Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with celebrity barber Donnie Hawley of the famous Hawleywood Barbershops in the O.C as well as lord of the Layrite, to get the scoop on his career. Donnie tells me that going to the barbershop has been a big part of his life, even at his youngest. “Growing up in an Italian household, it was the thing that I looked forward to doing with my grandpa. The camaraderie in the shop, even at a young age, I thought was very special.” When he was growing up, he went to live with his Dad at the age of twelve. His stepmother’s family had a barbershop. “I have a movie coming out this summer called There Ain’t No Shear Luck, and you’ll see of my aunts in it saying, “I’m Donnie’s aunt,” and then she would say, “Uncle”, because I always would tell people I hung around my uncles. There was always a barber chair on the patio so I started cutting my friends’ hair.”
Donnie started barber college at a school named Rosstons Barber College after a string of jobs that he wasn’t happy with and that put some real physical strain on his body. He unfortunately had to drop out of Rosstons and work for his uncle’s construction business. Fortunately, he was still cutting hair, and while doing so heard about a barber named Jake who had Elvis tattooed on his whole back – Donnie naturally decided he wanted to meet the fellow rockabilly. The two met up and Donnie wound up eventually both rooming with and working with Jake who owned his own barbering shop at the time. At the time, barbering was a dying art, and Donnie decided he had to do his part to save barbering. He, amongst numerous others, had no idea it, nor he, would become what they are today. Seventeen years ago, he opened Hawleywood’s Barbershop in a little two-chaired shop, with a third chair shoved in. It was 1999, and Donnie tells me there wasn’t much in the way of a hiring pool for barbers – no kind of social media or way to get noticed existed at the time, so Donnie got himself out there by setting up at shows in the rockabilly and punk rock scene. Soon, he was getting paged to places such as tattoo shops, car clubs and other areas in the scene, and was exposed to a lot of big names while he cut hair, such as Eric Maaske, Rancid, Tiger Army, and Social Distortion; he was quickly on the way to making a name for himself, and he brought barber Eric Webb out of retirement to help him keep up.
Donnie made his shop, as he says, “one that Al Capone would feel comfortable in” with dark brown, cream colors and other décor that hits the era precisely, such as a shoeshine stand.
His product line, called Layrite, began as an experiment with Donnie making his own pomades out of the rockabilly greaser scene. “I have super curly hair,” he explains. “I couldn’t find anything that I could get a big pomp with that would wash out. I was with an old friend and changing out her rear main seal on an old Packard, and there was sticky oil that had been there for forty or fifty years – the texture just felt like it would work in my hair, so I grabbed a Mason jar and scooped up as I could. I added in some Vaseline and Old Spice, amongst other things, and rocked up to the show with it and it worked. The only problem was the smell, but that was my first go at messing pomade.”
The name Layrite comes from an interaction Donnie had with a customer that had similar hair to his own. “I would have to use some hair spray, a round brush, roll the curl out and put my product in his hair. And he told me, “Man, you’re the only person in my whole life that’s been able to get my hair to lay right.” This was just a little shop and we had people start driving hours because I sold the product of out of the shop. No one was even on the internet at the time. I started putting it in my own cans and taking it to shows with my band friends so they could throw it out to the crowd. I would be asked by musicians to style their hair before they went on stage, and I brought my product everywhere. I started making T-shirts as well, and gave both away.”
Layrite has undoubtedly performed well, and many are still attempting to copycat its success even to this day. Donnie and Layrite have traveled around the world, and the popularity of both creator and product has helped influence a tremendous amount of barbers in the industry. “I’ve been able to travel with Layrite, and my style of barbering, to Canada for four years in a row. I influenced a bunch of guys that are now barbers, and done tours in Holland, Japan a bunch of times and Germany. I built Hawleywood’s Barbershop in Australia with some youngsters that I influenced – we did that, a bit of Fashion Week in Brazil and even hanging out with Iggy Pop. It’s just been unbelievable.” Donnie recounts how he has had many people write him, hug him, and just generally thank him for inspiring them to get into the barbering industry. Donnie stands to possibly be inducted into the Barbering Hall of Fame, and it is not hard to see why.
As is standard in the states, Donnie follows the west coast style of barbering in that his own style is more traditional. “I don’t use the word fade. I always say taper, and low and tight, high and tight, flattop, flattop with fenders, and pompadours. Everything is done with three outlines and a straight razor. We brought that back, and I had to teach my friends that I thought were good enough to do all those things. Now, they are making a living and really making money at what is a hobby for all of us. Real barbering is very important to me.”
Donnie tells me that he was lucky enough to go out to Japan with Sid from Sid’s Tattoo Parlor in Santa Ana. Sid tattooed while Donnie cut hair. “We had a little festival there, a little car show,” he explains. “I plugged in my clippers and the voltage was totally different than what we use here. There was a half-circle of all these photographers waiting for me to step up – I’m all confident. I plug in my clippers and they start smoking and making the loudest noise you’d ever heard. I had to have one of the guys there run to a drugstore just to get me a set of clippers. It was tense, to say the least.” Incidents like these are the very reason I invented the Frequency60hz and try to get it out there, so barbers can use their equipment in any country they please.
“Wahl in Japan made a clipper that is cordless and lasts nine hours,” he continues. “I couldn’t believe it! I met with them there and they’re going to etch my name on the cordless Wahls. Now, I could cut hair on top of Mount Fuji if I wanted to. There’s another clipper out there that I like to use, the Andis Ceramic. Its real quiet and I use a five lock or a surgical attachment on there to do my outlines. You don’t need cords anymore, and it is awesome!”
Donnie used to work from 9:00 in the morning to 5:00pm, a solid eight hours. That recently has taken a bit of a backseat while he has been filming a documentary about his life, the aforementioned There Ain’t No Shear Luck. “The title comes from my journey and the difficulty I experienced. I did all of this before social media, and I got made fun of. I’m self-taught and I’ve had barbers that were friends that I’ve taught, I’ve traveled a good part of the world, I was in a hundred magazines, and I’ve influenced a lot of people – all of this before social media. I got lucky and got into a bunch of these magazines that popped up like Ol’ Skool Rodz, Custom Culture and Viva Las Vegas. Going from being the only barbershop booth at a show and the only pomade booth for years to a bunch of booths and tons of people out there doing it, it’s just important that I stand up for real barbering. There’s a lot of people out there masquerading as barbers. They’ll get sleeves, tattoos, and they’ll call themselves barbers when they aren’t. This whole documentary is about my life and my journey, and it’s been a long haul. It should be out by the summer of 2016.”
He also shares a bit on accomplishing his traditional barber showcase. “I would go to a lot of shows, and even a lot of the barber shows that started popping up were real urban, lots of hip-hop pounding in my ear. It was fine, it just wasn’t my style. I wanted to do a traditional showcase, where Dean Martin is playing in the background and everyone is in suits and looking classy. The competition categories were different: the flattop category, the pompadour category, high and tight. We bit off more than we can chew doing it, I think, at The Grove in Anaheim, but we loved it. It was a big accomplishment to be able to throw a traditional barber showcase and I brought in a lot of my favorite barbers and literally put them on pedestals. When you walked in, you would see four barbers on all four corners of the auditorium, and then Vicky Tafoya and the Big Beat, classy bands playing. It was truly amazing to do.”
Asked about education via himself and other sources, Donnie elaborates, “There’s an apprenticeship that fortunately exists in California. You can either for to barber college for ten months straight, forty hours a week or you can apprentice under a master barber for two years, and there you’re developing skills and earning money while you learn. That’s a good route to go for a young guy who is starting out and wanting to be a barber. If you want to be a traditional barber, do not go to cosmetology school. It takes a lot of haircuts, and you’ll make all your mistakes in barber college. There’s no mistakes when you get out on the floor in my shop, and I’m sure it is becoming more competitive now. It’s good to see everyone putting their hands down and letting some of the trade secrets out. When you take the time it takes as a youngster to learn those skills, everyone is self-taught. In my shops, I show them what I do, and they take that and apply their own touch. I don’t let my guys even cut hair for three months if they’re apprenticing, and so they watch my processes for that time. In short, either get into a good barber college if you’re young, and can afford to not be paid, or find a place that will really teach you the skills you need.”
Donnie ends on an inspiring note when it comes to barbering, and advice to aspiring barbers. “You’re changing lives. There’s a saying, a certain mythology to the barbershop experience: once the relationship is forged between a barber and a patron, it will outlast friendships and some of the strongest marriages. Barbering is a trade that takes a lot of skill and time to learn, so if you’re young and starting out, do whatever you can to learn – find a good master, or a good college, and don’t be afraid of the hair. It’s getting a little saturated, so you need to find the right person and the right school. That changed my life, and in doing so, changed a lot of people’s lives.” Truly inspiring words from an inspiring barber, and an inspiring man.
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