Basic techniques are always in style and are essential for building a career in men's hair. Licensed barber and cosmetologist Carson West has written a book offering all the fundamentals. West started cutting men's hair in 1966, when he says "haircutters were finally learning to do it right." Within the industry, he has been a staffer, solo artist, and shop owner as he has strived to continue to refine his craftsmanship and chair-side manner throughout his career.
In this series, West presents excerpts from his book along with original observations. This first installment previews our series.
I'm going to teach you basic techniques that will enable you to do males' haircuts that become trendy or otherwise, and to do them well. To keep this series relevant, I'll use classic men's haircuts for examples. As hairstyle trends constantly change, these are the only ones that don't. They've been around for many years and will continue to be in demand, so it's important for every haircutter to learn to do them expertly. But you'll be able to get as radical as you want with these basics.
Currently, you're probably doing a lot of haircuts buzzed up the sides—like the cuts they give Marines. Gone are the wild looks from a few years ago that made the guy look as if he just got out of bed. Trends in hairstyles have always been constantly changing. You want to have enough techniques mastered so you can adapt to any trend that becomes fashionable. My objective is to make every client look as good as I can—if not handsome, then handsomer. A lot of guys want to make a personal statement with their look. Hairdressers and barbers can help them with that.
No matter where you're working today, you'll very possibly be working in another shop five or ten years from now. The clientele will be different, as will the ways guys wear their hair. You need to be able to handle any style that comes along. So my approach is like that of a music teacher who prepares his students to play any song by first teaching them to play American standards.
Maintain Your Passion for the Craft
You've chosen a unique career. It may be the only job besides bar-tending that affords the opportunity to talk to and get to know so many people—except that we get our clients when they're sober! I've always loved the craft. We're sculptors whose work is on display everywhere.
If you're a student or recent graduate, you'll appreciate reviewing the fundamentals of our trade. You'll come to them fresh. Don't take every word as gospel; decide for yourself which concepts you feel apply to your own work. We all have to find our own path. In this way, you'll avoid what happens to many practitioners, who learn this trade by trial and error and then stop learning. It's easy to become fixed in your techniques too early.
If you're a veteran who has been cutting men's hair for decades, you likely have gaps in your knowledge and will learn something here, too, just as I'm sure I could learn things from you. Search your own heart for the value of my philosophies to you. I was like you when I was writing this book, and I discovered that a lot of what I'd been doing for years was simply habit. I had either forgotten or never fully understood why I did some of the things I did. Writing the book helped me to refine my own craft, as I had to think my way clear on some points and find the knowledge within me that was mislaid or latent. And then something surprising happened: many of the viewpoints and attitudes I’d carried around for years vanished in the light of my self-examination.
Much of what you'll read in this series took me many years to learn, because I learned it the hard way—by my own by trial and error. A good teacher could have saved me a lot of time and lost clients. I hope to be that teacher for you.
I've found that some books teach skills better than others, and I've based my methods on those of authors whose books taught me some life skill I wanted to learn. These books describe procedures in a clear, thorough, step-by-step manner, anticipating and answering readers' questions. Photos and illustrations clarify the instructions. Assuming the reader knows little to nothing about the topic, the authors explain it from top to bottom in a personal, friendly style. I've followed that pattern. I didn't want to write a formal textbook. I even decided to do my own illustrations.
Our Industry from Past to Present
My father was a hairdresser who began doing hair in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. There weren't nearly as many hairdressers or salons back then. While the average working American made $18 a week at the time, Dad made $30.
In about 1960, Dad opened his own salon on a not-too-busy street in a suburban neighborhood of Los Angeles. All it took to put the word out and draw business was for my brother and me to pop flyers into the neighborhood mailboxes. A lot of women thought, “This is great, a new salon right here in the neighborhood. I'm going to try it.” Nowadays the response would be, “Whoopee, just what this town needs—another hair salon.”
In those days, it was common for a stylist to work in the same salon for 20 years. Now we change locations every 20 minutes.
There are probably three times more salons and hairdressers in the U.S. than are necessary to service our communities. This leads to competition among us. Sometimes owners take advantage of their stylists, stylists stop being nice to each other, and a toxic level of competitiveness takes over. The result is a whole lot of miserable, hungry, frightened, angry professionals looking for places where they can be treated well, feel at home, build clientele, and make a good living.
Some end up opening their own businesses in areas already glutted. Often they can't really afford their own shops but are soured on working for others, so they rent stations as self-employed contractors. Station rental has worked out for some stylists who have found a nice space with reasonable rent and have been able to build clientele. But it's all too common for chair-renters to be unable to replace clients they inevitably lose. Their client numbers dwindle, and they leave the industry.
If there's a lesson there, it's that this desperate quest, this changing location frequently in search of a comfortable place where we can make a good living—it isn't the way it's supposed to be! Stylists should be able to stay in one job 20 years or more, and they should want to. In this series, I can help you to increase your odds of having options by showing you how to become a superb craftsman and a valued friend to your clients. And I'll show employers how to attract and keep good stylists year after year.
We can make this business kind and happy again, but we can't wait for others to do it first. We have to begin with ourselves.
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