Klara Vanova, 42, set up Barberette out of her own frustration.
As a queer woman with a passion for short hair and the art of barbering, she felt she did not belong to either men’s barbershops or women’s salons.
“I didn’t have a place where I could feel who I was,” says Vanova. “I would go into a hairdressers and they would be like, ‘you already have short hair, what do you want me to cut?’ And when I went to the barbers, I would always feel uncomfortable.”
Originally from Prague, Vanova opened her first shop in Hackney, Open Barbers, in 2011, after graduating in hairdressing from the College of North East London. The following year, she left Open Barbers to start her own business in Hackney Downs, Barberette. Both are gender-neutral barbershops fighting to create inclusive spaces beyond the gender binary.
Vanova says: “I wanted to create an environment open to everyone, where clients feel like stars when they come in, and are liked for who they are. I want them to feel like this is their space.”
Back then, Vanova thought that the barbering industry was too rigidly gendered. “If a non-binary person wants a short haircut, they want a short haircut, they don’t want a man’s haircut… If I ask for a short haircut, I want something that works on me.”
According to Vanova, communication with the client is vital. “It’s the ability to listen, the openness… You start by asking questions, what they like or don’t like about their hair, how they want to look, then you may show them pictures.”
“The consultation is very important. We don’t want to rush it or make the client feel like they are trapped. It’s a two-way communication, and we make sure the haircut fits them and who they are.”
Vanova says the aim is for clients to feel seen and this is what she loves about her job. “I do it because, from a human point of view, I know what it feels when you don’t belong… We listen to the client’s needs and we turn that need – that dream – into a reality.”
“The best part of service is when you finish a haircut and you could see the client smiling with their eyes,” says Vanova. “And then they stand, take off the gown and see themselves in the mirror and they start posing and smiling, sometimes they hug you… That is the best feeling.”
After Vanova left Open Barbers to start Barberette, she left it in the hands of directors Toddy Peters, 49, and Greygory Vass, 43.
Open Barbers was also born out of need and Greygory’s own experience as a transgender man. “Grey found that he could not get the haircut he wanted when we would go to a barbers and was turned away for being too feminine,” says Peters.
According to Open Barber’s director, stories like this are still very common today. “I remember a couple of years ago, this woman came in, she wanted a short haircut. She had been to the normal hairdressers in the area and they’d said: ‘Oh, I can’t cut your hair short like that love… You’d look like a lesbian!’ I mean, what does a lesbian look like?”
Another time, Peters brought her own kid to the local barbershop and asked them not to cut his hair too much as he wanted to grow it longer after having watched Rapunzel. “They cut it anyways, and he cried. I said: ‘He wanted it left long’ and they went, ‘That’s long for a boy’ but I never said I wanted it long for a boy, I just said long.”
“It’s still a very separated world,” says Peters. “A person who presents more female walks into a barbers because they have outgrown their undercut and want it redone? No thank you, we can’t do that because you’re not a man.”
At Open Barbers, there is no making assumptions about people’s pronouns or perceived gender. They even have a look-book drawn by artist Amy Pennington where hair sits on gender non-specific faces, with no identifying features. “That way, there’s no gender expectation for any of the hairstyles,” says Peters.
Both Vanova and Peters believe the industry is slowly evolving and unisex hairdressers are becoming more frequent. But the problem with unisex hairdressers is that they still charge different prices for men’s and women’s haircuts.
At Open Barbers and Barberette, pricing is genderless. “Men’s and women’s hair is the same, why should they pay differently?” says Peters.
“There’s barbers now working only on women… It’s great, but it’s not enough,” says Vanova. “It would be great to see more trans and non-binary people becoming hairdressers. Because if the barber never had that experience or doesn’t feel the way we feel about our hair and gender, they cannot provide the same service.”