The barbershop evolved

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June 7, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// MENSDEPT. brings intelligence to the male grooming game //

For Kurt Kueffner, the indifference that most hair salons show toward their male clients isn’t just a marketing problem. It’s a cultural dilemma.

“I got this deal: We’re a long way from understanding how a quality men’s salon fits into a modern culture,” he says. “There was a time, and I’m old enough to know, that barbershops were purposeful. There was a community there. ‘Andy of Mayberry,’” — with its chummy boys club at the small-town Main Street barbershop — “was real.”

Today, Kueffner is a more comfy version of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” He’s dressed casually and lounging in the minimally designed waiting area of the MENSDEPT., his guys-oriented salon that opened just last March next door to the Minneapolis Aloft hotel. But he’s ruminating, dwelling on a riddle that has been his grail for a decade and a half: how to make styling studios more man-friendly.

Kueffner continues, “I think the haircut is important.” But in today’s post-metrosexual society, “how does it fit in your life? That’s something I’m still navigating.”

If Kueffner, 55, seems professorial — and with his closely clipped, salt-and-pepper hair, he often does — it’s because he is a professor of sorts, at least in the grooming biz. The bulk of his 30-plus years of experience has been as an elite educator. During an eight-year tenure at American Crew, the seminal salon brand for men, he pioneered curriculum, literally writing manuals on the men’s cut as vice president of education. Then at Aveda, where he handled technical training as one of the brand’s esteemed “purefessional” instructors, he played a large role in launching their men’s line of products. If you’re a guy and you’ve ever coiffed with something out of Aveda’s iconic brown bottles, Kueffner probably concepted it.

Calm and impressively articulate, the salon owner gets cerebral when discussing men’s grooming. It’s like a social science for him. And while he respects the technical rigors of the men’s cut, which he describes as “precise, autocratic, accountable hair cutting,” it’s his clients’ gender-specific sensitivities that seem to rivet him the most.

Kueffner ponders over the type of gown a guy has to wear while getting trimmed, what type of spatial design would most accommodate guys in the waiting area, what type of drinks to offer guests, what kind of artwork, if any, should adorn the walls. He coaches his stylists — whom he calls “designers” — not only in craft, but in the soft skills of reducing drama in the salon environment, which he cites as a major turn-off for male clients.

“Guys should walk into a space where they’re considered,” he asserts.

But that isn’t to say it should be a den of machismo. Kueffner cringes at the recent growth of testosterone-charged men’s salons like Raze and Sports Clips.

“We made two marching orders when we started this project,” he said. “One is that we would do nothing esoteric. And I think hand massages and $150 haircuts are very esoteric. The other thing is we would do nothing overly patronizing. And I think sports TV and cleavage and tap beer and pool tables and all the obvious answers are insultingly patronizing.”

While Kueffner isn’t sure if he’s completely pinned down the essence of a modern man’s salon — “it’s still pretty crystal ball” — he feels he’s on the right path. He prides himself on certain man-centric accommodations, like offering clean T-shirts for clients to change into for the duration of the cut, so that they are not itching for the rest of the day.  

The MENSDEPT. offers a “Year of Grooming Package,” where for $375, a man can get his hair cut as often as he likes — an acknowledgment of the shorter grooming cycles men tend to observe, especially those with more precision styles. Perhaps most impressively, Kueffner’s salon offers office visits. The MENSDEPT. will send a stylist to any Downtown office for on-the-spot services.

The walls of the salon also offer a new approach. Instead of high-fashion photos of hair models, the MENSDEPT. features a bank of stunning black-and-white portraits of male celebrities, many of whom are not known for their hair, or even their good looks. Guys like Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton share space with dreamboats Benicio del Torro, Ryan Adams and ?uestlove from the Roots.

The images are part of an art exhibit that the salon is hosting in an effort to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House. Kueffner’s son, now in his 20s, has battled cancer three times, and the salon owner has been closely involved with cancer research charities ever since. The photos come from the private collection of David Raccuglia, the founder of American Crew who went on to have a prominent career as an art director, filmmaker and photographer. Raccuglia hired Kueffner at American Crew, and Kueffner considers his old boss his best friend. Raccuglia provided the MENSDEPT. with start-up capital and, according to Kueffner, remains “involved in the business in a bashful way.”

The opening is June 10, from 7–10 p.m. Each photo comes in a limited run of 50 prints, and the majority of the sales go to the Ronald McDonald House. Sebastien Joe’s has donated nine tubs of ice cream for the event.

For a guy who has calibrated his salon’s manliness to a T, selling off its iconic photos, which hold just the right ratio of high style and low drama, throws a monkey wrench in the plan.

“When it’s done, what the hell am I going to do?” Kueffner asks in fake worry. “It’s become so much of the brand. It wasn’t intended to be. But when people come in here, it’s the most interesting thing in here.”