Pin It
Felix Lane & Greygory Vass, directors of Open BarbersPhotography Joanna Kiely

How to challenge the gender binary in beauty

London-based salon service Open Barbers provides a queer friendly hairdressing service that puts the clients first and charges what you can afford

Despite the huge rise in recognition for gender fluidity during 2015, there's still a lot of work to be done. With LGBTQI nightlife venues closing left right and centre, sometimes it can feel like the physical queer community is fading quickly. More so, the gap between prominent transgender stories – such as Caitlyn Jenner's – and the reality of living life as a trans person is a widening gap, with reports of trans deaths and saddening statistics appearing on our news feeds all too often. With identity and image often hugely important in discovering your identity as an LGBTQI person, it can often be a daunting experience to explore subverting gender identity in a culture that rewards rigid beauty roles and categorises all products with a male/female divide. 

Open Barbers are one organisation challenging these gendered norms. Offering pay-what-you-can haircuts aimed at LGBTQI people, directors Felix Lane and Greygory Vass are combatting the exclusion of queer people from the beauty industry by offering the community a safe and supportive space to experiment with self-image. Their current salon also doubles up as a meet-up space, with free tea and coffee and a zine library. In the midst of their current crowdfunder campaign for a new permanent home, we asked co-director Felix Lane to break down what it takes to create an accessible, affordable, queer friendly hair salon. 


“In a lot of hairdressing salons, the aim is to make a large profit, and because of this appointments can be rushed with as many people as possible being squeezed into the day. This can leave clients feeling like they have handed over control of their appearance, like they can’t ask for a slower pace, or to have any input as the haircut progresses. All our appointments are at least an hour long, which allows time for a more in depth consultation process. Often clients are pretty nervous to even be in a hairdressers, they may feel self conscious facing the mirror, they’ve had bad experiences in the past, or they want a big change but perhaps feel like they haven’t been able to ask for it until now. Having a haircut is an intimate thing; the hairdresser and client are physically close to each other, which for some people isn’t easy. We check in throughout the appointment, to make sure that things are going in the right direction. We want people to feel like they are completely in charge of the haircut experience, not like we are experts who will just do whatever we think, but rather people with a skill set that can facilitate whatever the client really wants.”

“Success for us is about making space for everyone to feel affirmed and taken care of, rather than being purely profit driven or charitable in nature”– Felix lane


“The sorts of images that are popular in the hairdressing industry are often of skinny white models with impossible to replicate hair. We try to use pictures of all different types of bodies and genders, as well as photos of our own clients, to hopefully provide everyone with images they can relate to and identify with. It’s hard to move through the world and never see anyone that looks like you, or how you want to be, and this is especially true for queer and trans people. We have a handmade look book that goes from short to long, rather than being divided by gender, and we use non-gendered language to describe the styles that people might want. Sometimes people describe their haircuts in terms of a feeling or a texture, rather than using technical hairdressing language, and we are very much on board with this. If you want your haircut to feel like wood chip and seaweed, or if you want an island of curls atop your head (as some have requested), then that’s what we will do.”


“At Open Barbers, people pay what they can. This is one of the founding principles of our work; we have always had and will always have a sliding scale pricing policy. It’s really important for us to challenge the idea that only a capitalist system can make you a living. We can cover rent, salon costs, and pay ourselves a living wage on what clients give us. We ask for anything between 10 and 40 pounds, and 5 times a week offer appointments between £2 - £10 for those who need it. There’s a tin in the salon where you pay, so that people don’t feel self-conscious about handing us the money. This system relies on everyone being honest about their own financial situations, and genuinely giving what they are able to. We see the sliding scale as a way of redistributing community resources, rather than giving things away. It’s not always easy and we have to fill all our appointments for it to be possible, but we want to continue to build a community of mutual support. Success for us is about making space for everyone to feel affirmed and taken care of, rather than being purely profit driven or charitable in nature.”

"It’s hard to move through the world and never see anyone that looks like you, or how you want to be, and this is especially true for queer and transgender people"– Felix Lane


“We are interested in building a community space that is non-hierarchical, free to be in, and not centered on alcohol or drugs. Queer socialising spaces can often be nights out, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not something everyone is comfortable with all the time. Large crowds of people, alcohol, drugs, or loud music can be hard to handle for some people, so we want to provide a different type of space to be in. Some of the conversations that come up at the salon are sensitive, personal and sometimes challenging so we prioritise making time and thinking about the safety of our space for these conversations to happen. The natural interactions that occur between clients and friends who gather at the salon can be so important for people trying to find out information about queer issues, transitioning, and queer resources in London, and those conversations can’t happen as easily on a night out.”

Open Barbers are currently fundraising for a permanent home in Hackney. To raise the funds required they're throwing a fundraiser featuring bands, DJs, a zine fair and more at DIY space for London this Saturday 9th of January, info on the event can be found here. You can also find more information on their crowdfunder here.