Just over a week ago I won an industry award that had significant meaning for myself and, I thought, my family. “Look mum,” I said upon visiting her in Raglan. “I won!”
“Great,” she replied. “Shame about the hair.”
An incisive blow, delivered with the indifference of a busy mother. A passing comment for her, perhaps, but it followed me for days, itching my neck and getting stuck in my ears. And so it was that after almost a year of avoiding mirrors, hairdressers or anything that wasn’t a beanie, I made my way to the Barkers Groom Room.
“Would you care for a whiskey?” the receptionist asks. “I shouldn’t,” I say. “What about my goals? And it’s only Monday! But it would really feel wrong not to.” The couch in the lobby is certainly one to drink whiskey on, and besides, I’m about to stare at myself in a mirror for the next hour or so - a stiff drink is entirely appropriate. Glenmorangie too - a delicious drop.
Draped and caped I gazed into the mirror. A rugby player from the mid-’70s stared back at me, all floppy sides and ridiculous fringe. Barber Finn Cochrane moves in, armed with clippers, comb and his wits. The man practically dances, slashing and dashing with a flourish, inspecting my dome like a sculptor, attempting to fashion art from this surly block of granite.
“I don’t want to just be a good barber, I want to be the best in New Zealand,” he tells me. “Working here will make that happen a lot faster.”
This is music to my ears, as is the opening bars of Tame Impala’s peerless tune ‘The Less I Know the Better’, drifting up from Barkers’ flagship High Street store below.
Cochrane is a former New Zealand representative football player, and he brings that same obsession to his craft. Apparently it’s typical of the groom room - head barber Vea Fonua is responsible for keeping everyone from Damian McKenzie to Joseph Parker looking sharp, and recently took out the inaugural New Zealand Barber Wars at Meatstock. Next week Cochrane will travel to Sydney for the international finals as Fonua’s hair model.
“These guys love it here, they’d be doing it even if they weren’t getting paid,” says Cochrane. “And because we don’t work by commission, we’re not rushing to smash out as many cuts as possible as fast as we can. The results are just so much better.”
Slowly, snip by snip, clip by clip, something incredible is happening. Gone are the ski jumps from above my ears, my fringe is smaller by half, and the shape of my head is infinitely closer to that of a respectable young gentleman - although appearances of course can be deceiving. Perhaps most incredibly, I’m relaxed, as if it were lead and not hair that was being shorn from my head.
Onwards to the sink for a peppermint menthol wash and condition, with a hot towel draped across the eyes. And what’s this, a massage chair? My calves, glutes and back are well pleased, although I generally go for something a little more on the deep tissue end of things. A head massage takes things to the next level and suddenly I’m fighting to stay awake.
“I think a lot of barbers are too careful around the way they touch people’s heads,” says Cochrane. “You don’t have to be so gentle or weird about it - everyone loves a head massage.”
He’s not wrong.
Cochrane says he prefers to work late night Friday’s, when the senior staff are on and the chairs are absolutely humming.
“We get stag parties, groups of guys on their way to town, the energy is real good and it’s just a real solid buzz in here. Although after a massage some guys lose a bit of their energy.”
Hair rinsed, towel removed, we aren’t finished yet.
“Most places you get the cut and the wash and you’re done,” Cochrane divulges. “But we like to see how the hair wants to sit, find any little bits that need fixing, then style from there. It’s those little extra things that really count at the top level.”
I don’t pretend to know what it takes to excel in the barber game, but I leave with perhaps the finest compliment a young writer can pay - I’ll be back, regardless of the price.