with conversation. Indian hair is usually coarse and gives the barber a chance to be creative about how to layer it. The emphasis is on leisure and relaxation. Mandya reckons this is not a service for those in a hurry.
Gupta is confident that this old-world concept will find a niche away from the roadside barbers, yuppie salons and the services offered at five-star hotels. "It was a neglected segment. People want to be treated like royals," he says.