In June 2013, Khalil Malamug knew it was go big or go home:
Having cut hair since age 14, the 30-year-old Malamug said he was ready to pour his life savings into his own barbershop.
“But I had to have something special, something that gave me that ‘pop’ element,” Malamug said. “I was told, ‘You must find a niche.’”
Malamug discovered his on YouTube.
“I found myself watching videos of traditional European shaves,” he said. “I wanted to bring that trend to my table.”
So Malamug set out to infuse the old school barbershop niche — one with exceptional personalized service and craftsmanship — with absolute style.
The result? Razorsharp Barbershop & Shave Parlor in Metuchen.
“RSBS is much more young, vibrant and eclectic, with a city-like feel and definite street style,” Malamug said.
Decked out to the nines on social media looking like a modern day Rat Pack, Malamug and his team provide trims, cuts, fades, straight-edge shaves, custom designs and more for likeminded gentlemen that “care about the way they look.”
It’s a fast growing market, one that Malamug has successfully capitalized on enough to open a second location in Westfield, The Wolves’ Den Barbershop & Supply Co., in June.
“We’ve exceeded our expectations,” he said.
Despite being a millennial, Malamug remembers exactly when the men’s grooming market started to evolve into what it is today.
“Guys were wearing the baggy hip-hop style in the ’90s,” he said. “But somewhere around 2008, there was a complete transition to ‘dapper.’”
All of a sudden, males were dressing more like “Mad Men” — which debuted in 2007 — than “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“The clothes initiated it and the hairstyles followed,” he said.
Such widespread pop cultural appeal created a promising marketing demographic that would spend more time and money on their appearance than ever before.
Nearly 10 years later, that demographic is still growing.
Studies today suggest that whether men choose to look like hipsters, lumberjacks or suave, the gender as a whole feels freer to express their individual identities via clothes and hairstyles than ever before.
It shows in the numbers.
According to Datamonitor, the U.S. was the most active country in terms of new product launches over the past two years, accounting for 21 percent of new global men’s grooming products.
And Princeton-based Multi-sponsor Surveys found that 39 percent of men report requiring hair removal services at salons, up from 6 percent 10 years ago.
Malamug wasn’t the only one who noticed the trend.
Other barbers — even non-barbers — are quickly getting into the game.
Daniel Bunce was a 30-year professional in human resources and industrial security when he lost his job in 2013.
“Nowadays, stability in corporate America is an issue,” he said. “Organizations are always closing, downsizing or selling.
“I found myself looking for a job every three to five years.”
Bunce was looking to get into business for himself when he visited a women’s salon for a haircut.
“Salons that cater to women are uncomfortable,” he said. “Men are just thrown in between appointments with the regulars.”
Believing that New Jersey was lacking in upscale men’s grooming establishments, Bunce researched and sought to franchise Irvine, California-based 18/8 Fine Men’s Salons.
Bunce and his daughter, Joanna, expect to open their first shop this month in Bedminster. And Bunce promises it will be unlike anything the locals have seen.
The brand — founded by Scott Griffith in 2002 — is not the average barbershop.
Each client is seated in a semi-private stylist station in order to receive haircuts with neck and shoulder massages, facials, scalp treatments, nail care, hot lather shaves, waxing and more.
“Women are saying, ‘When will that open up for us?’” Bunch said. “We’re in the right niche market at the right time.”
His shop will be the second 18/8 in the state, as another franchisee opened one in Livingston earlier this summer.
It’s all part of the boom in barbershops that’s occurred since New Jersey lifted the Cosmetology and Hairstyling Act of 1984.
At the dawn of unisex salons such as Supercuts and the rise in at-home shaving kits, the state mandated that anyone seeking to do business as a barber must obtain a cosmetology license — which meant costlier, lengthier and more intensive training for services such as nail care and waxing that barbershops would not even offer.
Hervey Leon, founder of The Clubhouse Barbershop & Shave Parlors in Clark and Hoboken, is glad the state changed back the law in 2012 to obtaining a single, separate barbering license. He believes that decision singlehandedly brought back the barbershop to the state.
“I wanted to provide an establishment where gentlemen from all walks of life could go to get away from the day-to-day grind and hang out with likeminded individuals while getting quality haircuts along with traditional straight razor shaves,” Leon said.
Not everyone, however, believed that the urbanized shop he opened in his hometown in 2007 would be successful.
“People told me that my idea for The Clubhouse would never work — that I should just open your typical run-of-the-mill barbershop because no one was going to understand my concept,” Leon said.
Not everyone thought they’d be a barber.
After working as a buyer for Tommy Hilfiger for three years in New York, Hervey Leon opened Leon’s Food Corp. — a manufacturer of specialty foods — with his brothers in 1997.
He then attended the American Barber Institute in New York City.
“I don’t see barbering as a job — I see it as my passion and career,” Leon said. “I have the ability to be creative with the freedom to take my brand in any direction I choose.”
He showed them. The Clark location averages about 50 haircuts a day during the week, with that number nearly doubling on weekends and holidays.
Its success — and the rise of social media — also allowed him to open up a second location in Hoboken.
“A barber can go on social media to see how other barbers and shops are trying new styles, cuts and techniques, as well as marketing themselves and their brands,” Leon said.
Malamug, a personal friend of Leon’s, relies heavily on social media to book appointments, communicate with customers and provide information on each of his barbers.
“Social media gave me the confidence to leave the shop I opened in 2011 with family — Chief Barbershop in Piscataway — to start Razorsharp,” Malamug said.
“People are starting to follow what I do on Instagram and the type of trends that I set.”
Both Malamug and Leon also believe in the power of partnerships to market their respective businesses.
RSBS and The Wolves’ Den not only sell their own branded apparel, but also partner with high-end hair product brands such as Baxter Finley and Upper Cut Deluxe to offer to their customers.
“We also just held a pop-up shop in Urban Outfitters in Westfield to offer free haircuts and socialize with the community,” Malamug said.
The Clubhouse regularly hosts “Gentlemen’s Evenings,” teaming up with local businesses and liquor sponsors such as Kettle One Vodka and The Macallan to provide complimentary grooming services and liquor tastings.
Bunch, however, doesn’t believe that 18/8 must market exclusively to men.
“If you market to women, they are many times the ones that get their guys to come in because they want them to look sharp,” he said.
Especially in New Jersey, said 18/8 founder and CEO Scott Griffith.
“New Jersey has attracted a lot of franchisee candidates,” he said. “We look for upscale, affluent locations since we attract 78 percent of our customers from a three-mile radius from home or work.”
Learning the trade
Any hopeful barber who steps foot inside of Razorsharp or The Wolves’ Den must first undergo a rigorous apprenticeship with Khalil Malamug.
“They must be willing to learn. If they’re not willing to dedicate themselves to this business, I pass,” he said. “I’d rather take the kid from scratch who knows nothing — who may have never even touched a pair of clippers before — and teach him from zero all the way up to where he needs to be.”
In addition to growing both the Razorsharp and The Wolves’ Den brands, Malamug ultimately wants to own and operate his own barber school.
“I want to sell what it is we’ve been doing here at Razorsharp,” he said.
Affluence, Malamug said, is key.
“People have money here,” he said. “They also like to be stylish here, set themselves apart, look and feel good and will frequent places that help them feel that way.”
And Leon noted the location helps, too.
“New Jersey is a great market simply because we’re so close to New York City, where fashion and style is such a big deal,” he said.
Daniel and Joanna Bunce are already planning to open additional 18/8 locations in Bridgewater and Basking Ridge within the next three years.
Malamug — despite not having planned to open up a second shop this early — didn’t hesitate to scoop up the flat-iron building in Westfield, with visuals on both sides in the middle of a four-way cross section, for The Wolves’ Den.
“We want to expand our brands and go into several areas of New Jersey before ending up in New York,” he said.
And Leon has his sights set west.
“We feel that California is a great market for our brand and style of barbering,” he said.
While the industry may be rapidly expanding, all agree that there is room still for everybody.
“If you know what you’re doing as a business, you simply characterize yourself and cater to your specific clientele,” Malamug said.
In this case, men who want to look good.
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