London's leading luxury barber for a five-star shave
I’d like to say I was some kind of visionary and that I could see the boom in male grooming coming,” says Joanna Broughton, “but the truth is that I could just see the value in the business, in a company that was the first in its field, and which is still going. I was impressed by the history – and that’s something that money can’t buy.”
Broughton is the co-owner of St James’s barbering institution Truefitt & Hill, which she and her husband Alan bought some 20 years ago as part of the family’s portfolio of business interests. Back then, the idea of male grooming was still considered slightly effete, for ‘metrosexuals’. Truefitt & Hill was, to many, just another central London barber’s shop, albeit, by some accounts, the very oldest of barber’s shop still in operation – established in 1805. Dickens dubbed it “the excellent hairdresser’s” and the barber counts the likes of Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and Winston Churchill among its illustrious former clients. Churchill was a regular – and to honour his death in 1965 the business closed its doors for the day.
A lot has changed since then: male grooming has become one of the fastest-growing markets in the beauty industry, and Truefitt & Hill operates more than 40 stores around the world, in locations from Canada to South Korea, Singapore to Azerbaijan, with two more branches, one in Prague, one in Melbourne, opening later this year.
Buying the company might have seemed a “strange decision back then,” says Broughton, who has a business background in interior design and lifestyle publishing, “because the male grooming market hardly existed. But it was a question of the potential one could see in it. Things move in and out of fashion and yet Truefitt & Hill still was, and still is, successful. There was this core of men – over generations, in fact – who had always supported it, who went to it because their fathers did, and their fathers before them.”
That might make Truefitt & Hill sound rather ‘establishment’, like another wood-panelled club with plenty of portraits of dead dignitaries and colognes and badger brushes in the toilettes – which is just how the St James’s branch looks. It’s a long way from the dynamic, nightclubby atmosphere of contemporary barbering brands. But Truefitt & Hill’s wilfully traditional atmosphere is perhaps what’s to be expected from what was once the court wigmaker and court hairdresser to King George III, King George IV, King William IV and Prince Albert, from a barber’s that regularly featured in the novels of Thackeray and in the gossip of Punch. Hardly surprisingly, it still holds a Royal Warrant.
But, far from any perceived stuffiness putting people off, this, Broughton suggests, is the secret of Truefitt & Hill’s appeal. “I think there’s this resurgence of interest in nostalgia now – that sense that the ‘old days’ were better than today, an idea that’s not accurate but which has deep appeal. It’s something heritage brands have played on, of course – that sense of solidity,” she argues. “Globalisation has robbed many urban environments of diversity and people are getting tired of the monotony of seeing the same shops offering the same goods wherever they go. That’s driving people towards smaller brands, but especially smaller, historic ones because they often embody certain values – brands that feel real rather than put together by a PR agency.”
All the same, Broughton concedes, these are tough times for any shopkeeper – given high rents, the economy, online shopping and the monopolisation that’s playing out in many sectors. Certainly Truefitt & Hill isn’t above playing to its Britishness if it appeals to the local customer. Much as, historically, it offered fragrances with names like The Choice of the Rifle Brigade, The Royal London Yacht Club and Aldershot Bouquet, now in its US and Indian branches customers can get a Royal Shave or the Buckingham Palace Service.
“If you offered either of those to a customer in St James’s they’d think you were insane,” says Broughton, who was born and raised in Poland and so can speak with something of an outsider viewpoint. “It’s just not subtle or discreet enough for the London customer. But Brand UK is still a strong one, and while that association between Englishness and gentlemanliness and refinement might be a stereotype, there’s an element of truth to it that still appeals, even to the English.”
Coping with change is, in a sense, what the male grooming industry is all about now. When a new-fangled contraption called the motorcar became all the rage, Truefitt & Hill offered C.A.R., a product formulated to keep windswept drivers’ hair in place; when beards were in fashion – no, the urban lumberjacks of Shoreditch didn’t get there first – Truefitt & Hill sold what it called a ‘cosmetique stick’ to help keep the face furniture in good order; when, at the turn of the 20th century, pedicures and manicures became, finally, treatments men would consider, it offered those as well. According to company legend, when Truefitt & Hill manicurist Christine Drew helped cure one client of his nail-biting habit, he gratefully bought her a house on Cheyne Walk; and when longer hair came in for men, with the mid 1950s and the advent of the ‘teenager’, Truefitt & Hill didn’t down scissors, but embraced the new styles, even if it sighed in relief a little when the short back and sides returned. Some men, at least, have always pondered their pompadour.
“What really surprises me still is how little men know about shaving, given that many of them do it every day. I think it’s a product of a rushed world in which we’re always grabbing at the fastest solution. Perhaps it even explains the resurgence of the beard,” says Broughton. “But whatever the current styles, being well-groomed has, I think, always been fashionable, and especially now that men don’t typically think being well-presented is any threat to their masculinity.”
Yet it would be a shame if Truefitt & Hill, or any of the traditional barber’s shops, were to get too contemporary in their outlook. The shamanic talents often ascribed to the very earliest barbers – in some tribes the cutting of hair was considered a holy act that drove out evil spirits – have given way to the role of the confidante, in what has been, and remains, arguably, the only male sanctuary sanctioned by society at large.
It’s where, after all, a barber might once have asked sir if he required ‘something for the weekend’ – the connotations of which are perhaps now lost on younger generations, let alone Generation Z. These days, barbers are more likely to dispense a head massage. Yet, while providing an improved appearance may be the ostensible function of barber’s shops, they’re also – as snooker halls and football terraces used to be – a temporary break from womankind, as fragrant as that may be.
“You get used to the masculinity of the Truefitt & Hill environment,” laughs Broughton, speaking as a woman in a very male world (though, in the Victorian era, Truefitt & Hill launched one of the first ladies’ salons). “There’s a certain feel to it, a special atmosphere. Going into our London branch is like walking into one of St James’s clubs – and I remember going with my husband into one of those to find that women weren’t even allowed in certain rooms. We’re not like that. If a woman came in and wanted a haircut, then of course we’d be happy to give her one. But none have come in yet. We probably wouldn’t offer a shave. We don’t do legs.”