Breaking Down Barbershop Culture with Mildred New York
Interview by Matthew Orr
Photos Courtesy of Mildred New York
Mildred New York is a barbershop located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Friends Rob McMillen, Eric Holmes, and Paul Langevin opened the shop after years of working together at a barbershop in the East Village. With Mildred, the friends aimed to create a space and environment that was free of the toxic culture found within the barbershop community. Christine McMillen, who had been working at a salon in Soho, also wanted to break free, and brought her own project, Love, Dunette, to Mildred.
With their first lookbook, "Nazar," shot and designed by photographer and employee Matthew Orr, Mildred reinforces their motto of being an inclusive community. Taking their friend to Coney Island, they shake up the reinforced stereotype of modeling, barbering, and especially fashion, that has been drilled into the media. It's a place for any and everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. With the intention of pushing barbering and the hair scene into a much needed neutral and progressive place, Mildred is breaking up the boys and girls clubs that dominate New York.
Matthew: I guess maybe [let's start with] a little intro about the barbershop. Where Mildred is, what it is. How you Eric, Paul and Christine came together and turned into what it is today.
Rob: Well we all met working at a barbershop called Blind Barber which started right around the time when barbershop culture had been adjusted and [was] kind of made popular and cool again. We worked together for years and a little bit more than a year ago Eric and I were able to branch off from that collaboration there to collaborate on this. Eric had a really great idea--our grandmothers both share the same name Mildred and wanting to name the shop that. We had discussed it in the past and we had so many names and wanted to do so many things and that just tended to click with both of us. It led to us viewing the space a little bit differently as well.
Eric: Yeah, something that was a little bit softer and something that had a non barber-esque name to it I think was the thing that really nailed it home for the both of us.
Rob: Yeah, I know is important for us because we had such a diverse client base at our previous shop to where we had folks that were from all different parts of the country and world and identified in so many different ways in regards to gender and sexual preference and so on. I mean, it was still a learning experience for us. We really appreciated building that and we wanted to have an environment that was more welcoming to anyone and everyone that walked in. And I think that's what the space tended to signify for us. And we brought Christine on about six or seven months in. At first it started as just a barbershop and now it's kind of blossoming into a barbershop that also has a salon called "Love, Dunette" which is after her grandmother who was a hairstylist in Queens, New York -- is that correct? Yeah, Queens so she was a queen. So that's kind of- and of course you brought on Paul as a partner and you, Matt, you know handling our social media and a few other things. Now my brother-in-law, Christine's brother, works here. So we have a family business in extension of the Lower East Side and it's been really wonderful to see how it's blossomed, growing into a really diverse space.
Matthew: Maybe we can talk about barber culture itself, where you think it stands right now and in 2018. How did all of you guys go about differentiating this?
Eric: I think we designed the place to suit ourselves. Barber culture is going in all sorts of directions and we wanted to be able to speak to all sorts of people and have it be a comfortable place for us, and our clients and to meet new people.
Rob: Yeah I agree with Eric to an extent. We wanted to make a space that felt comfortable to us and welcoming because I think barber culture in general is kind of -- one, it's been very masculine you know and very kind of aggressive in some regard. There's numerous cultures within barber culture as well. And my dad being a barber for nearly 40 years in a blue collar town... I grew up with a lot of that, but we wanted to have elements of that, the positives of that. We wanted to make it approachable and accessible to everyone and that's what this place feels like. Our previous shop was great and always really open to us experimenting and doing different things within the space, but you know it could be an intimidating atmosphere. We wanted this to feel welcoming and open and airy and bright and just kind of a place you want to walk into regardless of who you are.
Eric: Kind of shy away from the the men's locker room if you will. Something more diverse and that's what helped bring in Christine.
Matthew: I mean how has it been for you, Christine? Obviously you worked at Blind Barber with everyone.
Christine: Well Blind Barber was me working around men and no women but also only with male clients. So I think that was different and something I didn't enjoy the most. And so here, it's completely different. Not only is it our space but I have female clientele who are coming in and they think it's cool that it's not catty like a salon is.
Matthew: For the three of you do you see hair as art in any way or is it a more of a trade to you?
Christine: I do. I don't know about you guys.
Rob: It's a skill trade, it's definitely a skill trade.
Christine: I think color is different.
Rob: Yeah, I think the beauty of what Christine does is that it involves not only art but some level of science and chemistry... Figuring out how color is going to react to different types of textures and shades of hair. So in that form I think it's very, not only artistic, but it's still you know the skilled trade pieces fold into it. I think the one thing that's really great about what we do whether it can be considered an art or not is that there's so many influences from those worlds that come into the space. Whether it be the music that we play, or the decor of the space, the lookbook that we're able to do, really feeds into the overall environment.
Matthew: So you came up with the idea of making a physical lookbook, a zine. What made you want to do that as opposed to focusing on using Instagram or digital media?
Rob: Yeah, I think once again we wanted to shy away from doing something that felt very like traditional marketing. When we first opened the shop we had all these cool zines and they were really like... I don't know people would sit down and look at them and it felt like it was fun to just have gifts of friends and different things that people created. So I think that was one of the reasons.
Eric: It's really nice having a physical offering, like the tangible offering [as opposed to] where you can flip through something really quick on your phone and swipe past it. But to kind of sit with something for a minute also is special and for just the sake of being special makes it special if that makes sense.
Matthew: Yeah, I feel like a lot of us grew up on that kind of zine culture.
Matthew: But to make our own was a really fun experience for me. I think for everyone.
Rob: I think also using your friend and our friend, Nazar, who is not necessarily a model or anything like that... and taking him out of his day-to-day was really fun. Focusing on one person and not having anything ultra stylized, but just kind of something you can somewhat transform. And who had what we thought was really great hair for what we do. It was something that just lived kind of naturally and let him be him a little bit more. Really happy that you [Matt] shot it. You know I don't know that saying much outside of just it's special to us because it's something we made, project[ing] out a little taste of what we like.
Matthew: How do you view social media and how it affects someone? You know obviously there are these kinds of people out there with lots of followers and shops and salons and stuff. How do you balance social media with reality?
Christine: You know I think it's a little bit different for me than it is for the barber shop. Hairstylists, colorists and salons are obsessed with being on Instagram. Whereas I feel like I don't know like maybe a lot of barbershops aren't posting pictures of haircuts that they're doing. They're posting more just maybe some haircuts, but some photos of the shop. For me it's been an integral part of gaining a larger clientele but it also is something that you feel like you constantly have to keep up with that can kind of feel like another job.
Rob: There are other times too though where you think some of the things that are shared on Instagram aren't reality? And you try and highlight that a little bit through your Instagram, like a color expectation or something.
Christine: Yeah definitely, it does help serve the purpose of informing clients of the pictures they might see that are clearly Photoshopped or you know that people only post their best work and don't talk about the times they mess up, stuff like that.
Eric: I like how your Instagram is almost a catalog of colors and styles like you can almost flip through. It's almost like going through your-
Christine: A portfolio-
Eric: Yeah, a catalog of all these cool colors and styles. I'm sure a lot of clients get inspiration, because they flip through your work. "Oh, she can do this? Oh, she can do this too. Oh, this is cool."
Matthew: It feels honest.
Christine: Girls really look to that to be able to trust someone. They want to see what you've done.
Matthew: It's almost like a documentation of your work.
Rob: Barber shops do it too, not to contradict you. I think a lot of barbershops are doing that look but like some of the variations of things that we do you know and the style of things we do. We share a little bit, but it's more like we want people to just be around what we do and us. And we've been cutting hair for so long, that we're lucky enough to have built a big enough client base and kind of rely on word of mouth and not feel as if we have to really display the work as much as display the environment and what's real to us. It would probably feel dishonest if we were showing a bunch of haircuts. Plus I don't think men's haircuts, they're cool, but I don't think they're anywhere near as interesting as what Christine does. So that's kind of part of what makes it-
Christine: Well, I can't do what you do.
Rob: Well, you can but it's just more- it's more interesting and makes me feel good. There's some shit out there that feels really bad because it feels contrived. But then again, I've got a client today who is part of a small startup and he looks at analytics and said they get about a 25 percent return on their marketing budget on anything they do traditionally like highlighting influencers. It's like a 400 percent return on downloads of the certain app. So you see why all this stuff comes full circle and why a person like Kylie Jenner can build a billion dollar makeup company... You know that's just what happens now. So it's definitely real and it's definitely tangible, but it's saturated. And I think that's the toughest thing that comes to social media, is just that it's very saturated.
Matthew: What about the diversity of the clients. Since opening this shop have you seen any- obviously a lot of people came from your previous job, but have you seen any changes in the demographics of them?
Eric: I think we're really lucky in the diversity of clients. We are just fortunate to have all sorts of different people come to the shop. It really makes for a fun and exciting work environment to be able to talk to new people and different people. I feel like we have one type of everybody in here and it makes just for a great conversation and for a nice day. That's one of the things I appreciate the most. We get such a cool slice of New York and humanity in general. But like just the fact that I can talk to one person and knowing that the next person that's going to be cut is completely different, it's pretty great.
Matthew: I think it's cool that literally you could have you know a guy that works on Wall Street sitting next to like a witch or something, and it'll be fine. In reality it is a safe space, like a place where anyone can come and just let go a little bit and enjoy the services that we offer but also kind of maybe getting out of their comfort zone. I think we provide that bridge between gaps and I think that's something really cool about this place.
Rob: With Christine being here too, and having you know some of, as she mentioned before sometimes some of her clients have noticed the said cattiness or the environment of the salon that can be competitive and very difficult. Luckily for us here that there isn't that and that's not say that all salons have that or that that's a male or female thing it's just to say that we luckily feel fairly comfortable in all of our own skin. And I think that translates to all the people that are in the space and allows them to kind of relax and take their guard down a little bit and enjoy themselves. And that's why the diversity of the clients really shines through because people don't know the financial person feels comfortable talking to the witch and you know and the witch feels comfortable talking to the Upper East Side person or whatever it is and it seems like that's kind of left at the door when you walk in. And that's a really beautiful thing for us because we get to enjoy it.
Christine: Yeah, I think it helps that we're all friends too. And all family.
Rob: Yeah, it adds a level of comfort because we're all very comfortable with each other and you know of course Paul is not here right now, but one of our owners as well brings yet another element. But we all trust each other and care about each other and want to help each other to be successful. It's not a competition and I think that helps everyone feel a little more calm.
Eric: I feel like if we service the same kind of person over and over again too, the job wouldn't be as dynamic and fun. It's a privilege to be able to see all these different people through the course of the day.