Local barbershops, old school and new
Photographed by Craig Mulcahy
"Look good, feel good” is a simple maxim barbers have stood by for more than 5,000 years and one that seems to prove true time and again. Everyone has a mental picture of a barbershop and the experience. Most of it is sensory. Of course, the red, white, and blue helix-striped barber’s pole marks the location. It starts when the knob turns. The bell hanging behind the door rings. Inside, men gather. Some are waiting for a haircut. Some are just there to discuss current events, sports, politics, or gossip. It is a happy place, and if only for a moment, an escape from the worries of the world. If you have to wait, you search the ample reading material available – generally men’s, sports, and car magazines – to pass time. Once your turn, you sink into the chair’s soft leather and rest your feet on the footstool, giving the barber the right angles for the best cut. Next comes the feel of paper tape and an apron wrapped around the neck. Then the sounds of the snip of the scissors and the warm buzz of the clippers give way to the feel of hot lather and a razor to taper clean lines around the ears, sideburns, and neckline. Finally, it is the brushing off and sprinkle of cool, clean scented talcum powder to prevent razor burn to finish the job. As the chair swings around toward the mirror, the sight of the finished work brings a boost in confidence and changes a person’s attitude, as well as the way they are perceived by others.
Of course the relationship between the barber and the client is paramount. A man lets few people touch them in such an intimate way. Comfort is built on a foundation of trust, which in turn leads to the ability to relax and escape.
New Orleans Magazine surveyed several well-established and new ventures to discuss the trade, the cultural significance of the barbershop, and its influence on men’s identity.
Aidan Gill for Men
When asking for recommendations on where to get a men’s haircut in New Orleans, Aidan Gill for Men is usually top of mind.
Gill’s passion for barbering is largely credited with helping to save the barbershop from extinction. He entered the trade as a teenager as a barber’s apprentice in Dublin. Too poor to go to college, at 17, he left Ireland for a factory job in London. Soon, he was cutting fellow workers’ hair on the side. He studied at Vidal Sassoon’s school and the London Institute of Fashion, still working and cutting hair. After 10 years of dual careers, he gave up the factory job and opened a shop featuring his newly launched collection of antiques of the barbering trade.
“A barber wasn’t exactly the most glamorous job with a future in it,” Gill said. “Everything was going unisex. In the 80s, it was Boy George and color and chemicals.”
The shop failed, which gave Gill time to visit his sisters in New Orleans. He met a local girl, and was soon a local, too. He opened a shop on Adams Street, but made his name in 2000 when he moved his shop as part of the avant-garde that helped to revitalize Magazine Street.
“I had a savant view of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was on a mission from God.”
Gill established a high-end shop richly stocked with artifacts of the trade, including vintage leather upholstered barber chairs carved from oak and walnut, rich wood cabinetry with marble counter tops, blown-glass bottles, vintage ceramic-coated metal signs, antique towel heaters, an antique collection of leather bound books which chronicle the history of barbershops and shaving back to the 12th Century, and red, white, and blue stained glass barber balls and poles that make the space a working barbershop museum.
When he opened on Magazine, he said he barely had enough money to pay his power bill, much less any marketing or advertising. He started inviting groomsmen’s parties to come in for a 30-minute, seven-hot-towel shave before the ceremony. Soon word of mouth spread. Today, his store has shaved someone from every state in the country.
Several former apprentices have opened their own shops, including eight who have opened their own shops in New Orleans and one who copied Gill’s idea and décor in a shop in New York. Today, Aidan Gill for Men has two locations, on Magazine and on Fulton Street in the CBD.
“The barbershop is valid. The trade is valid. The job is valid,” he said. “My commitment was to make it bigger than me. I didn’t realize it would become a movement. It’s nice to see recognition for the work done and having gotten the resurgence going.”
Garden District, 2026 Magazine St., 587.9090
Sunday-Wednesday, Friday: 10 am – 6 pm
Dennis' Barber Shop on Freret
If a quintessential barbershop were needed for a movie set, Dennis’ Barber Shop on Freret Street would be an ideal location. The business has been open for 54 years; proprietor Dennis Sigur has been behind the chair for 45. The interior is reminiscent of the barbershop in the movie “Coming to America,” and serves a similar purpose.
“We’re basically a neighborhood shop, but people from all over the city come here. It’s a gathering place. It’s more like a family than a business at times. You know, we go ahead and talk about sports, religion, and politics, but everybody gets their say.”
One of the rather unique things about Dennis’ is the hours. The shop has a 15-hour day on Tuesdays and 12-hour days Wednesdays through Saturdays. “I had people coming in late telling me I should open before they go to work. So, I started opening early and people started coming and coming.”
Sigur has seen the surrounding neighborhood go through drastic changes in his time at the shop. When he started, he said it was a close knit black community. Over the last 12 years, the neighborhood has gentrified. Still Dennis’ Barber Shop remains a strong connection to the past.
“It’s a gathering place, a club without the alcohol,” he said.
With a chuckle, Sigur says he got into barbering after a short stint as a welder. “When I got out of high school, I worked at a shipyard in Morgan City and saw this welder coming out of a tight little space like a closet with all of these fumes coming out, and I thought I can’t do that. That’s when I became a barber. I thought you could hang out, get paid, watch TV, listen to the radio all at work. I decided to be a barber right at that moment.”
4615 Freret St., 895.3834
Tuesday: 6 am – 9 pm
Haircuts: $ Varies
Factotum Barber + Supply
Bourbon swirls as it is added to ice cold water while psychedelic Peruvian guitar music spins on the turntable at Factotum Barber + Supply. Master Barber Jason Jones opened his shop in March 2016 after friends bought the legendary Bud Rip’s Old 9th Ward Bar, which had an attached space that housed Jack’s Barber Shop from the late 1960s until 2005.
The former owners used the space for storage and offered it to Jones to set up shop. After working at other locations in town, he jumped at the opportunity to have his own place. Today, his appointments are booked out two weeks in advance and he’s adding another barber this month.
While the trade always fascinated him, the Algiers native didn’t start his career as a barber. He trained as an electrician and worked in San Francisco steadily until the 2008 recession hit. When the economy tanked, he found himself out of work.
“I always had an interest in barbering,” Jones said. “I thought it was a good trade, and that was my opportunity to do something that I’m actually interested in. I enrolled in barber school, and from day one I felt like this is what I should be doing.”
In the Bay Area, Jones apprenticed under a third generation barber before returning to New Orleans in 2011. He worked at shops around town, until he got the call about the space at the bar.
“I’ve tried to create a neighborhood vibe,” he said. “There are local characters coming in all the time from the street.”
He’s built an inviting one-room, two-chair space in which he greets guests at the door with a sipping whisky. A small seating area is stacked with varied reading material from Southern lit journal The Oxford American to vintage 1970s Playboys and Thrasher skateboarding magazine.
“It’s different than a salon,” Jones said. “There, a customer might not be handled by someone who is trained and regularly works with clippers and a straight razor. There are little details – hot lather on the back of the neck. But my training is different than a cosmetologist. I know short hair, but I’m not the guy to come to for layering out hair below the shoulder.”
Bywater, 902 Piety St., 208.9801
Tuesday-Friday: 10 am – 6:00 pm
Haircuts: $20 for a 30 min. cut, $35 for 45 min. cut
Modern Men Barbershop
Sherie Williams and Paula Niven are anomalies among barbers in that they’re women, but their business, Modern Men, is one of the hottest shops in town. Located in the University neighborhood, Williams, a native New Orleanian, and Niven, originally from Surrey, a quaint village south of London, started their business after working in other area shops for years. With “Handsome on Hampson” as their tagline, the shop sits catty-corner from another New Orleans icon, the house where John Kennedy Toole wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces.” They’ve combined traditional barbershop services in a contemporary ambiance in gear with the neighborhood.
“We have a very modern environment,” Niven said. “The ambiance is quite upscale when you walk in, but it feels like family. We have people who will pop in not intending to get a haircut, just to talk.”
It’s not uncommon to see all of the chairs at Modern Men turned toward each other in a circle, allowing customers to interact with each other and the other barbers. “It’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t feel like a factory in here,” she said. “And the staff feels like a team, like family, more than employees.”
In addition to shaves and haircuts, Modern Men provides nose, ear, and eyebrow waxing.
Niven said it is the relations she develops with people in her chair that keeps cutting hair exciting for her. Over her career though, she’s developed a penchant for men’s hair. “I was drawn to guys’ hair because of the relationships that develop,” she said. “It’s more about the interaction than the haircut. The first two haircuts you get instruction on what they want, after that it’s about the relationship. Guys are consistent. They want to come back, and they don’t want to keep telling someone over and over again what they want. With ladies’ hair, it’s all about the haircut.”
Niven shared that she thought cutting men’s hair provided more risk than women’s hair. Longer locks provide more room to cover mistakes. “A man’s haircut is harder because you can see if somebody’s jacked your hair up.”
7701 Hampson St., 309.7103
Monday: 10 am – 5 pm, Tuesday-Wednesday: 10 am – 6 pm
Mr. Chill's First Class Cuts
Wilbert Wilson says it takes 20 years for a barber to become a neighborhood institution, but he managed to do it in 17 months. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Wilson, better known as Mr. Chill the Barber, displayed the type of grit and determination that helped New Orleans rise again.
His barbershop at South Derbigny and General Pershing flooded and was without electricity. With a pop-up tent and a generator to power his clippers, Wilson went around the corner to an abandoned gas station on the corner of Claiborne and Napoleon avenues and began cutting hair days after the storm passed.
“It was a time in your life where if you had any kind of get up in you, you dug deep down in your soul or spirit and came up with a creative idea,” Wilson said. “Going on Claiborne and Napoleon was my creative idea to bring back what I did as a barber, my trade, to a city that had been drowned.”
Storm first responders were among his first customers. They shared first-hand accounts with him, and he shared that information with his customers. Soon, he had lines.
“Getting a hair cut meant there was a service available and then there might be another and another,” Wilson said. “It gave a glimmer of hope that we were going to come back, that there’s going to be a next step. If Mr. Chill is there, everything is going to be all right.”
With the help of his family, fellow barber Aiden Gill, and the Idea Village, a community fundraiser was held to get Wilson a new shop. After 17 months of adjusting the tent to block out the sun’s rays, he opened a shop at the corner of Carrollton and Walmsley avenues.
Wilson cut 8,100 heads of hair under that tent, but he said leaving it was like waking up from a nightmare. He exchanged the elements for central air and heat, had a phone and an actual bathroom for his customers.
“I had woken up,” he said. “I went from the extreme to the elite.”
Today, he says customers can expect the best from Mr. Chill’s First Class Cuts. “It’s like they went to heaven and done met an archangel,” he said with a grin. “Naw, seriously, I’m just like any other barber. I just may have a better story.”
2736 S Carrollton Ave., 861.7530
Tuesday - Friday: 9 am – 6 pm