HomeShoppingHow Turkish barbers took over the British high street

How Turkish barbers took over the British high street


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Not much happens on a Monday afternoon on the high street in Sedgley. The Chinese takeaway hasn’t yet opened, the local pharmacy is about to close and the charity shop has no customers. Sedgley, an ancient but unremarkable town between Wolverhampton and Dudley in the West Midlands, was dull on the wintry day when I visited — with one exception. Its Turkish barber shops (there are three on the high street alone) were all bling and bright lights, like department stores before Christmas. The chairs were fitted with Swarovski crystals, the racks stuffed with gleaming bottles of creams and lotions. Cups of Turkish tea were being passed among staff dressed in crisp uniforms.

At the pub, the landlady, a robust, proud woman who knows the customers by name and flaunts her knowledge of Irish folk bands, was tearing up newspapers to throw into the fireplace. I ordered a drink and introduced myself. “A journalist! That must be interesting,” she said. I told her I was writing about Turkish barbers. “Well, haven’t we got one too many!” There were two more in a neighbouring village, she said, which barely had any people. “Makes you think.”

It does. I didn’t tell her, but I have been thinking about Turkish barbers for months. Being a recent immigrant to the UK, I observe everything around me keenly, especially the ways in which other foreigners carve a place for themselves in a country that is not always known for embracing outsiders. And in Sedgley I thought I might be able to discover the answer to a question that had been nagging at me since I arrived in the UK: how had Turkish barber shops become so ubiquitous in Britain?

My unscientific mission was to locate the town in the UK with more barber shops than any other. Every few days, I searched the internet to see how many results showed up in randomly chosen places, from High Wycombe in south-east England to Newport on the Isle of Wight. One day, while getting a measure of the Midlands, I landed on an article from 2022 about Sedgley. It painted a picture of a town of about 12,000 people where there were so many barber shops — 21 at the time — that some owners were calling for council regulation to limit newer licences. The subtext seemed clear: no more Turkish barbers.

I live in a civil parish in Oxfordshire, smaller than Sedgley, and can list all its local attractions in order of popularity. Many small towns in the UK have similar-looking high streets, give or take the occasional Michelin-starred restaurant (in the south-east), hypnotherapist or bespoke suit-maker. Residents can count on fish and chip shops, nail salons, charity shops, pet food stores and Chinese takeaways with menus unchanged since the 1990s. Turkish barber shops are also omnipresent.

It’s clear what they have to offer. While a traditional English barber might give you a taciturn trim or a quick shave, their Turkish counterparts provide a much more enticing service. They promise a male grooming ritual — the clientele is, indeed, exclusively male — that pampers the inhabitants of a country once unaccustomed to such self-indulgence.

Barber shops are the fastest-growing sector of the British retail economy. Roughly 20,000 registered barber shops operate across the country, and thousands of these brand themselves as Turkish. It’s not uncommon to see a single street with half a dozen Turkish barber shops and all of them full at the same time. Barber shop videos rack up millions of views on TikTok, and men aren’t afraid to post photos of themselves preening in salon mirrors.

In the most far flung parts of the UK today, you can find a Turkish barber shop opening its doors shortly after sunrise. Even the Isle of Man, the self-governing sliver of land in the Irish Sea, has some. On Reddit, the clearing house for trivial observations, I found dozens of comment threads where locals report the number of Turkish barber shops where they live:

“I live in quite a small town in the East Midlands — overnight two Turkish barber shops have sprung out of nowhere.”

“I just went to Bridgwater and there must be five in about 50 metres.”

“Do British barbers even exist?”

Back home in Oxfordshire at the small unisex hair salon where I have my hair cut, the English hairdresser admitted to feeling no love for her Turkish competitor two shops away. “Way too many of them,” she said, parting my hair down the middle, “and not all of them qualified to cut hair. They have only one technique: skin fades.”

The skin fade is the haircut that forever changed the world of men’s grooming. For the classic look, hair is shaved close at the lower hairline using electric clippers. From there, it gathers volume, gradually and seamlessly, as the clipper advances towards the crown. These days, barber shops specialise in as many variations of the skin fade as they have settings on their machines. But how a haircut that originated in the US military, and became a staple of the American hip-hop scene and high fashion by way of Thom Browne, ended up being the speciality of Turkish barbers in Britain is a question that no Turkish barber I spoke to could fully explain. They told me they do it because that is what every other customer asks for.

The skin fade cuts across age and ethnicity. On the London Underground, I see the full range of its adopters, from five-year-old boys to bankers in expensive suits. I suspect each of them has a Turkish barber shop within walking distance of his home. But how this situation came about feels like a great mystery.

In Turkey, barbering took off as a glorious profession during the 16th-century rule of Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman The Magnificent, the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the earliest barber shops began as extensions of the coffee houses that were being opened to provide a lively atmosphere for public debate. Later on, they were organised into guilds; aspirants were painstakingly tested after long apprenticeships before they could officially cut hair and shave beards.

But that was not all they did. Barbers also offered circumcision, dentistry and bloodletting. They made their own dyes, medicines and pomades to treat everything from eczema to baldness. Starting in the 16th century, western travellers’ dispatches featured barbers who showed off their artistry with sharp razors and flaming tapers used to burn ear hair, whether from formal establishments or out in the open: on streets, piers and in town squares.

Given their central place in Ottoman life, barber shops were controlled by the state, which could — and did — punish citizens for insulting barbers (a wayward man was slapped with a three-month prison sentence for stealing soap material). When the government wanted to spread a piece of propaganda, it planted it in a barber shop. It was there that the authorities picked up the first signs of public dissent.

Even today, barber shops retain their elevated status in Turkish society. But my hairdresser feels differently. She claimed some of the barbers at the rival shop down the street weren’t even Turkish to begin with. “Only the owner is, I reckon. The rest of them, they are Albanians,” she said. (The next time I go in for a trim, I will have to inform her that the owner isn’t Turkish either. A Kurdish refugee from Turkey owns the shop, and every man who works for him is part of the family.)

Her fit of pique raises an important question: what makes a true Turkish barber? Is it where they are from, or the fact of the craft being handed down from one barber to the next? Of the dozen “Turkish” barbers I spoke to, half of them had no links to Turkey. One had come to the UK from Pakistan as an illegal immigrant. Another had fled Iraq in the middle of an armed conflict. Each of them spent years learning the techniques at Turkish barber shops and none was keen to reveal their non-Turkish origins. As the competition heats up and authenticity becomes a precious asset, it’s safer to lie than be labelled an imposter. 

The tale of the UK’s Turkish barber shop revolution begins — like so many stories of modern Britain — in the 1950s during the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, and one man claims to know all the details.

Halil Ismail talked to me over a video call from a hotel poolside in Cyprus. A Londoner for most of his life, Halil, a heavily built 58-year-old with a bald head, spends most of his time in Cyprus these days. Seventy years ago, his father made the opposite journey, boarding a ship from the northern part of the island with his three brothers. Ismail Ismail was a barber, and so was his father before him. “For as far as we can draw the family line, the men were into barbering,” Halil said, proudly. The 1950s were tough for Turkish people settled in Cyprus, he added. The long-running ethnic division between Turkish and Greek Cypriots was escalating towards a violent conflict.

One day, Ismail saw a notice in the local newspaper inviting trained barbers to move to England. In the wake of the second world war, Britain faced an acute shortage of skilled labour. The government placed job advertisements in newspapers and on notice boards across Commonwealth countries, from Jamaica to Cyprus. Ships left Paphos Harbour carrying crews of talented workmen. “Barbers, tailors, shoemakers — people engaged in trades that involved skill with hands,” Halil said. Greek Cypriots often took the same ship after seeing the same ad.

Most new immigrants chose London as their base. Over the decades, they became entwined with the capital’s commercial enterprises, opening cafés and kebab shops, bakeries and supermarkets, dry cleaners and cloth wholesalers. In the early 1960s, Ismail and his three brothers opened a barber shop in Lambeth, a vibrant working-class neighbourhood in south London. That establishment, Halil insists — though obviously it is a matter of some dispute — was the first Turkish barber shop in Britain: “We brought Turkish barbering to the UK. We were the first family in the trade.”

The original employees of Ismail’s shop were an Italian and a Greek immigrant. Initially, clients did not always trust foreigners to cut their hair. Halil’s father told stories of Englishmen creating scenes when faced with strangers brandishing scissors. But in just a few years, Ismail and his brothers had a loyal set of customers.

By the time Halil was born, in 1971, the shop had moved to Spitalfields in the East End. That is where he began his training at the age of 10. “I learnt from my father and my uncles. When it was time for me to perform my first haircut, I did it on a friend of mine.” Halil remembers being nervous as hell — watched by a league of master barbers. “Blood squirted from the tip of my friend’s ear.” By the age of 20, he was not only a well-regarded barber but also in charge of the family business. He went on to open other locations in Bow Lane and Mayfair.

But Spitalfields remained a special place. The original barber shop is on the same street where Victorian London’s serial killer, Jack the Ripper, slit the throat of his first victim in 1888. Growing up, Halil heard stories about the life and times of the neighbourhood’s elusive murderer. “A common notion was that Jack was either a barber or a surgeon. After all, he walked around with a bag of sharp tools,” he said. “Many people believed he had been Polish. Definitely an immigrant.”

In 2008, Halil rebranded his business, pegging it to the cult of the local villain with serious knife skills. The shops were renamed from Jimmy’s Cutting Room to Jack The Clipper. Their new mascot was a sharply dressed foreigner with slicked-back hair and a Viking beard. He had a cut-throat razor in his hand and a menacing look in his eyes. The revamp gave them an edge over other Turkish barber shops opening in London and the shop even became a stop on the official Jack the Ripper guided tour.

Business was good. The menswear company Ted Baker approached him with an offer of a consulting partnership for a string of barber shops: “prestigious Turkish barbering skill” with “quintessential British style”. New outposts would eventually spring up across London, offering British men who hadn’t yet experienced Turkish-style service the chance to get a cut-throat shave or a head massage — with a glass of beer included in the package.

The salons promised unusual excitement for the relatively traditional London male. Until then, one Turkish barber told me, British men were used to a minimal service. “They didn’t even wash your hair afterwards,” he said, sighing. It was nothing short of an adventure for an Englishman to sit mutely while his ear hair was burnt with a live flame and hot wax was poured into his nostrils. “They were terrified of the fire,” the barber told me. “I would say to them, ‘We will burn it real quick, like Turkish kebab.’”

“It was all very invigorating,” a 2012 review of Ted Baker’s Ottoman Lounge in Holborn announced. “Ergun blow-dried my fringe into something like [The Human League singer] Phil Oakey’s circa “Mirror Man”, a nice woman from Essex saw to my nails as Ergun did his stuff, and two days later I was back — this time for a pedicure and blissful facial, which was so relaxing that I nodded off.” The reviewer added a word of caution: this was not a place for blokes who want to talk about football while waiting for a crew cut.

A decade later, it looks like plenty of those blokes have been converted. But to hold on to the rest of their customers, some English barber shops are attempting to rebrand, doubling down on their Britishness as a selling point. Some have dug up a family heritage or historical connection to English barbers past, complete with photos of long-dead great-uncles with cavalry swords that were melted down to fashion hair-cutting scissors and shaving knives. The word “traditional” frequently appears in the signage. One shop I came across in High Wycombe displays a Union Jack on the storefront next to the coronation portrait of the king.

They aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze. Some established Turkish barbers are calling upon local councils to limit the number of new shop licences. A regular complaint concerns employees running away to open their own shops, sometimes on the same street, and then advertising lower prices.

That’s what happened in Sedgley, according to Jamie Brassington, the reporter who wrote the Birmingham Live news story I came across online. He said the person calling for regulation on new licences is the man who opened the first Turkish barber shop in town five years ago. “Gradually, people who worked for him opened their shops nearby.” Brassington thinks Sedgley can accommodate the competition. “It’s no longer a village, it is a town with a bigger population. It’s good that customers have options. With more Turkish barbers, they have access to services they haven’t seen before, such as wet shaving and nose waxing. The men seem to enjoy the pampering.” He himself visits when he feels like a skin fade or beard trim: “I find them good value for money.”

Halil Ismail’s son Koran is also contending with the explosion of rival shops with the same USP. Halil pulled out of the Ted Baker partnership to focus on his own handful of barber shops — for no other reason, he said, than a nagging need to control the quality of service. (Ted Baker did not respond to a request for comment.) Koran and his father have a term for inexperienced barbers who are new to the scene: cowboys. Halil doesn’t let himself forget that his family was paid a £50 grant to board the ship to Britain. “We came on invitation,” he said. “We did not apply for a visa.”

Koran was cutting a man’s hair when I entered the family’s flagship outlet in Spitalfields. Unlike his father, he is skinny and has short hair and sharp features. But he has his dad’s sense of grandeur. At 29, he claims to be London’s only third-generation Turkish barber, having trained at the shop after school under his grandfather, father and uncles. “Barbering is in my blood. If you cut me,” he said, nodding to the ubiquitous azure jars of disinfectant liquid on every countertop, “I will bleed blue.” 

Koran took me for a walk down the street where he grew up. “In the barbering world right now, anyone can become a barber after a 10-week training,” he said, complaining that Spitalfields was losing its character — commercial blocks were replacing food markets; big chains were driving out family-run clothing stores. Now there were barber shops that looked as though they sold bubble tea. He pointed out new ones in every little lane. I asked him if the barbers operating in one area speak to each other. Not necessarily, he said. “Some even walk past the others’ shops to see if they have customers.” They may not stop to pay their respects to him, he said, “but every barber in the area knows who we are: the OG stars of Turkish barbering.”

Back in Turkey, the allure of barbering abroad has not been dimmed by worries about an excess of competition. I found Enes Göregen on TikTok, where thousands of users follow his page for candid videos shot in his Turkish barber shop in Mullingar, a thriving town in the Irish midlands. He agreed to talk on the phone.

Göregen is 31 and from Antakya in the Hatay province on Turkey’s southernmost tip. “Where I grew up, people care for hair and beard. My father is 56 — or 57. His barber spends an hour on his haircut. People have very high standards,” Göregen said. He started training at a barber shop at the age of 14. “My house is across the road from a beach, but I never went to the beach in summer. I trained at the barber shop.” He learnt classic scissor work from a respected barber in the city. “If I made a mistake, he slapped me. He would continue to slap me until I said, ‘thank you’.”

Today, Göregen owns one of Mullingar’s three Turkish barber shops. Since he immigrated in 2020, several members of his family have followed. “My sister has joined me. Another cousin came, then another sister. We are looking for a second place to open another shop. Our plan is to add nails, beauty, make-up and hairdressing. I am going to pay for them to train in Turkey.”

Being a barber in Turkey these days is tough, he said. Back in his town, he said every other friend or relative wants to be a barber in the UK. “Every day, one cousin calls me. Sometimes I wonder if I have even met some of the people who call me. They tell me, ‘I was your friend’ or ‘I was your classmate in school.’ Every day I have a text from someone. They are saying, ‘I want to be like you. I want to be successful.’”

Snigdha Poonam is the author of “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World”

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