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Image credit: All photos: James E Smith

Greygory Vass: Open Barbers

Greygory Vass: Open Barbers

Greygory Vass talks about social enterprise, partnerships and planning with Queen's Young Leaders

Open Barbers is a social enterprise offering “queer-friendly hairdressing for all lengths, genders and sexualities”. Most customers come through recommendations.

Greygory Vass, one of Open Barbers’ directors, explains:

“We’re there to support people to make their own choices about what they feel comfortable with. People should feel that they have the choice to decide how they want to move through the world.”

The service grew out of a need for hairdressing that "allows people to be themselves" and a recognition that most hairdressers and barbers under-serve Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. Customers often tell Greygory and Felix stories about having what they ask for questioned, or being told that they “might look like a lesbian" – the implication being that they wouldn't want to.

Greygory says, “It’s partly the haircut and partly the haircut experience that seems to make a big difference to people. It’s also about conversations that you have with people when they’re sitting in your chair.”

Creating the right space

The Open Barbers salon has been deliberately set up to make people feel welcome and at ease. A lot of space is dedicated to seating. Artist, Judith Brocklehurst was instrumental in helping to make the socialising and seating area, which offers, tea and coffee, biscuits, fanzines and magazines – many of which have been brought in by clients. These cover issues like mental health, “fat phobia” and alternative fashion as well as LGBT issues.

“People know immediately that these are topics that can be talked about openly in this space.”

A sliding scale pricing system ensures that Open Barbers remains accessible to those who don’t have much money as well as those who do. While most services cost between £10 and £40, some appointments charge only £2 to £10. Customers are invited to decide what they can afford when they book.

Open Barbers cutting hair

Social enterprise and partnerships

Open Barbers makes money by cutting people’s hair, and so doesn’t have to rely on government contracts, grants or funding like many other social enterprises. It’s open seven days a week, but only from 3.00 pm on Mondays to Thursdays. When the salon is closed Greygory, and co-director, Felix Lane, focus on “social enterprise development stuff”.

Outreach work is a key part of Open Barbers’ social enterprise commitment.

“There will always be people who can’t come to the salon, or people who are very anxious about coming, who perhaps it would be better if we met in their environment rather than ours.”

So Open Barbers share a similar ethos to, and often collaborate with, Gendered Intelligence who run a trans youth project to engage people in debates about gender.

Greygory says Open Barbers would like to invest some of the money they have made in the salon to subsidise this sort of outreach work. Partnerships that help promote health and wellbeing are especially important to Open Barbers. They also share similar values to CliniQ – a holistic sexual health and wellbeing service for trans people and their partners.

“Sexual health check-ups can be quite intimidating for trans people particularly. CliniQ know we will bring people to the space and show that they are quite a welcoming friendly place, there to support people.”

Felix and Greygory cutting hair

Open Barbers also runs popups at festivals, in galleries and other venues around the UK which helps with “publicity, exposure and money”. In February for example, they took part in an evening event at the Victoria and Albert Museum to celebrate LGBT History Month. They cut hair and welcomed people to their popup space.

“And they paid the fee that we would charge for a daily rate. That kind of helps.”

They’ve also earned extra cash by training staff and students on a hairdressing course in gender diversity and sexuality.

Planning ahead

As well as cutting hair and doing outreach work, Felix and Greygory have the business side of Open Barbers to run. They’ve divided up the responsibilities equally according to their skills. Greygory has a background of working in the charitable sector and is the “business and operations person”. Felix has more experience in performance and events, so is the main contact for that.

“We meet on a weekly basis and have a three-hour team meeting where we jot down an agenda and work through it to come up with a series of actions.”

If you visit the Open Barbers’ website, you’ll find numerous pictures of haircuts on a diverse cross-section of people, from children to the elderly and some people from different ethnic groups. Greygory says one of their main aims is to become more diverse.

“Because we’re both white, masculine-presenting people, we’re both trying to make sure as we grow that we don’t only attract clients and staff who identify similarly to ourselves.”

One of the issues is gaining the confidence of people with Afro-textured hair. “We have some clients with Afro-textured who come to us and seem quite happy, but this is an aspect of Open Barbers that we want to develop and expand on.”

Felix Lane cutting hair

Open Barbers is currently writing a three-year business plan. To develop it, Felix and Greygory sat down separately to consider their long-term vision. Then, each of them picked something in their own vision to explore by asking what was stopping them achieving it, and what actions they should take to make the vision a reality.

Every four months or so, Felix and Greygory have an away-day. They use these to think about “an issue that we never talk about because it feels so far away in the future”.

Greygory uses the issue of premises as an example. They will use their next away-day to consider whether they want to move to a bigger space at some point. He says that if they decide they do – even if it’s in five years’ time – they need to work out what they have to do now to make it happen, “so that in a few years’ time we don’t think ‘oh we never did anything about it!’”