Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Damian Owen of Elite London town Barbers, to get his backstory, plans for the future and his insight into the barbering industry. Asked about his beginnings, Damian tells me, “I got into barbering by accident. At twelve years old, I had cut my hair for the first time on my own – had it all shaved off to a number two. My mum didn’t like it, she slapped the barber, and that’s the quick version. Three months later, I was getting my hair cut again and I was offered a Saturday job. Started that and I eventually got offered an apprenticeship as a lather boy, and I loved it.” He smiles and adds some sage insight, “You don’t just do barbering. It’s the Billy Elliot of the industry: we’ve got to become boxers, and I didn’t want to be a boxer. I like the industry. My grandfather refused to even acknowledge me as a barber, so there’s that. I carried on doing it through a seven year apprenticeship, the old school way: long hours, hard work, but it is worth everything.”
As for his inspiration, Damian quotes his family as well as the people that believed in him every step of the way. “People like you, Larry,” he tells me. “You inspire me, because for you to get up and come over here at this time in the morning, it gives me inspiration. People don’t understand me, but they inspire me, because when they don’t understand me it means I’m doing my job right. There’s lads out there who are fans of mine, and I’m fans of them as well. Adam Sloan and the Feds, they’re good lads. Pat Barry, Phil Jarman, Kev the K Way; all these boys out there that most know. You do a show, and the people who watch it inspire me to do it again. You keep fighting the good fight, fighting all the people who try and rip you off, or put you down, that inspires me. My family, my son, they inspire me.”
Damian hasn’t always been a barber, mind. He explains that he started as a barber and, just before her turned eighteen, he became a bouncer. “Old school one,” he tells me. “The kind to proper throw you out and not ask questions. I was a bouncer, then a debt collector, court bailiff, a bodyguard – all official. I actually got a license. That was when my grandfather actually respected me because it was a man’s job.” Needless to say, his grandfather had some pretty unfavorable views of barbering. “I loved being a bouncer but it really ruined my life,” Damian continues. “As a barber, you’re not aggressive. You’re aggressive passive, you’re a therapist. The only similarity between the two is the head. You move out of the way and you move his head out of the way.” Damian is one badass barber, I think most can agree. I certainly wouldn’t want to be an unruly client in his shop.
“What made me get back into barbering properly full time was a spat with my family. Because what I was doing was wrong to them, I lost my passion in the industry. I thought to myself, “You know what? I want my family back. I want to show my missus, my children what a real man I am.” The real man being angry and aggressive – that just wasn’t me. Barbering is lovely. If you keep barbering, don’t do anything else.”
Damian has a philosophy when it comes to barbering that goes beyond his words of wisdom here. Asked to explain it, he tells me, “The style, at the moment, is very old school. Every haircut we do is a variation of short back and sides. It’s all about trying to go back to where we were and improve on it. There’s some lads out there and some of their work is amazing, but there’s no finesse in it. You can’t just be a one-trick pony. You have to know how to do every haircut in the book, and its one haircut. It’s the variations that matter. I see Kev Vorley doing a psycho rockabilly haircut. Then, all of a sudden, I see a nice, long, flowing haircut with a bit of curls in it. That’s what it is all about. The diversity of where you can put and push yourself. Point is: with anyone who sits in my chair, I don’t care what that customer thinks. I care what their wife and kids think. What their Nan thinks, what the women on the street looking at them think and, lastly, what they think. I want women to jump on them when they leave my shop.” A simple philosophy for a barber that likes to keep things simple.
The same applies when it comes to the services he offers in his shop. “I’m a traditional barber, I don’t touch hair with my hands. The service is about face steaming for me, as a traditionalist. Everyone calls face steaming a new thing, but it’s not. When I started out, we had a gas cooker at the back of the building and an outside toilet. You’d put the older kettle on the hob, boil the water, put it into the sink and you just put your head over it and steam your face. The service isn’t new, but the technology has evolved to help us out.” Face steaming, facial peels, eyebrow trims as well as nostril hair and ear hair is all part of the package for Damian, and it certain runs alongside his philosophy of making sure a man looks ready for a night on the town as soon as they leave the shop. Aromatherapy oils and hot towel shaves also coincide: clients leave looking good, smelling good and feeling good.
The entirety of this package comes to 87 quid total in my private room. I ask Damian to break down where he got his figure. “We do a shave, that’s an hours work, I’ll do a haircut, that’s 45 minutes work. I can do a haircut in 7 minutes. Work that out, 7 minutes a haircut is like hold on, that’s 50 quid an hour, 60 quid an hour, 70 quid an hour. We try for 20 minutes haircuts so we charge £12 for a haircut. It’s 36 quid, 2 hours, 60, 72 quid. Obviously, we’ve got other things we do as well so you just put the price and it works right. 2 hours of my time, I know I can earn a lot of money in 2 hours. Yeah, we are the most expensive barbers in Devon, so I don’t mind that.” He tells me. I share my amazement in how he markets his business, having noticed previously that he was not big on social media marketing, which is popular with the vast majority of barbers. Damian tells me, “Barbers on social media are forgetting one thing: social media does not pay your business. If you’re in your local town, what am I going to get out of that? A mile and a half radius of people coming in and the rest who are not going to come.” He admits that he is slightly wrong on the status, but notes that it is people who travel to the town that make the most of that figure, as well as people who come exclusively to see him. “I do get people from London come and see me. I’ve got people from Cornwall, I’ve got people from America come and see me, as examples. Being on social media does help, but you’ve got to be good. You’ve got to have the panache, that sparkle, that flare, that make people want to come and see you, what you do. Social media can help you, but I think social media helps us as barbers to actually keep in communication.”
Damian feels the major drawback to social media is ultimately the negativity it can induce in people. “At the moment, social media can be a bad thing, because there’s too many people that are having a dig at other people because they’re in the same industry. Don’t understand it. If you look at what I do on Facebook, I don’t insult people, I don’t put people down. I’ll give you a critique on a haircut. Some don’t like my professional critique, but I’ve been doing it for a long time, so II feel I have a right to give you that critique if you’re going to put it out there. If people get offended when people put critiques on there about their work then don’t put it out there.”
His opinions on social media are strong, without a doubt. They may be even stronger on the subject of education. “I’m ashamed of the way the education is for our industry,” he sighs. “A lot of these colleges are run by the government, and they’re only concerned with the people who pass, regardless if they are any good or not. I failed a lot of people and was told I couldn’t do that because they needed to pass. They tell you that if students don’t pass, you won’t receive a grant next year. That’s wrong on so many levels – you’re giving them a sense of false hope and confidence that they can properly do their jobs. You see what these lads can do and think, “Jesus Christ, what are you doing?!” They can’t cut hair, and you’ve got to tell a lad who’s just come out of prison – I’ve had lads come out of prison and we’ve trained them – who is down already that they can’t do the job they were trained for. Now what will they do? They’ll usually go right back to crime unless people like me take them on. I strive to make them better, stronger, to make them want to do this job right. In short, the quality of the education is awful.” He adds, “I had a conversation with Simon Shaw yesterday and there was something on a Facebook or Twitter page about education. I watch you, Larry, doing education about clippers, Andis clippers, not about cutting hair.” I admit that I can’t cut hair and Damian answers, “You can’t cut hair, so I don’t watch you to learn about cutting hair. I watch you to be educated on clippers. I go and see Simon Shaw and I’ll watch him talk about clippers. He’s telling me to use these clippers because they do this or that beneath the hair. He doesn’t go, “We’re getting this here for the sake of passing or graduating”. He’s saying to you, “Look at these clippers: what they are doing, how they work. The graduating is doing itself. He’s educating you about clippers. Andis is doing the same thing. Kevin Vorley goes on stage and you see him with the clippers, we can hear it, it he brings all that. That’s the education about your tools and equipment which we all need.”
“Education about how we do our trade I’ve not seen one barbering course in Devon that shows any worth. When we get people with us, we do a quick, twelve week course. You’ve got to be NVQ level 2 to do it with me. If someone comes in and goes, “I’ve got no education, I want to do this, I want to be a barber,” don’t come to me and expect me to get you twelve weeks. You have to have the foundation knowledge first. If you’ve got that foundation, then twelve weeks is easy because it’s just giving you basic, simple rules to follow to be a better barber.”
Damian is also known for having a range of wet products. Asked about them, Damian tells me that he offers: wave, clay, creams – still keeping it simple. “We use the old guild crest because it spells simplicity, as well as numbering the products: we just ask blokes what the number of the product is. One is a pomade, two is wax, three is cream, four is clay, our sculpting shaper, which we call Stiff, is five, and then you have ten, which is our hairspray. We don’t do gel for now because there is so many out there already, and it’s not really in. We are working with a new product that is basically body stuff. The reason I’ve gone with it is that it is basically 3 in 1, again, simple.” The name of the brand for the product is line is the exact same as the shop, Elite London Town Barbers. “Wax is wax, you’ve got your clay, then obviously Stiff, then Starch. It’s like Starch mate, simple terminology. People say, “Oh, what branding is this?” It’s what we sell here. You ask a bloke, “Well, where did it come from?” “It comes from the shop that I get me haircut.” Nice and easy.”
As for the shows planned for 2016, Damian relates that he’ll be attending Barber Connect soon, where his boys will be going out on stage as the “Gentleman Scoundrels” (Johnny Baba would love that). He reveals that he really doesn’t run the shows under the Elite London Town Barbers name, rather, the Elite Training Barber Academy. It’s going to be quite a feat to have so many barbers on stage, close to two-hundred, Damian says, over a two day period, all displaying talents and educating those in attendance. “If you’re a barber, just be a barber and serve your area. You go and do shows, it’s just money, no one’s making nothing out of it, and you’re not going to make no money out of it. NEC, we’ve got the gowns we’re going to sell to people coming on their stage and we’re going to say, “Look, we want 20 quid or £25.” We don’t know yet, but that’s not for us, that’s to go to prostate cancer.” NEC is, without a doubt, a big event, and Damian reveals that they’ll be working with Steve from Custom Belmont’s, as well as the M Feds, K Way, Panama Barbers, as well as Ben Davis, who is a big inspiration for Damian.
With a bit of a laugh, he tells me, “It’s funny. I used to do a lot of model shoots for a company called Blue Ink, which is a clothing company. This is years back and the man that started it is a mate of mine. I actually learned a lot about hairdressing. Seeing the creativity they had, I thought “I can bring this flare into my own work”. It’s, as you say, filling in the gaps that can really help you.” He isn’t certain if he will be doing Sun International this year, feeling he would like to attend but isn’t certain in what aspect they would attend as well as the considerable price.
On my final, split question, I ask on his view of the state of British barbering. “At a shoot I did with the M Feds, they went round and they said to you, “Get registered.” Yeah, go out there and get registered but this is conflicting. I believe we should be registered, but I will not get registered because I do not believe the way it’s ready, with the way it is currently working. The foundation for it is not ready. It’s really controversial because people are going, “Oh, I back getting registered.” We should all be registered, we should all have that registration there, we should have the standards there, and we should have all them. Guess what? It’s not in place. I was invited to a think tank to ask questions of the council. I’ve got more questions to ask. I’m simple, so when there’s more questions for me to ask, I feel there’s things that are not being answered properly. There’s too many hidden agendas in my eyes. It should not be hidden. If you want the standards raised it has to be open for all of us to watch, all of us to understand, all of us to learn because, at the moment, it’s not. You’ve got people that go, “Oh, well you’ve got to do it our way.” Well, I can’t do it your way because that’s not the way I was trained. I feel people out there are wanting to be registered to make money and become famous – that’s just not on. There has to be a foundation to build on, but no one wants to be involved in it because, guess what? We’ve got no educational standards.”
I thank Damian for his interview with me and inviting down to his shop. I tell him that Larry the Barberman is soon going to be on the boxes for clippers and Damian tells me, “Damn right I’ll buy those.” Wherever this old school, badass barber goes, I know he’ll be out there keeping it real and keeping it simple.
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