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How the Turkish Barber Conquered Europe

By serving elaborate hammam treatments at affordable prices, Turkish entrepreneurs are beating the bearded hipsters at their own game at barber shops across Europe.
Source: Shutterstock
  • Melissa Twigg

LONDON, United Kingdom – In a crowded north London barbershop, Mustafa Albayrak whips soap into a lather with a soft brush and smooths the foamy mess over the face of a teenage boy who has been brought in by his father for his first shave. Albayrak – the owner and head barber of Altin Makas – holds a blade to the boy's cheek, deftly slices off the fluffy, adolescent beard and adds a slap of anti-acne tonic from an unmarked glass bottle.

On a plush leather chair next to him is an older man having his upper cheeks and brows threaded, his skin buffed and steamed, his nose hair trimmed, and ear hair removed with the dramatic flourish of a lit flame.

Tucked between the cocktail joints, pretentious wine bars and fashionable grooming salons that have blossomed on Stoke Newington Road, Turkish barbers such as this are thriving, and providing an important reminder of Dalston’s immigrant-heavy past. “London is the centre of everything, that’s why I came here. But everyone who works for me is from Turkey,” Albayrak explains in his mother tongue through his employee’s son, who translates.

The Turkish community has an immense work ethic and has been integral to bringing good style to the streets of the UK.

Albayrak was born in Gaziantep in southern Turkey and he learned his trade at the age of 12 at the side of his father, who owned a barber and hammam on the edge of the city. By the time he was 18, he had completed his rigorous training and was scrubbing the legs, backs and shoulders of local tradesmen; by his twenties he had followed the 20th century Turkish diaspora and taken his skills overseas, working in Amsterdam before opening Altin Makas in Dalston in 1998.

“The Turkish community has an immense work ethic and has been integral to bringing good style to the streets of the UK,” says Tamara Cincik, the British-born CEO of Fashion Roundtable, and daughter of a first-generation Turkish hairdresser. “Turks have always taken grooming and image very seriously. Men and women both go to the salon regularly to have their hair and nails done. Unlike in the UK, Turkish men don’t see grooming as un-masculine: it’s a culture based around Turkish baths, cleanliness and how you present yourself.”

While some Turkish barbershops are still found in rundown, windowless basements, others are now in sleek salons catering to men willing to part with £40 for a shave. The Ottoman Crew in London and Barbershop Kucuk Istanbul in Berlin started with a single suburban outlet and not only survived the onslaught of escalating rents in their gentrifying boroughs, but grew their brands, expanding into the plushest parts of the city – and, in the case of Nomad Barber, internationally.

Some of this growth is thanks to the global cultural resurgence around barbering and grooming products. But barbershops are also benefitting from the lack of e-commerce competition – simply put, there is no way to get a shave or haircut online. They were the fastest growing retail category in the UK in 2018, with 813 units opening in 12 months according to a report released by the Local Data Company – Ronald Nyakairu, a senior insight analyst in the company has said that those numbers are already being outstripped this year. In the US, the National Association of Barber Boards estimates that the barbershop industry will be worth $26 billion by 2020.

The Turkish shave comes with a level of care and ceremony that I think is superior to others.

Although, like all retailers, barbers that offer an experience to the Instagram generation are faring better than the rest. And while the beauty industry generally thrives on the new, male grooming has fed off a dose of nostalgia.

“The Turkish shave comes with a level of care and ceremony that I think is superior to others,” says Finlay Renwick, the deputy style editor of British Esquire. “The whole twee, Peaky Blinders-style ‘whisky in a tumbler’ and ‘Sailor Jerry tattoo’ type of barber shop feels passé now. I think there’s a desire for real heritage, craft and authenticity, not trends.”

Traditional Turkish barbers are also undeniably affordable. At Altin Makas, clients get a haircut, the full Turkish shave ritual and a cup of hot mint tea for £12. Although at the other end of the scale is The Refinery, a salon on the ground floor of a slate-grey Mayfair townhouse, which caters to style-conscious, successful men and offers ultra-modern equipment, espresso machines, bronze wall hangings and an in-house skincare range. The Refinery Shave Experience costs £69 and combines an exfoliating facial with traditional Turkish shave elements even though none of the barbers are themselves Turkish.

“We’re fine with being more expensive,” says Marcus Allen the CEO and founder The Refinery, which has a second outlet in Knightsbridge. “We don’t have a young client base; the people who come in are 37-plus. But, like most men, they are performance based. These are men are looking to take care of their needs, be it waxing, clippering, threading or lasering, without going to a women’s salon.”

A gap in the market for high-end grooming that riffs on Turkish rituals was also spotted by fashion designer Ted Baker, who took a trip to Istanbul a decade ago and was so enamoured by his traditional shave that he decided to recreate the experience in London. Today, Ted’s Grooming Room is a successful chain of 16 outlets, offering Turkish shaves across the capital’s most expensive boroughs. Some, but by no means all, of the barbers are Turkish.

“The difference between what we offer and what a traditional Turkish barber in Dalston offers [is particularly noticeable] in terms of location, environment, presentation and service,” says Muzaffer Muharremoglu, the CEO of Ted’s Grooming Room. “Our services go beyond a simple haircut or shave you would get at your local barber. It’s more of an experience.”

It is a pattern being repeated around Europe. In Amsterdam, Gentleman’s Barbershop was started a decade ago by immigrants from Ankara, and offers a shave, massage and threading for €13 (around $16). It sits on the same street as Angel Agudo, a sleek fashion boutique and café with a barber that sells a Turkish shave for more than double the price.

With Turkish barbers there's a quiet professionalism that I really appreciate.

“There’s a general respect for the craft and tradition of Turkish barbers, and brands understandably want to commodify that. But guys mostly want something simple and affordable, with minimum chat and fuss,” says Renwick. “I dread going into an expensive barber now because I know it’s going to involve 45 minutes of strained chat as an overly-familiar guy tries to justify the £30+ I’m about to spend. With Turkish barbers there’s a quiet professionalism that I really appreciate.”

This understated aspect of the service is partly because many of the older generation of barbers are Turkish-born and aren’t completely fluent in the language where they have settled. Nearly all of barbershops profiled by BoF are owned by single families who opened one outlet, invested internally and brought out new family members from Turkey to manage the expansion. “It’s a standard method of a Turkish brand,” says Cincik. “You see it in food with places like Gokyuzu, which began as a small restaurant on Green Lanes [in north London] and is now a family-owned chain. The same is happening with barbers: the family raises the money and a cousin or brother will each run and manage one outlet.”

This insular approach can sometimes lead to complications. Last August, the UK’s first child modern slavery prosecution warned that certain traditional Turkish barbers could be using slave labour. In a press conference, detective inspector Charlotte Tucker said, “There are barber shops setting up now where people live above the shop and customers pay in cash. Owners are looking to exploit workers and make money.” And while this remains a relatively rare occurrence, if the popularity of Turkish barbers continues to grow at the current rate, it could become a problem akin to the one currently faced by nail bars.

Ultimately, in an era where gentrification and e-commerce are decimating small, immigrant-run businesses, the healthy growth of Turkish barbers is undeniably positive. Not only have they risen to the challenge and moved upmarket to compete with plusher local offerings, but their exceptional service and affordable prices have allowed them to fight off some of the hipster competition. In a year of apocalyptic retail headlines, that is no mean feat.

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