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More Than Just a Barbershop - How Urban Route Create Community and Tackle Mental Health

When you walk into Urban Route on Essex Road, it doesn’t feel like any normal barbershop. The space has a very modern, open-plan look about it. To your right, as you enter, are a rack of T-shirts. At the back of the shop is locally produced artwork hanging above a comfortable sofa, coffee table and TV, and to the right of that, a bar sits below a darts board. These aren’t just decorative, the TV plays sports, the bar holds beers and the dartboard has enough holes in and around it to suggest it gets regular use. Of course, what makes it so obviously a barbershop are the three chairs, giant mirror and abundance of hairstyling equipment that are to your left. 

Operating those chairs are three barbers, Billy, Charlie and Carlos. They’re three friends who have worked together for years, meeting each other in an old barbershop not too far away. There’s a noticeable rapport between them, there’s chat, banter, and they take the piss out of each other. Actually they take the piss out of each other a lot. 

All this together, there’s an atmosphere that feels different. It’s inviting, there’s a comfort to it that will quickly make you feel at ease. It’s not too long before your chatting about your day with them, putting the world to rights and having a laugh while you’re doing it. By the time you walk out, there’s a weight lifted, not just off your head but off your chest too. 

This experience speaks to the core reason Urban Route exists. When Billy set it up with Charlie and Carlos almost 6-months ago, they came in with a unique vision to make Urban Route “more than just a barbershop.” They want to create a space that is communal, that promotes local artists, but most importantly breaks the stigmas around men’s mental health. 

Last week I had the pleasure to speak with all three of them, and discuss the project they’re building in Islington. 

A Communal Space

The three met down the road from where they are now, a barbershop in Camden Passage that offered luxury haircuts for men. They all said they got with each other on almost immediately and enjoyed their time picking-up and getting to know their clients. Carlos spoke about how they would often see clients when hanging outside the shop:

Carlos: I remember at the barbershop before, we used to hang outside the shop and most of the time we’d see a customer or a customer with friends whatever. They like to introduce their friends and stuff.

But things would get in the way, they had to work to the expectations of the higher-ups, meet quotas every day and generate so much service while always keeping a smiling face and engaging conversation. 

While they enjoyed what they did, they all admitted to having days that would be emotionally exhausting and draining. As well as that, there was no control over the chair they used, or the products they had. As fun as it was, they agreed the experience at times could be overstimulating, and it wasn’t always easy to provide the most comfortable experience for the customer.

Soon enough, Billy left to start his own studio, and Charlie briefly moved to a smaller, more independent studio in Shoreditch. By the way they spoke, Urban Route was an inevitability for the three of them, it was just a matter of time as to when the venture would begin. 

Obviously, money still has to be made and they need to meet their standards of bringing in an amount of customers and revenue each week and month, but there’s more control over this process and they can work more to their own preferences. Better still, having the space between the three of them, they admitted sometimes these challenges don’t even feel so much like work.

Billy: I think the greatest thing about what we’re doing is that it doesn’t feel like work. We’re all just a bunch of mates, we all take the piss out of each other.

There’s no hierarchy within the shop, it’s always been a case of: we’re three mates who work together and run a barbershop together. It works quite well.

We offer a very luxury-style haircut, you can see it on our socials. We take our work seriously, but not ourselves.

Creating a healthy environment between each other, where they can enjoy doing what they do and build a business while doing it, certainly permeates through to the customer experience too, creating an environment just as relaxing for them.

Being a business based in Islington, most of their clients come from around North London, a big part of the reason they moved to this location as they could retain clients they had from the last place, but they also get clients who travel. Sometimes outside of London, sometimes even outside the UK. Charlie spoke about some of his clients who travel from Washington DC or Los Angeles, and will always go to him for a haircut when they’re in the area.

Billy: We kind of stand-out because we’ve gone for this minimal, warehouse-like kind of modern, relaxed look. It’s not your typical barbershop and I think it makes us look more inviting with it being such a big open space that’s very bright as well. We’re also quirky in our own different ways and I think that helps a lot with our clients coming in and feeling comfortable with everything that goes on in here.

All to say, these guys are proven to provide a good customer experience. Opening up shop was an easier task because of the clients they retained. People were happy to return because they had developed trust and a good rapport with the barber they had met, in some cases, years ago. For these guys, they don’t want the person they’re cutting hair for to be just a customer.

Charlie: The thing is, we’ve got our clients, and we’re always welcoming to new clients. But we class our clients less as clients and more as friends.

It’s this relationship Billy, Charlie and Carlos strive to achieve through Urban Route. Billy spoke about one his greatest prides so far is the positive feedback he has received from new customers happy to see the shop arrive on Essex Road. But they don’t want the positivity to come through the service alone, they also want it through the space they provide. 

Everything I said about the look and feel of Urban Route isn’t just to look different to other competing barbershops around, there’s intention to it. 

Billy: We opened it for a community space and for clients to come in and feel relaxed and chill. There are TVs, you can watch telly, you can get a drink from the bar, you can just sit and chill. We have people come in and do their work from home. People just chill on their laptops. 

Besides the chairs and mirrors that make the place so obviously a barbershop, the bar, darts board and lounge found at the back help create an environment where, should you want to just relax and get out of the house and socialise, you can. They mentioned how people have come in just to watch the football. After our interview, Billy and I played darts for an hour, teaching me how to throw properly while he thrashed me at Around the World. 

They’ve also had Friday evenings where people have come in, booked haircuts for all of them, had a few drinks and then gone out into town. The shop is perfectly located between the Alpaca and Old Queen’s Head, two bars that are favourites for many living around Islington, so it’s the perfect place for a pre-drinks. The three of them are looking forward to inviting more of those kind of nights as the summer approaches. 

Billy: At the moment is business is growing to what we want it to be. We don’t want it to veer too far away from that. We don’t want to be this award-winning barbershop or anything, we cater for something completely different. Of course awards will be nice along the way and we are already being recognised within those industries and that’s nice to know only six-months into this we’re already winning awards. We won an award a few weeks ago for being the most highly recommended barbershop within Angel. [But] the next 6-months is about keep doing what we’re doing and have it naturally grow into what we want it to.

I feel we all want to see each other grow to the best possible way. It is my business, but we want it to feel like the whole team’s business. We all contribute. We all want to see it prosper, when the business prospers we prosper.

A Creative Space

Something to notice quickly in the shop are some of the items that decorate the place. As I mentioned there are clothes rails and locally produced art, this is another thing Urban Route wanted to promote with their space.

The clothing brand, DO NOT SUBVERGE, are run by one of Billy’s clients. When he first got the space, he was keen to give the brand a physical presence, having sold everything through an online store. Since starting, the brand have used the space to hold events and collaborate with the shop a lot. It’s building onto the idea of community already discussed, but Urban Route is also a place that strives to support local businesses and artists. 

Yes, as well as a barbershop, Urban Route has also functioned as an event space, with events being held for DO NOT SUBVERGE, and events in the future with DJs. During these events, the boys continue to cut hair while inviting in new footfall. There’s a mutual benefit in holding these. Although, doing this has presented some new challenges to learn from. 

Charlie: It’s the aftermath of the event. You have an event that ends at 2am and then open shop at 9am on a Saturday…

Billy: The last one we did I was here until 5am cleaning the shop, back at 10am to be cutting hair the next day. I got 2 hours sleep.

They’ve learned from that experience, and now regularly host a DJ on a Friday to play music while they cut hair. Not only does it provide the artist with exposure, but they also enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and comfort it can bring to the space, especially at the end of a week. 

Promoting artists and brands is just as important to them as the creation of a communal and relaxed space, and it’s something that is very integral to their future plans. 

While upstairs is a nice space to get your haircut and hangout, there are developments happening downstairs. Billy spoke about plans to turn the basement into two studio-spaces that can be rented out. Their function would ideally be creative, perhaps a photography studio or a tattoo parlour to help add to the services. 

While, from a business sense, this is a smart idea, it also creates a space that encourages creativity and turning your passion into your business. It’s already abundantly clear that this is what defines the upstairs area, and it’s exciting to see how this can characterise the entire shop moving forward. 

You can see that creativity is at the heart of what these boys are passionate about also. You only need to look as far as Charlie and his illustrious Instagram Reels and TikToks to see this. As well styling hair, Charlie has worked closely with fashion in the past, freelancing as a model. 

With Billy, Charlie and Carlos also having experiences pursuing their own ventures, there’s definitely an overall appreciation of the hard-work and dedication that’s needed to pursue your own creative endeavours and build a business out of it. 

By using Urban Route as a place to also provide creative spaces, they also are able to provide a platform where creatives can grow and build on their talents, while also building an all-important network and provide opportunities to collaborate with likeminded creatives. 

In a time when AI and new technologies seemingly pose a threat to the future of creative pursuits, individual creative services and the communities that support them have never been more important. In providing this space and platforming individual creatives, Urban Route also becomes a space that allows individuality, creative minds and general disruptors to flourish. 

With the daunting prospect of what the future holds for the creative industries, what Urban Route are doing in this regard is as admirable as it is exciting. 

Safe Space

When Billy mentioned part of Urban Route’s mission was to help remove the stigma around men’s mental health, I was definitely intrigued to learn more. What I was told was a pretty shocking statistic:

Billy: 80% of men would only open up to their barbers instead of partners or doctors.

Billy, Charlie and Carlos were all very candid in admitting that they have struggled with mental health in the past, and have found their careers to be pretty significant for improving not only their own mental health, but the mental health of their clients. 

Carlos noted that what is often understated is the connection a client can have with their barber. There’s a comfort and familiarity between them, this can be all important in someone getting something on their chest, or discussing a topic they feel they can’t with a friend or partner. 

There’s an immense power within that relationship, something that can be utilised for the better and provide positive impact. 

Charlie: I feel like guys struggle to come together and speak about their problems. I’ve got a few clients who have said they wouldn’t be able to meet their friends on a Friday night and bring up certain stuff they would bring up to me because they know that, from the outside-in you have to portray that “ideal guy” where you don’t open-up to your friends because it shows weakness. We don’t want that in here.

Billy: That stems from us as well. Us as a friendship group, we come in here and tell each other anything.

The relationship between the three of them is evidently strong as soon you enter the room, they spend their days together and they are building this business together. When it goes great, they celebrate their successes together, but when a day is bad, they can be honest and respect their need for space. 

Billy: If we’re having a shit day we come in and say “hey, today’s not my day. Not feeling great.” We take that at face-value, maybe we can still have a few jokes, but then “okay cool he’s not doing too great today.”

We all understand each other as individuals as well, that helps. We take the mick out of each other but also understand and can say “hey what’s up?” 

All come from very community-oriented backgrounds, and understand the power of the support they can give each other and build each other up. However, Billy recalled his time in the army before becoming a barber, and how he felt there he had nowhere to go when he was struggling with his mental health. Urban Route aims to provide the opposite of that, and this open and honest policy applies to all customers, and it is bound by respect and confidentiality. 

Billy: We want to take that here and say “we can have that conversation, and that conversation doesn’t go any further than the chair. No one else has to hear it. You’ve just got something off your chest at least.”

Charlie spoke about the intimidation factor of barbershops that can put-off even the most confident bloke. The three agreed, in their appearance, they have a very masculine look that to some can seem intimidating. Though they also agreed, and I can confirm, that once you get past that, they are pretty much the opposite of intimidating. 

They invite the chat and the banter, and are very quick to provide the space to be honest with themselves and speak candidly.

Charlie: I want someone calling me a cunt at 10am in the morning, give me some life.

It provides a space for clients to get something off of their chest and not keep their issues stuck in their head. Yes, there are options for therapy out there dedicated to this kind of honest expression, but they are restrictive. 

Services like Better Health, while great in their promotion of talking to battle mental health struggles, come at a high-cost. In the context of now, living through a cost of living crisis and economic recession, these options aren’t so viable, and can have a detrimental effect on mental health when considering the financial factors involved. 

In battling mental health, they’re not asking you to come to Urban Route with a list of issues to resolve, but they want the client to know that, in the shop, there is no issue that is off-topic. Should there be anything you want off your chest, this is a space where that can be possible.

Billy: You will walk out feeling better anyway because you’ve had a haircut that you feel better about yourself. 

Charlie: That’s actually a good point. Not only do you have a space to get your problems off your chest, should you want to, you look at the mirror and say “yeah I’m back to a 12/10” just because of the haircut. It’s the overall experience with it. 

They appreciate, given the aforementioned issues we’re facing today, haircuts can be seen as more of a luxury, which is why they aim for their prices to be reasonable given the services they provide.

Carlos: Feel free to come in, get a haircut, come and watch the telly. Have a chat. 

Charlie: Let your hair down, literally.

Closing Gratitude

Thanks to Billy, Charlie and Carlos for giving me their time. I am fascinated with the project and, speaking about it with other people, they are definitely onto something great with what they’re doing. They are located on Essex Road in Islington, North London, and I would certainly recommend paying them a visit, or following their activity on Instagram to see future events.

Charlie has been my barber for the last two years now, and I can certainly vouch for his professionalism and ability to provide a great chat.

Thank you also to you, the reader, for taking the time to read this. I’m always looking for interesting stories to tell or projects people are working on to better the community. Any story you think is worth telling, I’d love to hear it and will always be keen to delve deeper into the matter. 

Thanks again.


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