To be notably old in London—a city so timeworn that they can’t build a new subway tunnel without finding treasure—is very, very impressive. Truefitt & Hill, the world’s oldest barber shop (and hairdresser to the royal household for nine consecutive reigns), is old even by London’s standards: 211 years of clipping, coiffing, shaving, and perfuming the men of London have left this West End institution with unrivalled expertise.
Around the corner from The Ritz London, the St James’s Street flagship is the model on which Truefitt & Hills across the globe are built: wood panelling wraps the room, imposing portraits hang on the walls, and waist-coated barbers stand at the ready. The reception area looks like a hybrid jeweller/apothecary, or perhaps the most elegant pawn shop you’ve ever seen: soaring shelves of signature grooming products stand behind glass cases filled with haute shaving brushes, nail kits, and razors. It’s a throwback kind of place, a slowed down bubble where nail clippers come in a velvet-lined case and razors are handmade and specially weighted.
General manager of the London shop, Stephen Wilde, is a history buff and antiques expert, and sees the store as a thriving modern business as well as a piece of history. He is currently at work writing a comprehensive timeline of the place, filling in the “blank spots” on the record that are sure to include fascinating episodes and famous names. The shop’s past starts with the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; William Francis Truefitt opened his gentlemen’s grooming parlour in the same year. As Lord Nelson fought the French, Truefitt began the work of outfitting men for their smaller, daily battles. This is how Wild describes the shop today: as a place where men come both to relax and to ready themselves for whatever it is they need to face, be that job interviews, business meetings, international travel, or the daily commute.
What if a fellow can’t make it to any of Truefitt & Hill’s nearly 30 barbershops worldwide (there is one Canadian outpost, in Toronto)? Wilde encourages an inquisitive approach when looking for a barber. Expertise, he says, is the mark of a great barber, and when looking for the best grooming, it pays to ask questions. “We advise, but we are prepared to listen,” he says. “At the end of the day, our client is sitting in the chair and we want him to go out looking like a million dollars.”
What is it that has kept Truefitt & Hill a destination rather than an anachronism? Despite the Royal Warrant, and a compelling calling card that is, the success of the shop likely has something to do with balance. Wilde confirms this idea when he says that Truefitt doesn’t change—they just do the things they have always done, but better, balancing a sense of tradition with a desire to be cutting-edge. This means tweaking soap formulas or issuing new fragrances, but always to achieve the same understated, elegant touch that has made their name. “We have changed with the times, but I think we have remembered what our clients are asking,” Wilde explains. Ingredients and fashions may change (William Francis Truefitt started as a wig-maker), but an understated, gentlemanly flourish is hard to replace, and that’s what men come here for. For everything from a shoe shine to a manicure to a haircut, the men at Truefitt & Hill are finding balance themselves, taking a break from the modern world in order to face it looking their best.