For men, luxury regains its edge


Shave and a haircut: 920 bits.

It may cost a lot more than the two bits of old, but the traditional barbershop shave is making a comeback. Even as the service disappears from old-style barbershops, a new generation of chins is discovering the indulgent pleasures of the hot-towel, warm-lather professional shave at upscale salons, men's spas and specialty retail shops.

And some licensed haircutters are discovering that those long-ago shaving lessons from barber college weren't such a waste of time after all.

"In most states, you're still required to do a shave for the barbering test, and in most cases, that's the last time a barber picked up a razor in his career," said Carl Cwiok, a master barber at the Art of Shaving shop in suburban Arlington, Va. "That's been changing in the last three or four years. But it can be hard for us to find guys who have experience."

Cwiok is in charge of recruiting razor-ready barbers for outlets of the Miami-based Art of Shaving chain, which has 25 "barbershop spas" nationwide. A growing number of area venues offer hot lather shaves for $35 to $45. A shave-and-haircut package at the Grooming Lounge downtown runs $115 (the aforementioned 920 bits) and takes about 90 minutes.

"There has been a big resurgence," said Michael Lubecki, a barber at the Grooming Lounge. Lubecki said he gives three or four shaves a day, the most since the start of his career in the late 1960s, and notes that he is working just one of the shop's six chairs. "When I was working at unisex salons, we didn't even offer it," he said.

Still waiting to see the resurgence is Darryl Grymes, a 14-year master barber at Wall's Barbershop on 15th Street NW and one of the razor jockeys who have been approached by the Art of Shaving. Grymes said the brisk trade in shave customers that used to be referred by hotels has slowed to a trickle. Only about once a month does he have to heat up the barber towels in the microwave and insert a new disposable blade in his straightedge handle. In this age of high concern about infectious disease, most barbers no longer use bone-handled razors sharpened on a leather strop.

"We hardly get them at all anymore," Grymes said.

He pulled out his tattered barbering manual and opened it to the chart showing the 14 basic shave strokes that are still the industry standard. The hardest, he said, is number 14, coming up under the lower lip.

Grymes developed his light touch through the usual training technique of shaving cream off a balloon. He never popped a balloon and has never cut a customer, he said, and is seriously considering the Art of Shaving offer to apply for shaving shifts.

"It would be good to do some more," he said. "It's part of the barber tradition."

The return of the shave is welcome to old-timers who feared that barbering's signature service &

the word barber refers to the beard, after all &

was going the way of fleams, leeches and other ancient tools of the trade.

"It's just getting bigger and bigger," said Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of National Barber Boards of America, an association of state licensing groups. "Some states had talked about doing away with the shaving requirement (for certification). But the shave is coming back in spas. They're selling 'em the works."

At the Grooming Lounge, a shave is as much about pageantry &

and high-end retail &

as personal hygiene. There is no red-and-white pole marking the storefront, and the well-appointed rooms of dark wood and black leather smell more of cappuccino than witch hazel. On a snowy evening recently, three men waited their turn, watching ESPN on a flat-screen television and sipping complimentary beverages. Coffee and soda are popular during the day, the hostess said, but beer and whiskey are the more likely choice of the many groomsman parties that come in for pre-wedding grooming.

The shave itself starts with hot towels from a steam caddy. The towels, wrapped around the face so only the nose is exposed, are followed by hot lather and moisturizer massaged brusquely into the skin. Only after three rounds of the towel-lather routine does Lubecki or one of the other shavers apply the blade.

Or rather, blades. The Grooming Lounge has sacrificed the menacing romance of the straightedge for the modern multi-bladed safety razor. Lubecki's is a Gillette Mach III with a deluxe metal handle. Still, they swear that the heat, the oil and two passes with the Gillette (one with the grain, one against) produce a shave every bit as close as a straight edge.

"It gives you about an extra day" between shaves, Lubecki said, as he pulled the finishing towel from a bucket of ice water. "You'll wake up tomorrow and it will still feel like you just shaved yourself."

Like many clients, Larry Leadman of Silver Spring, Md., went to the shop because his wife gave him a gift certificate for a shave and a massage.

"The shave was awesome, and I immediately got suckered into buying some of their special shaving cream," Leadman said. "It's not something I could afford to do every week, but I'll be back."

More affordable hot shaves are available at a few barbershops in the area. Spiro Hallas, 80, said he does four or five a week at his shop in Bethesda, Md. Most are for elderly men too infirm to shave themselves.

"Their wives bring them," he said.

A younger customer, T.K. Maloy, 47, was getting one of Hallas' $15 shaves one afternoon last week.

"It's always been a weakness of mine. It's just really relaxing," said Maloy as Hallas finished up the close work below an ear. "Of course, you have no choice but to relax when someone is wielding a sharp knife near your face."

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