Towards the end of 2018, there was a small buzz amongst the local men’s barbering community. A young Bruneian barber posted an advertisement that he was looking to hire local barbers with a starting salary of $750 monthly – and while experience was advantageous – it wasn’t required.
If they tended to 150 heads of hair each month, they could expect to earn over $1,000. With Brunei’s unemployment at 9.3% – the majority of whom are young men – the proposition made by 24-year-old Izaz Fahad Bahrein, the founder of Bercuts, was undeniably enticing.
“The catch is that we’re not looking for part-time Barbers, who are looking to cut hair just part of a phase or to pass time,” said Fahad, who has sent his aspiring barbers Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to train for two months at the highly-rated OTHRS barbershop.
“We’re looking for young Bruneians who are willing to turn this into a full-time profession with us, beginning with our first branch in Jerudong.”
Local barbering on the rise
The rise of local barbershops – who pride themselves in giving “classic, gentlemen” haircuts and shaves – is a global trend signaling a new wave in men’s grooming. Many stipulate that men are willing to pay and spend more time at their local barbers, not just for the haircut but the overall experience.
“The men’s hairstyles that are trending these days – if done right – take more time,” said Fahad. “Especially fades, where you’re doing an increasing gradient of short to long hair. Even facial hair, more men are growing out their beards, so styling and trimming it is in demand. And when your spending 45 to 60 minutes to get the perfect haircut, you want to sit back, relax and have a good rapport with your barber. Like dining at a proper restaurant, instead of having a quick takeaway.”
In Brunei, men’s hairstyling up to 2013 was largely serviced by two types of businesses with opposing price points. You had barbershops operated by Indians and South Asians offering quick, no-fuss haircuts and shaves between $3 to $5 and upmarket saloons charging four to five times that amount, focusing on scissor work over clippers while also offering different types of hair treatment.
The arrival of Stay Traditional and Chaps and Rebels in 2014 saw Bruneian men finally have the option of local barbershops. Many similarly styled stores mushroomed across the country soon after, but none have been able to scale their operation beyond one branch for long. Manpower – specifically high turnover and low recruitment – were often cited as the biggest issue.
This shouldn’t be a groundbreaking observation however. Barbering currently isn’t a skill that can be learned at any of Brunei’s trade schools.
From Geology to London School of Barbering
Fahad spent the better part of 2015 in Bandung, Jakarta for his Discovery Year programme at UBD. His close friend lived next to a barbershop, sparking Fahad’s interest in classic hairstyles like the pompadour and side fades.
After returning, Fahad began frequenting local barbershops, and while hanging out with his friends at home during revision week, decided to pick up a set of unused Wahl clippers from his father.
“We were taking a break from studying,” says Fahad jokingly. “So we tried to mimic the haircut that I got with the clippers. It didn’t turn out so good, but I was hooked. There’s this hands-on feeling as you sculpt someone’s appearance that’s really satisfying, especially when you get it right.”
While finishing his final year in Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Fahad began scouring YouTube for barbering content. By the time he graduated with a degree in Geology in 2017, he already had paying customers whom he would be cutting either from home or on-the-go.
His father then backed his decision to enroll at the London School of Barbering a few months after graduating. Fahad spent six months at their Farringdon academy, cutting professionally on real clients while also servicing students staying at Brunei Hall.
“When I returned to Brunei, I wanted to open a barbershop that would offer the next level of consultation and service. Because that’s what I learned would take a basic haircut to the next level.”
The Bercuts experience
With eight seats, Bercuts’ setup in Jerudong is the largest of any local barbershop, and at $25 a haircut – it’s also the most expensive.
Fahad justifies the premium price point by including a hair wash and a hot towel finish as standard, while also offering complimentary coffee and tea.
“We want to bring more services and value to the standard haircut,” said Fahad. “That is our current strategy instead of ala carte services (like walking in just for a hair cut). This gives the customer the complete experience, provides the barber ample time to produce his best work and enables us to sustain the business by paying our barbers a fair wage.”
It’s been a month since Bercuts opened. As expected, a good amount of customers are executives, but the barbershop regularly welcomes children and teens as well, who don’t mind shelling out extra to have an attentive barber who will go the extra mile to understand their different quirks in style.
Bercuts’ roster currently has four barbers – including Fahad – so the next step is finding more local barbers. Fahad also has to find the balance between pricing, salaries, service and drawing customers quickly for Bercuts to be commercially viable while remaining true to its vision of employing 100% local.
“If the salary isn’t high enough, it’s hard to attract locals to be barbers because they won’t see it as a full-time or long-term job. And when they aren’t committed then they aren’t as likely to put in the hours needed to become great at barbering,” says Fahad.
“But paying a higher salary is also reflected in (a higher) price to the customer. So we must bring the highest quality of skill and service from the very beginning which is why we’ve invested a lot in training. In the long-term, we want to grow Bercuts to more locations, and ultimately have a small training centre in Brunei to turn barbering into a respected, professional trade.”