Meet the beloved queer barbershop giving trans people a sense of belonging
For 10 years, Open Barbers has been giving London queers affordable, accessible and gender-affirming haircuts.
The trans-led, non-profit salon began as a pop-up that cut hair at queer events, which then grew into two chairs, one night a week, at a barbers in north London, and then finally into its own light and airy barber shop and social space by Shoreditch Park.
Greygory Vass, who began Open Barbers and was soon joined by Felix Lane, remembers that in those early days he was “cutting people’s hair myself in living rooms and bathrooms”. Meeting more queer and trans friends, he was put in touch with Klara Vanova – who then founded an all-gender salon, Barberette, in 2012 – who “goes on about gendered hairdressing” and couldn’t get the masculine haircuts she wanted at regular barbers.
Heavily gendered salons and barber shops can make it hard to get the haircut you want, or refuse to cut your hair full stop – a story that many queers will relate to. But Klara and Greygory went one step further, and Open Barbers was born. Felix met Greygory soon after, and had a haircut with him.
“There is a photo of that somewhere in the archive,” Felix says. “It was just really nice. It was nice to have a haircut that was what I asked for. I was at quite a bad place emotionally at that time in my life, and to meet another trans person who was doing stuff and living and being themselves was very important for me.”
Felix started helping out at the Monday night popups that Open Barbers consisted of then – sweeping the floor and making cups of tea. He even DJ’ed at one point, but luckily he soon realised that he wanted to be cutting hair too, so trained up as a barber.
Describing this moment in his life as “pivotal” and “life-changing”, Felix articulates what Open Barbers gave to him, which is the same thing it’s given to countless trans people over the last 10 years: community, and a sense of finally belonging.
The relationship between Open Barbers and the trans community in London can’t be overstated, and in the way Felix and Greygory tell the story of the last 10 years, it’s clear how much Open Barbers’ story is a trans story.
Did they imagine, in those early days, that Open Barbers would be where it is now? No. “I suspect it’s not uncommon for trans and non-binary people to find it very difficult to look ahead that far into the future,” Greygory says. “It never occurred to me to dare to imagine 10 years time.”
The very long amount of time it takes to access gender-affirming healthcare on the NHS, the lack of jobs for trans people, and the idea that trans people can’t have families all contribute to a difficulty that trans people have in planning for the future. “You can’t even think about the future,” Greygory says, when you’re dealing constantly with the “pressing matter” of transition and survival.
“How can I live beyond my thirties?” Greygory recalls thinking. “As someone who was constantly in mental health crisis, I just couldn’t imagine the prospect of living into a more mature adulthood.”
As it’s grown, the “open” part of their founding name has come to represent more than it did at the beginning: while Open Barbers were always no-compromise on having accessible spaces and gender-inclusive bathrooms, they’ve been on a journey into understanding the different hair experiences and needs of trans women and femmes, of people of colour, of younger trans people. This process mirrors the experience of learning and growing that many trans people experience as they come out and begin finding their community.
Once upon a time, clients at Open Barbers paid by putting cash into a bucket – an anonymous pay-what-you-can system that ensured everyone could afford a good haircut, without facing embarrassment at what that amount was. Now, or at least in non-pandemic times, this system is electronic – but the no-shame, pay-what-you-can ethos is still the same (the minimum amount for a haircut remains £2).
Other things have changed, too, since those scrappy days cutting hair on stage at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Open Barbers now has a team of stylists – who have, thanks to a GoFundMe set up by a client, been paid throughout the pandemic – and the salon includes a social space for people to hang out with books, zines and comfy sofas, a back room used by therapists and community groups, and a workspace where people come to work or study for a bit.
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Sitting down for a haircut, you can see each stylist’s list for the day – people’s pronouns included alongside their names – as well as pictures of various ginger kittens around the mirror with messages for those who might be anxious getting a haircut, like a reminder that it’s OK not to talk or to ask not to face the mirror.
With the salon now occupying a physical space, and Greygory and Felix both older, they have a bit more breathing space and have been looking outwards, connecting with other inclusive, queer hair salons across the world and thinking about how they can help shift attitudes towards gender within the industry.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things without the community,” Felix says. “We can’t exist without everyone’s support. Open Barbers doesn’t work unless everybody is in, and I think that ethos is something we want to celebrate and promote when the current climate is very much individualistic and everyone’s out for themselves.
“But at Open Barbers… we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now, if it hadn’t been for the communities that surround us, helping us.”