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buller & rice salon hair cut coronavirus London
Courtesy of Buller & Rice

This is what a post-lockdown haircut looks like


TextLouise Whitbread

After being given the green light to open from July 4, we investigate the measures salons are taking to keep their clients and employees safe

I’m sitting in a chair at Walthamstow-based salon, Buller & Rice, wearing a cloth face covering while my colourist and co-founder Anita Rice is kitted out in full PPE; a visor and protective cape. She’s getting to work on my highlights, which have long looked tragic thanks to nearly four months without a trip to the hairdressers.

This isn’t by choice of course. Since the beginning of lockdown on March 23, hairdressers and all other non-essential businesses were closed, only gradually reopening in the recent weeks. Restrictions have begun to lift with hairdressers, pubs, restaurants, hotels, campsites, art galleries, and cinemas being given the green light to get back to business from July 4. 

But opening up hair salons again is not simply the case of unlocking the doors and booking customers in. Instead, social distancing measures must be adhered to, which include; implementing a cashless, appointment only system, requiring staff to wear PPE including visors while cutting hair, keeping face-to-face discussions to a minimum and prioritising side-by-side contact, face coverings worn or provided by salons, and limited numbers of people allowed on the shop floor at any one time.  

“We’ve used plants instead of floor markings and a lot of our furniture that we made for the salon when it opened is on wheels anyway, which we’ve created sub-conscious divisions from so it feels much more airy and spacious,” Rice explains to me when I arrive. There’s also essential-oil based hand sanitiser by the front door to use as soon as I enter the salon and by the front desk is a selection of cloth masks to buy for £12 and disposable ones available in case you forget to bring your own but don’t want to purchase one. The cloth face coverings have been made using African-printed fabrics sourced from a local market stall that had to shut down because of the lockdown and 50 per cent of the profits are going to Black Lives Matter UK. 

Buller & Rice’s whole ethos is sustainability, and Rice – along with her co-founder hairdresser Stephen Buller – has tried to eliminate all plastic use with the salon which opened in 2019, the second venture for the duo, who run the Newington Green branch too. The capes which we both wore throughout my appointment are biodegradable, as are the towels, both of which were already being used before the coronavirus. The plastic-free visor Rice wears is made from wood cellulose that they discovered via Instagram.

Before my appointment, I was anticipating a stuffy, clinical environment because of the new regulations, but it’s pleasantly surprising how comfortable and safe it feels and the luxury of having my hair washed and scalp massaged is just as enjoyable as it was pre-pandemic. The great lengths Buller & Rice has gone to create a safe environment are apparent but not distracting, including remaking its outdoor courtyard into a colourful tiki bar and serving cocktails, wine, and beer in cans while you wait for foil colour to develop. As it’s open air, you don’t need to wear your mask while you sit there either. 

“As we chatted, comparing our lockdown experiences, it felt joyfully normal, and any worries I had about feeling safe dissipated immediately. My only gripe is the slight discomfort from wearing a face covering, but that was the only compromise I had to make to my usual time spent in a salon” 

As we chatted, comparing our lockdown experiences, it felt joyfully normal, and any worries I had about feeling safe dissipated immediately. My only gripe is the slight discomfort from wearing a face covering, which was required to stay on throughout my appointment, but that was the only compromise I had to make to my usual time spent in a salon.

As seamless as it feels, maintaining the salon’s eco-friendly ethics has been challenging, Rice tells me. “Sustainability is our identity, and we try to promote refilling, reusing, and repurposing of everything that we can, from the drinks we give to clients to the toilet paper we use,” she says. “Biodegradable towels are something that we used anyway to reduce water wastage, we would usually re-use those and dry them, but sadly we’ll be going through more of them and we can’t use them now for cleaning.” 

Finding the balance between remaining true to their environmentally conscious approach and adhering to government guidelines in order to keep staff and customers safe is tricky. “We’re lucky enough that we’ve sourced beautifully made glass bottles hand sanitiser from Leyton-based brand Neighbourhood Botanicals, but for our antibacterial sprays we’ve had to use one that comes in a plastic spray bottle, which isn’t something we would normally use,” Rice explains, preferring essential oil-based antibacterial. 

“There’s not really an alternative to plastic antibacterial spray bottles, and I think people want to see a surgical, clinical element to cleaning products,” she muses. “When we’ve got a responsibility for people’s safety, they want to see we’re taking it seriously. It’s sad though, as I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of waste, which is annoying as within the past year especially, the general public have slowly made this shift into a more reusable and more conscious community.”

Just like Buller & Rice, many salons have spent lockdown adjusting their practices and getting ready to reopen in the safest way possible. Charlotte Mensah, an award-winning Afro hair stylist explains the changes she and her team of stylists have made at her salon, Hair Lounge on Portobello Road. “By nature salons are a place people come to relax, that’s going to be a lot more difficult in a COVID-era. We will be operating with a high level of precaution which is for the team as much as the clients. The comfort clients and staff alike were accustomed to – will definitely have to change.”

These include taking client’s temperatures upon arrival, with only four clients allowed in every two hours. The working hours and opening days have also been extended to accommodate for the backlog of appointments, all materials will be disposed of after each service and any non single-use disposal tools like combs and brushes will be washed with warm soapy water and stored in barbicide for disinfection. 

“By nature salons are a place people come to relax, that’s going to be a lot more difficult in a COVID-era. We will be operating with a high level of precaution which is for the team as much as the clients. The comfort clients and staff alike were accustomed to – will definitely have to change” – Charlotte Mensah, hair stylist and founder, Hair Lounge 

According to the British Beauty Council, hair services make up the largest share of the industry, worth £6.3 billion in consumer spending, and the long-term impact of the pandemic is still unclear, though financially many businesses have been hit hard by the lockdown.“If a vaccine becomes available early next year, then I believe we will be able to return to business as usual,” says Kaye Sotomi, co-founder of Chop Chop London. “If it doesn’t and this drags out, many salon and beauty businesses will be forced to close their doors. This is because it is not financially viable to keep running at 50-70 per cent of revenue requirements.”

Across the three Chop Chop salons in London, Wembley, Westfield, and Old Street, all the team members have completed the Barbicide COVID-19 health and safety course and are stocked with a full range of PPE including disposable gowns, rubber gloves, masks, visors, temperature guns, and hand sanitisers. “In all of our salon windows, we have notices displayed to direct customers to book online and no walk-ins will be allowed,” Sotomi explains. “All members of our team will be required to work at single workstations and will work from only one of our salons where possible, to reduce team taking public transport as well as transmission between salons.” 

A similar approach has been taken at Adam Reed London, which was forced to shut its doors not long after opening in February. Each customer will have personal PPE packs containing a disposable gown, towels, and hand sanitiser as well as a mask, which are all biodegradable. Visors will be worn throughout appointments and screens have been fitted between each styling section, wash basins and at reception. “We have spent a lot of time and expense to make sure that our clients and our team feel as comfortable and safe in our home as they did before the lockdown and we cannot wait to welcome everybody back,” founder Adam Reed says. Zoom consultations are also being offered to clients to help stylists reduce face-to-face contact. 

The Spitalfields based salon is aware that people’s finances are tight, or will have clients that have been furloughed due to lockdown so have created a ‘Don’t Take a Chance with your Hair’ offer, where clients, old or new, can join a priority waiting list by emailing booking@adamreed.london for the first 12 weeks after opening, and receive £25 off of a haircut or £50 off of a cut and colour for their first visit back to the salon. 

At the Josh Wood Colour Atelier in Notting Hill, all appointments will now be taken online and half the chairs have been removed so there is a space between every client, with masks and gloves offered on arrival. It has also stopped cutting dry hair, started disinfecting stations between and after each client and extending its opening hours to seven days a week, 8am to 8pm, in order to spread out staff and appointments. 

As for what the future holds for hairdressing post-lockdown, only time will tell, and supporting your local and further afield salons could not be more essential, with so many having dedicated weeks to create a safe environment. The focus for salons is maintaining the luxury experience they provide while keeping you safe, and as my haircut at Buller & Rice proved, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. As Rice coloured, washed, and blow dried my hair, she was happy to answer question after question that I had about the precautions they had taken before reopening. “We’ve tried really, really hard to make sure that our service still feels special and like a treat, and that you feel as comfortable as you can,” she tells me. 

“We’ve tried really, really hard to make sure that our service still feels special and like a treat, and that you feel as comfortable as you can” – Anita Rice, co-founder, Buller & Rice 

As I was leaving the salon with my first bouncy blow dry in months, I was struck by how of all the places I’ve slowly been accustomed to visiting again, such as getting on the Overground to get to the salon, this was the most safe, protected and comfortable I’d felt since leaving my quarantine bubble at home. While it’s normal to feel nervous for your first trip back to a salon, my biggest takeaway was that hairdressers are just as committed to keeping you and their staff safe as you are concerned with your own safety. 

“With millions of people losing their jobs, salons might not be a priority,” says Mensah, “however having said that, a lot of clients appreciate visiting the salon as a means of self-care and a way to connect with people. It’s much more than just hairstyles.”

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