In the roaring twenties in the US, you had Prohibition and underground Speakeasies illegally selling alcohol. In the 2020s, amid a global pandemic, it has been about underground haircuts.
It is three months since Ireland began its Covid-19 lockdown. All non-essential activities that require close human contact were stopped in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Hairdressers and salons were shuttered.
Those longing for fresh cuts decided to take matters into their own hands. Either by shaving their head and posting proof on social media, letting it grow or soliciting secret haircuts.
“I’ve actually got video proof of one. I was on my way home yesterday and there was the barber and the local cafe owner getting his haircut. It’s absolutely disgraceful. It should be a fair playing field for everybody here,” says Conor McAllister, co-owner of the Grafton Barber, one of the country’s largest barber chains.
“Think of your family, think of the older people you may come in contact with. Think of them when you’re lining your pockets in a sneaky, cheap way.”
Sharon Ralph runs a hair salon and scalp clinic based in Castlebar in Co Mayo. She believes that underground hairdressing will not affect her business once she is allowed to reopen later this month.
“The black market has always been a part of our industry. I don’t think as a salon owner it’s something I’m going to worry about. I provide a high standard of hairdressing that cannot be performed at a kitchen table or in any environment outside of a salon,” she says.
Ralph may be confident. Others, however, are not.
Those working in the beauty community, like many others in different industries, are restless. As lockdown restrictions ease and the government’s phased strategy for reopening the economy speeds up, hairdressers and salon owners are eager to get back to work. Their wish was granted last week by the cabinet and they will be able to pick up the scissors once more, sooner than expected.
The government originally chose to let hairdressers and salon workers open on July 20, in Phase 4. However, the Irish Hairdressers Federation (IHF) proposed their own guidelines to government that would allow hairdressers to go back to their jobs in Phase 3.
The guidelines by the IHF consist of 100 initiatives that were developed through engagement with the HSE, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and input from Irish health and safety experts. These guidelines were approved by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) last Thursday evening.
Following the approval from NEPHET, incumbent Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that barbers, hairdressers and salons will indeed open in Phase 3 on June 29.
Is it too early to open though?
“No, I think what they’ve [the government] done is the right. I think it’s been a very planned operation. I know a lot of people are mad to get back in our industry and I understand that,” says McAllister.
“We’re hairdressers and we know how to create new hairstyles and do looks, and Tony Holohan [Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer] knows about the safety of your health and so does the government, and if they’re listening to him I’m definitely going to listen to him,” he says.
Ellen Kavanagh, the owner of waxing salon Waxperts in Dun Laoghaire, agrees.
“I think Ireland as a community has done an incredible job of managing through lockdown and the reopening phases. I know most beauty owners have not stopped working on their business even though the doors may have been closed. So, I’m confident that salon owners have been preparing and learning about the extra responsibility we will have once we are able to reopen. Everyone will want their team, clients and family safe.”
Kavanagh operates two businesses: the Waxperts salon and a distribution and trading business Waxperts Wax, through which she supplies wax and waxing products to over 3,000 salons throughout Ireland and the UK.
“We closed our salon in early March and we also closed our offices for our distribution business. Our salon has had zero income since, so we are eager to get back to business,” she says.
The business of beauty
Ireland’s beauty industry is worth hundreds of millions of euro and employs tens of thousands of people. Ireland’s salon and spa industry contributes €540 million annually to the Irish economy, according to research carried out by Phorest Salon Software. In addition to this, hair salons across the country take in approximately €1 million a day.
“The loss of revenue over this period of time we have been closed is astronomical for us.”Shaun Hickey Moriarty
There are currently 25,000 people employed in the hairdressing sector and the Hairdressing Council of Ireland (HCI) believes thousands of these jobs could be lost due to the lockdown.
The President of the Council, Sean Taaffe, recently spoke about the financial strain hairdressers and salon owners are under including insurance, rent, labour costs and Vat.
“The loss of revenue over this period of time we have been closed is astronomical for us. You’re still accruing all the costs from rents to loans. So the fact we’ll have to claw back all that when we open up again is just overwhelming at the moment,” says Shaun Hickey Moriarty, who is a salon owner and is also a board member of the HCI.
Hickey Moriarty estimates he will need to pay around €40,000 in fixed costs when he opens the doors to his salons again and has already lost €180,000 in revenue due to the lockdown.
Hickey Moriarty has been hairdressing for 20 years and decided to open his salon called the Green Room with his business partner Orla Greene in Killaloe in Co Clare 13 years ago. Since then he opened a second Green Room in 2019 in Nenagh in Co Tipperary, where hair, nails and make-up are catered for. They were hoping to set up and academy for people to learn the trade.
“We put a big investment in the last two years. They’re very high-end,” he says, adding that the investment in recent years came to over €150,000.
Now that hairdressers are allowed open a whole phase earlier, what will they look like?
Enhanced and consistent sanitisation is one of the key measures included in the guidelines by the IHF. Other measures such as no magazines or reading material will be implemented, while all phone numbers will be kept for contact tracing.
“Sanitation is always going to be there. Our staff will have to sanitise their hands probably a minimum of 20 times a day for every customer that they sanitise in front of and they’ll have to sanitise the tools in front of them,” says McAllister.
Apart from sanitising, McAllister says that other procedures will be done in all of his 46 barbershops across the country to prevent the spread of the virus.
Once the customer arrives in the barbers, they will see graphics on the floor that indicate where you should stand to make sure everyone is appropriately social distancing.
“Then you’ll come to a red hand at the sanitation stations to tell you [the customer] to stop and sanitise your hands. Then you’ll move into the seat. Then a barber will greet you wearing a face mask and a visor and will sit you into the seat without touching you,” says McAllister.
He adds that the barber’s chair will be sanitised before the customer takes a seat and that the barber will sanitise their hands and tools in front of the customer. They will then place a disposable gown around the customer before getting started.
“I know this sounds like you’re going in for an operation,” says McAllister.
There will be other small measures in place as well that will interrupt some of the finer points of the salon and hairdressing experience, according to the guidelines given by the IHF.
“Salon experience will not be the same. For example, we will be advising customers only to bring into the salon what you need so if someone brings in a coat it will have to be placed in a plastic cover and handed back in the cover. How will this work with our elderly clients who we like to make a fuss over and hang up a coat for,” says Ralph.
Tattooists feeling the pinch
Others in the beauty industry are feeling the same heat as hairdressers and salon workers, whether this is financial pressure or trying to think of ways to make sure their customer feels safe.
Even when hairdressers and salons reopen once more, there will be a certain amount of trepidation to be expected from customers. It is still unclear whether people will feel comfortable and safe from the virus in intimate settings such as a hairdressers. Now, imagine getting a tattoo.
“All needles are single-use and come from a sterile pack,” assures the owner of The Ink Factory tattoo studio Robbie Connelly.
“The key issue we face is that Covid is spread mainly from the mouth and nose. So, we’ll be doing respiratory hygiene training coupled with further hand hygiene protocols. A tattoo studio by its very nature has a greater awareness of infectious disease control as we deal with this reality every day. Most other sectors are simply attempting to bring their in-shop standards to the same level we’ve employed for years,” adds Connolly.
Tattoo studios were earmarked to open on August 10 as part of the government’s reopening strategy. They have now been bumped up to July 20.
Although tattoo studios have enforced high hygiene standards before the pandemic, according to Connelly, operations will change somewhat once it reopens in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Our standard operational procedures will be changed, which will result in clients only being allowed to turn up for their appointment alone and at the designated time. There’ll be further use of PPE for our workers and any client that enters the premises will go through a decontamination process and then be handed gloves and a mask that must be worn for their visit. Contact tracing logs will be in place and our already robust hygiene protocols will be amped up,” says Connelly.
Despite these standards, Connelly says that public perception of tattoo studios and the fear they may get infected while getting a tattoo will be the biggest business struggle to overcome post-lockdown.
“That will subside with time with the knowledge that our space is and always was a very sanitary environment,” he says.
The Ink Factory will be closed for four months by the time it reopens.
“It’s been devastating for the SME sector in general, a lot of people are going to lose their businesses. It’s been a financially painful time but our community continues to support us which we’re very grateful for,” says Connolly.
Connolly and his business partner and brother John opened The Ink Factory in 2014.
John Connelly passed away from suicide in 2016 at the age of 33. Since then, every year his brother hosts a day-long event where he gives tattoos to people for €50 and donates all the money to Pieta House.
“We’re very proud to host those events. If you’ve attended one you know that the energy is unique, it’s a really cathartic experience,” says Connolly.
Connolly operates The Ink Factory in Wellington Quay and on Parliament Street in Dublin. He also operates a piercing studio called Pierced on Camden Street. Across the three locations and the two brands, Connelly employs around 50 people.
One of the big issues for people in various industries, particularly those that include providing a face-to-face service to people, is the two-metre social distancing rule.
“For our salon, and the majority, it will not be possible to social distance throughout as the treatments are hands-on. So, hand and respiratory hygiene are of the utmost importance,” says Kavanagh.
“Salons will have been preparing and introducing extra measures of sanitising tools and treatment areas and doing risk assessments for both their various treatments and their salon,” she adds.
The two-metre rule would reduce the number of people allowed into places like hairdressers causing a further financial strain when they reopen. It would also impact the delivery of the service being provided.
“Two metres is really disastrous for everybody in business. And I know he [Holohan] is not out to put us out of business or put anyone else out of business, but two metres is going to be hard graft. It’ll half your business because you’re taking out half your seats to give the two-metre distance between customers. But then again, I’m still cutting your hair less than two metres apart. So how does that make sense? It’s all about sanitisation. Realistically, that’s what this boils down to, is how well do you sanitise,” says McAllister.
With ongoing pressure from lobbyists stating that two-metre physical distancing is not sustainable for businesses, it seems more likely that the government will favour WHO’s one-metre distancing recommendations.
Regardless of whether it’s two metres or one, hairdressers cannot maintain a social distancing while cutting hair. This is why personal protective equipment (PPE) and regular sanitising is vital when they reopen. McAllister believes some have fallen behind when it comes to realising this.
He says that those who go down that route of waiting to see what happens are “going to be left way behind.”
“You need to get up and get active and have a plan in place because you’re not going to be open,” he says. McAllister says that because the demand for PPE is so great, other hairdressers will beat their competitors to it unless they start moving now.
“People are panicking because they’re unsure as to what to do or what they need,” says Hickey Moriarty. He says that many of his colleagues in the beauty industry did not want to spend money they don’t have on equipment to suit the IHF guidelines when they were unapproved, in case it turns out that something completely different may be put in place.
Regardless of when salons and hairdressers open, McAllister says “rushing back to work just to get the economy running and stuff like that could be detrimental to saving a lot more lives.”
Future and current plans
During the lockdown, Kavanagh has been focusing on her distribution business and her new online training academy which launched during the lockdown.
“In a strange way that was good timing as our audience and customers were on their phone and laptop and able to participate. Had it been during normal times we would have been working hard to try and get their attention for this online training.”
McAllister has also been channelling his focus towards other elements of his business. He recently bought a warehouse and is considering manufacturing more products and selling them worldwide.
McAllister says he has seen the power of online during lockdown and wants to pursue it further. The Grafton Barber is not just a chain of physical barbers, but also a brand that sells its own range of products online. At the moment, there are 29 products that can be bought from the Grafton Barber website.
“Our online businesses went absolutely through the roof compared to what it’s ever been. It’s because nobody can get a haircut. They’re looking to see what else they can do with their hair, which is a great thing. Now you’ll see a change in trends appearing in haircuts,” says McAllister.
McAllister and his brother and business partner Hugh McAllister have much more immediate plans on the horizon as well. They were on course to open two new Grafton Barbers, one in Limerick and one in Dublin’s Ranelagh. However, construction was delayed due to the lockdown.
McAllister says he has enjoyed lockdown as it has offered a “once in a lifetime” chance to appreciate family life and evaluate his business, particularly the progression of the online side of things.
“We’ve had such good times, myself and my brother, looking at all these new beginnings really to bring into the business as we reopen,” says McAllister.
The business has no shareholders or investors – something McAllister does not want to change.
“Never had investors and I never intend to,” he says.
His father started the family barber business before his sons took it over. Originally from Belfast, the McAllister brothers’ father went to Dublin and opened his own barbers. Before then, he and his two sons earned a living by being barbers to the stars. Through this line of work, they met the late actor Denis Hopper on the set of Spacetruckers. Hopper officiated at the opening of the first barbershop the brothers owned on Grafton Street in 1993, hence the name of the brand today. The company now employs 280 staff.
McAllister still tends to the stars and accompanied Irish Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan as a personal hairdresser while she was doing global press junkets for her movies The Lovely Bones and Hanna.
McAllister says that this crisis has been a shock to everyone in their industry because regardless of circumstances hairdressers and barbers usually aren’t hugely hit due to the nature of their business.
“In economics, no matter what happens, the hairdresser and barbers, because hair grows, never get hit. Whoever would have thought this could happen,” says McAllister.
“It’s a time when people need to be good to each other,” he says.