Business Briefing: Local biz Barb aims to restyle hair care sector

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 13, 2022
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Sheena Lister, left, and Megan Andrews, co-founders of Barb, celebrate the company's first anniversary in June at a brewery in Oakland. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Sheena Lister, left, and Megan Andrews, co-founders of Barb, celebrate the company's first anniversary in June at a brewery in Oakland. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

For women and gender-nonconforming individuals with short haircuts, finding hair care products made specifically for them can be a challenge. Most pomade and hair gels are made for, and marketed to, men.

Take for instance American Crew, which stakes claim to being the top U.S. styling brand. It even trademarked its tagline "Official Supplier to Men."

Alameda resident Megan Andrews, who identifies as nonbinary, gender-fluid and queer, had used the company's products to style their own hair for years before noticing American Crew's male-centric focus. When Andrews, who has a background in marketing, saw the tagline one day it came as a bit of a shock, they told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent video interview.

"I hadn't noticed it, but all these products I was using all these years aren't designed for us. They are made for men and marketed for men," said Andrews, 37, who lives with their journalist girlfriend and their two dogs, 8-year-old Formosan Mountain Coda and 2-year-old Papillon Chihuahua mix Piper. "It may functionally work, but I don't identify with it. It doesn't align with my values."

A few years back a mutual friend introduced Andrews to Sheena Lister, a lesbian who also sports a short haircut. The two bonded over beers and their shared love of athletics.

"Somehow Megan fell for my jokes, and now we are here," recalled Lister, 37, who lives in San Francisco with her wife, Amelia Mostovoy, who is a podiatrist, their daughter Florence, 2, and their two dogs, 3-year-old Boxer Staffordshire Terrier Oakley and 16-year-old Chihuahua Terrier mix Fenix.

Lister and Andrews fast became friends and went into business together to launch Barb, aimed at transforming the hair care industry so it is more welcoming of women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals with short haircuts. Their first product was a soft clay pomade ($30 for 2 oz.) called Barb made in the U.S. that has a eucalyptus lavender aroma to it.

"It doesn't smell hyper-feminine or too masculine. It smells fresh and natural," explained Lister.

It was created specifically for a non-cisgender-male clientele, though men are among their growing customer base.

"We are centering women, nonbinary, and trans people not because we want to be exclusionary. We love men and have a lot of men customers who buy our product," noted Lister. "Mostly women, nonbinary, and trans people have been underrepresented in the hair care space, period. We are focusing on building community around this and selling products of course."

In June, they celebrated their first anniversary with an event at a brewery in Oakland and invited their local customers, whom they refer to as Barbs, to join them. The name of their company is not only short for barbershop but also for the woman's name Barbara.

"There is no one named Barb" who inspired the name, explained Andrews. "We have a whole dictionary around the words we are using. We call ourselves Barbs — a person with a short haircut. My haircut is my barb. So you are looking at a Barb with a barb with Barb in it."

When someone goes from having a long to a short hairstyle, they refer to it as "going Barb." After settling on the name Barb, they later learned that fans of the singer Nicki Minaj called themselves Barbz.

"So they are welcome to join us," enthused Andrews.

Their company name also works for those in the hair care industry, so they refer to hairstylists as barbtenders — a play off of barbers and bartenders — while those salons that carry their product are dubbed barbtailers.

Salons around the Bay Area now carry Barb pomade, such as Tempest in San Rafael and Spunk Salon in San Francisco. A full list of salons carrying Barb's products, both locally and across the U.S., can be found here.

"From San Francisco to Ohio down to Florida, there are people who are really hungry for this kind of space and community," said Andrews.

The company recently launched what is has dubbed its Ba(R)b & D program to create and test additional hair care products. It is partnering with 16 stylists with an aim of developing four additional products to sell in 2023, with one made specifically for Black individuals with short curly natural hairstyles.

"It will be designed for all curly hair types, but we are really focusing on and including the Black textured hair community to help us develop these products," said Lister.

A crowd gathers at a brewery in Oakland last month to mark the 1-year anniversary of Barb. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Their Barb website also doubles as a way to connect women and gender-nonconforming individuals with short haircuts from across the country with each other and with salon owners in their local communities who cater to them. Like most styling products for short hair, most barbershops are designed for, and cater to, cisgender men.

"I can't even count the number of times someone has said, 'I am intimidated cutting your hair,'" said Lister.

Opening their own Barb-branded barbershop is "a long term dream" for Lister and Andrews, who hope to realize it in the not-too-distant future, they told the B.A.R.

"It has been embedded in our overall business plan from day one to open a Barb barbershop," said Lister, noting that as consumers they either "feel left out" or don't know where "we fit in the hair salon space. Do we go to a barbershop or a hair salon? We have both felt uneasy in both settings."

Lister said she often doesn't feel welcomed when she walks into a "hyper-masculine barbershop" as a queer lesbian woman.

"It depends on who is welcoming you to the barbershop or cutting hair there. Ninety percent of the time, I have had to force myself to feel comfortable," she said. "So the only other option I have, or the option I am choosing to take, is to go to a hyper-feminine shop that is costing me $200 for a short cut."

Just one example Lister gave for how salon and barbershop owners could make their spaces more welcoming is by asking their clients what pronouns they use. No one has ever asked her that in any place in San Francisco, said Lister.

"For folks like us, we have been forced to become confident on our own," she said. "We have had to become OK with a lot of these structures and institutions that have been set up for us. Even living in San Francisco we have been forced to accept, or acclimate to, this situation."

With women also conditioned to see longer hairstyles as the more beautiful — i.e. feminine — choice, Barb also exists to alter that thinking. As part of its introducing barbershop and salon owners to its product, the company holds "Go Barb" events where it partners with a Barbtender and one of their customers who wants to cut off their long hair for a "short transformational haircut" in Barb's parlance.

"What we want to do as a brand is allow people to detach themselves from that expectation and appreciate who they are and how they want to show up in the world without worrying how other people are seeing them," said Andrews.

Barb is creating a space that allows women with short haircuts to exult in the beauty of such a style.

"What we are trying to create is safe spaces to celebrate people and make them feel beautiful or handsome or whatever that word is for them," said Andrews. "One step at a time. A Barbershop location in the future, for now a website to bring them in."

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail m.bajko@ebar.com

UPDATED 7/14/22 to clarify the pomade is sold in 2 oz. jars.

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