Men's grooming with royal touch

Barbershop: For nearly 200 years, London's Truefitt & Hill has given haircuts and shaves with elegant care.

April 10, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Andrew Kuipers wields a straight-edge razor across your steamed and lathered face like a knife skimming butter, and you know you're in tonsorial heaven at a place named Truefitt & Hill.

This is not just any old barbershop.

For men of a certain age and pedigree, some of whom have patronized the establishment for a half-century or more, this is the only place to go for a haircut, surrounded by all the trappings of gentle English elegance: worn leather seats, dark wooden moldings, polished mirrors and a whiff of jasmine in the air.

Guinness World Records is due to designate Truefitt & Hill on Wednesday as "the oldest barbers' business in the world." Founded in 1805, the firm's client list has included the likes of Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and Prince Philip.

"Ninety percent of our clients are regulars," says Kuipers, 36, the barber born in Britain, raised in America, and able to talk the talk of both sides of the Atlantic. He even speaks with a bit of a Texas drawl.

"How are the Ravens doing these days?" he asks a visitor from Baltimore, before launching into the shop's history.

"Generations come here," Kuipers says. "We also get tourists intrigued by the ambience of a traditional British barbershop, the sounds and the smells. Some people even come in, ask how much it is."

The works? That's $40 for a wash and cut, $30 for the shave and $20 for a manicure. At those prices, clients purchase an hour or so of pampering and a piece of social history.

This is the kind of shop where the manager, Dennis Hornsby, is introduced to a customer as "Mr. Dennis."

It's where, at least on one weekday visit, you'll find gray-haired men in gray suits speaking softly as barbers snip hair with sharpened scissors and manual clippers.

And it's where you can get a real shave with all the trimmings. The seat back pulls down, and the preparation begins, from steaming towels that soften the beard to soapy lather applied with a brush. There are precise razor strokes ("no talking please") to a brisk facial massage and the final, air-drying towel flick.

`The secret is to get the beard as wet as possible," Kuipers says. "It becomes soft and supple and comes right off."

A cut and shave here is like taking a trip back to the firm's 19th-century roots.

William Francis Truefitt, the founder, was a wigmaker to King George III, a status that ensured that his shop on Old Bond Street became a stop for the leaders of British society. The shop still boasts that its appointments book "reads like pages from Debrett's [the authority on aristocracy] and Who's Who."

Outlasting changing styles and operating through wars and financial panics, the firm has been a Central London landmark for centuries. Truefitt's bottles and pomade containers were discovered in the wreckage of the Titanic, the doomed ship whose passenger list included society's movers and shakers.

Since 1994, the firm has operated on St. James's Street, next door to the venerable Carlton Club, a home away from home for Conservative Party members, on a block that includes swanky shops that sell shoes, cigars, hats, wine and rifles, making this one of the ultimate "guy" destinations in Europe. Franchises operate in Chicago and Toronto.

"We have an awful lot of customers who come in from the country, a lot of retired people in from the farm or the estate," says Hornsby, the manager who has been working here for more than 30 years and who has known many of his clients since they were boys brought along by their fathers.

"All of our customers are well-heeled," he says. `The area is the best of everything."

Hornsby says the shop has catered to its share of celebrities, a roll call that brings back images from another time: Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Ralph Richardson. Aging lords have pulled up in their Rolls-Royces for their trims.

But the shop's greatest claim to fame is its royal warrant from the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. The warrant serves as a seal of approval, a sign that a shop supplies goods or services to a royal household.

If Prince Philip needs a haircut, Hornsby obliges with a house call.

How did he feel the first time he cut Prince Philip's hair?

"Nervous," Hornsby says. `But I got over it. Once I started cutting hair, it was OK."

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