Four years ago, civil servant Zaki Abdullah found barber Sophian Tahir, who currently works at barber shop YanCutsHair.
Since then, the 34-year-old has not looked back, despite the heftier price tag and longer service time.
"Regular hairstylists are more flashy. The looks they cut are like those of Korean pop stars. But a barber is more crisp, sharp and classic," he says. "With a barber, the lines are cleaner and the fade along the sides is more precise."
The father of two-year-old twin girls pays $30 for his hour-long haircut and wash at the barber shop in Peninsula Excelsior, which he visits twice a month.
It takes up to 45 minutes by car to get there from his home in Woodlands. But Mr Zaki does not mind the travelling time as "the look is just not the same" when he cuts his hair at a regular hair salon.
He is also undeterred by the heftier price tag. YanCutsHair charges about three times the price compared with quick-cut and mom-and-pop outlets, where it takes only 10 to 20 minutes for a men's haircut.
Mr Zaki is one of a growing number of men here who patronise modern men's-only groomers, fuelling the boom of such barbers here.
WHERE TO GO
Might Of Many
Where: 120A Telok Ayer Street; open: 11am to 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 11am to 6pm (Saturdays and Sundays), closed on Mondays
Price: Half-shave: $35; basic cut with hot towel service: $40; hot towel full shave: $45
Info: Call or text 9222-1541
The Black Tie Barber Shop
Where: 01-748, Block 456 Jurong West Street 41; open: noon to 10pm (Mondays to Thursdays), 3 to 10pm (Fridays), 11am to 10pm (Saturdays and Sundays)
Price: Hot towel shave: $23; gentlemen's haircut: $31; haircut and hot towel shave: $50
In the past two years, at least five outfits - Might Of Many, The Black Tie Barber Shop, Grease Monkey Barber Garage, Hombre Barberblade and YanCutsHair - have opened in Singapore's city centre as well as in heartland areas such as Changi and Jurong West.
Existing men's-only groomers, such as We Need A Hero, The Golden Rule Barber Co and Sultans Of Shave, have also experienced a surge in business of up to four-fold over the past three years.
These outfits, catering mostly to men in their early 20s to late 30s, charge $30 to $55 for a haircut and $23 to $45 for a hot towel shave.
A haircut takes 45 to 60 minutes - a point a growing number of men appreciate, say business owners.
In return, customers get a relaxing atmosphere and a cut from a barber well-versed in classic men's styles, including the high and tight - a military-styled cut with short sides and back - and the pompadour, where the hair is longer at the top and swept upwards and backwards.
Retail experts have also noticed the trend, which they put down to a number of reasons.
Dr Sharon Ng, associate professor in marketing from Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, says men no longer see grooming as a female prerogative.
"Increasingly, men understand the importance of appearance and how it affects one's career advancement and social life. In Singapore, society as a whole is also increasingly more accepting of men grooming themselves or going for services that may enhance their appearance," she says.
Men, she adds, are also willing to pay more for a good haircut these days. "Engaging in such grooming services is not seen as vanity. It is seen as a means to success in a man's career and social life. This shift in mindset, coupled with greater affluence and lower social stigma, drives consumption patterns."
Dr Seshan Ramaswami, associate professor of marketing education at Singapore Management University, says younger men today are also more inclined to spend on experiences rather than on expensive gadgets or cars.
"The younger generations today are more inclined to spend on vacations and fine dining than on material goods. Spending large amounts on personal grooming services is well in line with these other trends, so I expect it to continue," he says.
This is good news for Mr Azhar Salleh, 26, and Mr Aizat Salleh, 31, founders of Hombre Barberblade in Changi Road.
The brothers, who ploughed in $30,000 to start the business, say business has been good since they opened in January last year.
They now employ seven barbers, up from four when they began. They also broke even in the first year and see about 450 customers a month now. They plan to open a second outlet next year.
Mr Aizat says: "I think men are a little more vain now. They are willing to splurge on their looks and pamper themselves."
The co-owner of barber shop Might Of Many, in Telok Ayer, Mr Edwin Neo, puts his outlet's success down to consistency and the "detailed lines" his barbers achieve.
The 37-year-old, who owns men's shoe store Ed Et Al Shoemakers, expanded into men's grooming in September last year after his own experience.
"When I brought pictures of what I wanted to hair salons, they couldn't get it right because the fade - the sloping and blending of the hair at the sides - is not the same as what you get at a proper barber," he says, adding that a barber might take 30 minutes to work on the perfect fade.
He adds that business has been brisk so far.
Grease Monkey Barber Garage in Mayo Street sees close to 600 customers a month, up from 300 when it opened in 2015.
Its owner Kenneth Christopher Meals, who is also a barber, has 11 other colleagues as barbers, up from three when he began operations.
Mr Meals, 28, says: "Guys trust us with their hair. Barbers know what they are doing and men appreciate how detailed we are."
He adds that it is also about the relationship men have with their barbers, a bond that, once made, is not easily broken.
"It's a very personal relationship. I've seen clients go from being in a relationship to being married to being fathers," he says.
Customers such as tattoo artist Clifford Wong do not mind paying to cut their hair at Grease Monkey Barber Garage, which charges $38 for a standard cut. The 24-year-old cuts his hair there once a month.
"The barbers are passionate about the craft. I get advice on what suits my head shape and I trust that they know what they are doing.
"The atmosphere there is also comfortable and there's always friendly banter," says Mr Wong, who has been cutting his hair there since 2015.
"It's a premium service, but you get what you pay for. It's like the difference between getting a dish of noodles from Crystal Jade and instant noodles from 7-Eleven.
"A haircut is the first thing people notice, so if you value your image, you've to be willing to pay the price."
A special place for men to be pampered
Opening The Black Tie Barber Shop in Jurong West took a lot of leg work.
Its founder Muhammad Tirmidzi, 33, who does not cut hair himself, spent almost a year visiting at least seven barbers in Singapore for research.
The father-of-three tried different barbers and spoke to them about their business models and customer preferences.
The financial consultant also conducted his own surveys in the Jurong West neighbourhood to "get a feel of the ground" and understand his target market there. He chose that location because he grew up in the area and knew it did not have a modern barber there. He also took entrepreneurship and social media courses.
Finally, in April last year, he invested $50,000 to open the 200 sq ft The Black Tie Barber Shop.
Business was good from the get-go, with people finding out about the shop through social media and promotions at trade fairs.
The shop is now staffed with six barbers who service about 600 customers a month. The company broke even earlier this year and there are plans to open two more outlets soon.
Mr Tirmidzi says the idea to open his own barber shop was sparked when he discovered modern barbers in the United Kingdom about a decade ago. At that time, he was working as an air steward and had stopovers in the country. He had a few haircuts at different barbers and was sold.
"I spent half a year trying different hair salons in Singapore, but couldn't find a good barber," he says, adding that since then, he realised he could get a good haircut only in Britain or the United States.
"I saw the gap in the market here a few years ago, but it took a while for me to save up enough to start my own business."
Current salons here cater more to women, he says, while existing mom-and-pop barbers focus more on quantity than quality. "Their haircuts might take 15 minutes whereas ours takes about 45 minutes to an hour," he says.
A standard haircut at The Black Tie Barber Shop costs $31 while a cut and a hot towel shave costs $50.
Asked why he thinks customers return, he says: "Everybody loves to be pampered. Women have spas and nail salons. But it's hard to find a special space for men.
"Customers can come in, get a hot towel shave, a haircut, some styling and walk out feeling great. Some customers get so comfortable in the chair that they fall asleep and start snoring."
Barber's passion began during NS
YanCutsHair in Peninsula Excelsior feels more like the home of a Star Wars fanboy than a barber shop.
Posters of Darth Vader and other famous Sith lords adorn the walls, figurines of various characters decorate the space and a Stormtrooper helmet greets customers as they enter.
Mr Sophian Tahir, 35, founder of the barber shop, says the Star Wars memorabilia, much like barbering, is an extension of himself. The items come from the Star Wars fan's personal collection.
There are other homely touches.
A fridge sits in the corner of the 398 sq ft unit - which is surrounded by musical instrument stores - from which customers can help themselves to free drinks and, occasionally, chocolates or ice cream.
"Customers can help themselves to free drinks like at a friend's house. Singapore is too stressful, so I try to make this a chill place to hang out," says Mr Sophian, who is also the outlet's head barber.
The formula seems to be working.
YanCutsHair, named after Mr Sophian whose friends call him Yan for short, opened last year and broke even in the first six months. It now sees about 400 customers a month.
The father-of-one took up barbering in national service, during which he was assigned to cut the hair of his fellow NSmen. He grew to love the craft. "At first, it was just something my encik asked me to do. Then it became an addiction for me. I thought I really love this," he says, using the Malay term typically used to call warrant officers in NS.
After NS, he worked as a technician, but continued to cut hair for friends and family as a hobby. In 2013, he joined a barber shop part-time, where he honed his self-taught skills further.
Last year, the desire to open his own shop got the better of him. He quit his technician job and spent $40,000 to open YanCutsHair in September.
On why he thinks his business has taken off, he says: "Guys are willing to pay more for a good cut now. I've had customers who went to other shops because they didn't have time to come here. But they come back complaining that their hair is out of shape and ask us to fix it."
One draw might be Mr Sophian's perfectionist streak. He says: "I am particular with the details. I will make sure every haircut is close to perfect. The customer knows that what he pays is worth it and he leaves feeling like a new man."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2017, with the headline 'Barber cuts with all the trimmings'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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