When you’re an aficionado of all things camp and diva as I am, the fabulous tends to beam onto your radar in the most unexpected of ways. And so it was one lazy Sunday morning when photographs of a barber shop in Exmouth Market broke Instagram. Yes, puns are common with hair establishments, almost a given. But this one has multi dimensions of greatness.
I whooped when I saw it. It was all over the Streisand fanosphere of course, but went beyond that, to all appreciators of the mighty pun. When I investigated further, there was less buzz about the name and more about the fact that this cool Clerkenwell establishment is unisex (and charge the same price for any gender) and didn’t frown at women turning up wanting a butch cut. Win, win.
What immediately sprang to this Streisand fanatics mind was another hair parlour that I had heard about years ago, over in Palm Springs. This one was called The Barbra Shop. These hairdressers could have twinned in some cross-Atlantic way but, alas, The Barbra Shop is no more. You can still see the virtual wonder of what it was though; the website is still up. And what you will notice is that this was a barber shop downstairs by day, and… a Streisand themed museum upstairs by night!
And what you will notice is that this was a barber shop downstairs by day, and… a Streisand themed museum upstairs by night!
Oh the stuff that was in there. My particular favourites being the waxworks and many, many Barbra heads. To own one of those heads! Busts of Babs designed especially for the Hello, Gorgeous! museum. These wonders are part of the collection of Lou Papalas who has amassed the biggest Streisand memorabilia collection in the world, snaffling some of the best of Babs costumes when she’s flogged them at auction. Papalas’ collection may not live above a hair pun anymore but he continues to exhibit his wonders across America and lends many important pieces to museums.
When I first heard of Barber Streisand I had hoped that it would be a UK version of The Barbra Shop, full of glorious Babsibilia and kitsch glories. But it’s not. There’s not a hint of Babs inside the shop whatsoever. But that’s actually kind of cool in itself.
I spoke with Ellie Pamphilon, the owner of Barber Streisand, and asked her about the name and the ethos of the shop. Ellie had a list of about 30 barber shop puns (I want to see that list) and when she hit on Barber Streisand she knew “that was the one”, she told me. “It’s good for the shop as well, it encapsulates that we’re unisex, so it’s a slightly more feminine twist on a barber’s name.” While she did consider having a theme in the shop related to the name, it wasn’t exclusively Streisand related.
“What I wanted to do was a wall of Barbaras. I went on eBay and bought lots of signed photographs of Barbaras: so I got Barbara Windsor, Barbara Cartland, Barbara Taylor Bradford. And of course, Barbra Streisand was in the collection.” But that was when the location was going to be Soho and so the campness of the Wall of Barbaras would have made more sense. But Pamphilon was soon priced out of Soho, like many small traders, and settled on Exmouth Market as a location instead.
Now she’s “very reluctant to have anything related to Barbra in the shop. Partly because I don’t want people to think we’re a Barbra Streisand tribute shop. And just in case her lawyers come knocking on my door.” How litigious could Babs be? Well, you never can tell with this sort of thing.
So, Babs is absent. Instead you have a minimalist interior design, a contemporary feel with a wall of animal skulls and neutral colours. The barber chairs are very beautiful and it has an air of being very carefully put together but at the same time it’s welcoming and relaxing. Exactly what you might not expect from a hip barbers in Clerkenwell, but a very pleasant contrast it is.
Pamphilon does not have a history of barbering; instead her past was as an accountant for fifteen years with Sony Music. Wanting to be her own boss she researched the kind of business that should have staying power should another economic crisis hit. People needing haircuts is pretty recession-proof. And, I observe, there has been something of a renaissance of barbers catering to – for want of a better, less-hackneyed term – the “hipster” set, who take their grooming seriously. But a lot of these places are rather upmarket, intimidating to the casual drop-in, and tend to be expensive. Barber Streisand is striving to be something between the over-priced gentleman’s barbers and the cut-price on any high street snip-and-out salons.
While I may have been a tad disappointed not to be greeted with Babs busts, costumes and art adorning the walls of Barber Streisand, the staff made up for it – they’re very welcoming and have embraced the fact that many times a day people will stop outside to snap a picture of their signage. They’ve even gone one better; taking pictures of people taking pictures of the shop and giving it its own Instagram. One thing’s for sure: they do owe something to Babs. C
Barber Streisand, 45 Exmouth Market, London EC1 4QL UK