Sweeney Todd was a great barber, but his pies needed work. That’s about all we at Shoreditch know when it comes to barbering. Barbershops have bucked the recent economic trend and helped bring new life into the beleaguered high street. Gone are the bookstores and tech retailers in favour of the retro 1920s and 50s inspired barbershop. Everyone has hair and some of us have beards, so it’s no surprise that the industry appears to be recession proof. A fine example of this trend is the recently opened branch of Johnny’s Chop Shop in Marshall St, London. This retro barbershop offers vintage and contemporary cuts, in a retro American setting complete with neon lights and toy pickup truck.
So what better way to learn a little more about barbering than to sit down with one of the stars of Johnny’s Chop Shop, Dani Lewis, also known as Toastie Styles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
So how did your journey to Johnny’s Chop Shop begin?
I was working part time at Wacky Barber in Soho, which was a bit too crazy as it was walk in clients, and I was working as a waitress at the time. So it was all a bit too much for me and I left wanting to try something different. I saw Johnny’s Chop Shop in Topman and thought, wow I want to work there, with the chequered floor and the 1950’s style. So I contacted them but unfortunately they didn’t have any positions available.
However a few weeks later they contacted me and told me they had shown the boss my Instagram and he was really keen. So a few weeks later I met Steve, the owner of Johnny’s Chop Shop, who told me he was opening a new Johnny’s Chop Shop and he offered me a position in the sister salon, Tommy Guns. Once the Marshall Street Johnny’s Chop Shop opened I was transferred here. That was 8 months ago.
What training did you undertake to become a barber?
I didn’t really take any training, as I taught myself. I find it hard to understand when people are showing me stuff and I don’t really understand people explaining to me how to cut. However if I watch it, then I can eventually understand. So I would watch youtube videos and I had some experience in a hairdressers. So that mixed with watching youtube videos is how I taught myself. I got tips from and watched people, but I’ve not been to a school or had any hairdressing training.
For the ignorant such as myself, what‘s the difference between hairdressing and barbering?
Ha, well first of all hairdressing is for women, although men can go to a hairdressers, it’s mainly women’s styles such as blow drying and colouring. The hairdressing industry is different, it’s very competitive, in the barbering industry everyone works as a team and there is more of a community. I find that generally, men are laid back, women are not. Women will see a style and ask for it, even if it won’t suit them, whereas men are more likely to take advice and be less high maintenance than women in a salon.
Is your work influenced or inspired by a particular style or genre?
Uhm, It’s changed now, it used to be 1950s, rockabilly and Bugsy Malone styles kind of like Frank Rimer. But now everyone is more modern, with lines in their hair, patterns and massive quiffs, so I feel like I’m mixing them both together. So that’s big at the moment, hairdressing mixed with barbering.
It’s the season of ‘hat hair’ any advice for the millions afflicted?
Haha…I’m wearing a hat, don’t wear a hat!
What do you like most about talking to strangers whilst looming over them with a sharp instrument?
First of all I like them to feel comfortable, some guys won’t talk to me at first because I’m a girl, but as soon as they see I’ve done a good job they won’t stop talking. I want them to feel relaxed, give them a beer and make sure they’re comfortable. Talk about things they like, rather than myself because some barbers talk about themselves a lot, but I think it’s more about listening to your client and making them feel relaxed and making them laugh. I don’t really think about the scissors or sharp instruments.
You’re known as ‘Toastie Styles’ on Instagram, what’s the story behind the name?
It’s a silly story. I worked in Selfridges and was walking down one of the escalators whilst eating toast, which you’re not allowed to do in a department store, so I got into trouble. I had crumbs all over my face and everyone thought it was hilarious and started calling me toast and toastie. People never let it go and I kind of liked the name, so when I started to get serious about my career I didn’t want to just be, “Dani does hair” so thought “Toastie Styles” would be great for my Instagram profile.
Are there any challenges you’ve faced as a female barber which a male barber wouldn’t?
I do find that the cut-throat can be very scary and I know a lot of guys who are very confident with that. It can be quite challenging because I can use a cut-throat, but I’m not as confident as some men can be. But I wouldn’t say there are any challenges that a women faces over a man, it’s quite equal.
What’s been your worst experience as a barber?
My worst experience… uhm, probably burning a client, but that was when I was training. He was the world’s fussiest client, he was so scary, as soon as he sat in the chair, he told me the last person who cut his hair messed it up. As soon as a client says something like that you immediately feel under pressure. I put him back in my chair, but there was something wrong with my sink which made it randomly run very hot, so as I was washing his hair he suddenly jumps up as the water ran hot. He was really happy with the cut in the end though and had forgotten about me burning him. So that was probably one of my worst experiences.
So you’ve not had any complete nightmares, or made mistakes?
Everyone makes mistakes, I’ve had my guard fly off before and I’ve cut too short, but luckily I know how to blend and could disguise it.
Sweeney Todd. Misunderstood genius or bad for business?
Haha, I don’t know what to say, you’ve completely lost me there.
You clearly love a tattoo! Any interesting stories behind any of them?
Uhm, some of them. They’re all vintage related, so everything is kind of like 1920s, old school. One of them is a cup of tea because I love drinking tea. They’re all blackwork as I thought colour wouldn’t look good on tanned skin. It’s just my left arm and hand as I thought maybe if I ever get married, I could look really elegant in photos with my ring hand, haha.
Do you have any barber idols who inspire you? And why?
I have quite a few, do I have to name them all? Frank has always inspired me because his work is spot on and has always blown my mind. He is always so clean with his work. There is a barber shop called Menspire and those guys are inspiring as they’re going all out. They’re trying new things, mixing hairdressing with barbering, so I’d say Menspire are really inspiring me. But there are loads of barbers, too many to name on the spot.
So do you find, as a creative your style is always evolving and moving forward?
Yea definitely, in 2017 my work will be different to how it was in 2016 and 2015. I’ve been at it for 2 years now and in my first year my haircuts didn’t really have structure, whereas this year my work has been structured and now that I’ve been watching other people, I know that next year my work is going to change and evolve.
Would you say that you’re never happy with your work and always thinking about how you could improve?
I’m never happy. If I do an amazing haircut I am pleased, the clients love it and I’ll take photos. But I’m too much of a perfectionist, everything needs to be flowing. Give it another 2 years and hopefully I’ll consider my work to be spot on and I’ll be on stage and maybe winning some awards.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into barbering? And would that advice be different for a guy or a girl?
No it would be the same for everyone as I get both guys and girls contacting me asking for advice. I would say exactly what I did. Watch youtube videos and get your work up on Instagram. That’s what I did and I got a job straight away, because I posted 4 haircuts which were good. I had no experience, it was just those 4 posts that got me the job. So use Instagram. Watch youtube tutorials, take pictures of your work and just really get out there and make an effort. It won’t come to you, you have to go out and get it. I was messaging barbershops and really trying my hardest, and it only took those 4 pictures on Instagram.
So you’d say social media is important?
Definitely yes. It’s a way to get a job these days, no one looks at CVs anymore.
What advice would you give to Trump’s barber? Any quick fixes?
Ha, I’m sure he has a wig or something, shave it off or get a transplant.
Many thanks to the Toastie Styles and Johnny’s Chop Shop. Keep scrolling for more shots!