I went to Auntie’s with a good friend of mine 5 months ago when I first met Willy the founder of the Barbershop. We didn’t exchange much because he was quite busy however I came back a month ago, found the time to ask him if he was willing to discussed about Auntie’s. On Friday 29 January I stopped by in the afternoon, when I arrived Willy was talking to one of his employees. I sat down waiting for him to finish, then, we started the interview exchanging about his past, experiences, life in Tian-mu and opening of his business. One hour later we went next door to take a look at his second barbershop space where I met David, his business partner.

à Taipei : une discussion avec Willy, Auntie’s Barbershop.

Interview & Photography Farade Nicolas

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Could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how was it?
Willy: I grew up in Tian-mu, people who are living in this area are pretty wealthy. Tian-mu is best known as an enclave for Taiwan's US expatriate community because we used to be controlled by the American Army, that’s one of the main reason why you can find American & Japanese schools around here. It’s a mixed community even know the area isn’t that big. About growing up around here, well, I think I always had the desire to build something..

This place looked totally different from Downtown.
Willy: Yes, there is quite a contrast in between here and Downtown. Foremost we are not on the main train line, there aren’t that many stores & the city life is less vibrant. If you’re coming here it’s for a reason either your family is living in the area either you want to try a new restaurant or you're just looking to take a break from Downtown…

What do you enjoy the most about living there?
Willy: Except for the fact that I have been living there for over ten years, I would say the people. They are pretty cocky but in a good way, we don’t care about what people say & think about us.

Certainly the Culture, the location we are settled used to be a Skate shop. A few of the biggest Taiwanese fashion brands were establish in Tian-mu. Ten years ago there used to be a lot of clothing stores, it was a popular area, you’d come here to put your hands on something new. I think people who are living here have a particular mindset.

The fact that more foreigners are living there plays an important role especially in term of Cultural exchanges.
Willy: Yes, all of that influenced me a lot, when growing up I learned & got inspired by all of those alternative Cultures. However, the time passed by and many people left to settle in Downtown, everything else was disappearing, it became less trendy.

Then why did you stayed?
Willy: Probably because I see things from another angle, since nobody wanted to stay here that means if you are willing to stick around you gotta do things in a contrasting way. When people are mentioning our place, it seems that everyone knows who we are. For me it was an obvious choice, to be unique in an environment where no one expects us to be.

True, however it is not the same traffic, you don’t get the audience you could have in areas like Ximending or Da’an so, how do you get people to come here?
Willy: It is a good question. It is amusing because when I was looking for a location to open my shop, I didn’t want to settle on a boulevard, I looked for a quieter place. I've traveled around the States I've been able to observe some of the Barbershops there. Every time you’re going there you feel comfortable, I tried to set up my business in the same way. As for the people who pay us a visit, I'd say we are lucky. You have to know that when we started our business, there were mainly old school Barbershops, not like the one we initiated. Five years ago people didn't care about Barbering. I opened the Barbershop because I met this Auntie, that's why our shop is named Auntie’s Barbershop… She used to cut my hair since I was 16. She saw it all, me as a street kid, getting a job, trying to do things on my own. You know how it is, you go to the barber every now and then, you talked about things, everything, personal matters, your life. With time we became close friends.

How did you meet her?
Willy: By accident, I was looking for a location nearby my place to have a haircut and thought about going to an old school barbershop. I remembered she was surprisingly great at talking, you don't meet that kind of people around here, it is quite unusual. My friends and I kept going on a weekly basis. The funny thing is that the place looked messy, it wasn't a good looking location, even know people still visit every day, with time she started to build a reputation. Nowadays, if you are going you'll probably wait for two hours just to get a hair cut... A part of the reason we opened our own business in Tian-mu is because of her.

You understood it was possible to do something around here...
Willy: Indeed, she had her own clientele, I went to see her from time to time to talk about my project.

What about your studies, did you know what you wanted to do at a younger age?
Willy: I was a regular kid, I didn’t do any specific studies. I knew from a young age that I had to hustle, meaning that I had to work to get what I want, we wanted to look good, buy nice things, we were different from our other classmates…

You said earlier that you traveled abroad, for studies and to improve your English?
Willy: Mostly to improve my English. When I was a kid I enjoyed learning things, new languages and the only way for me to know more was by learning English. Although I was working a lot, I was struggling, the paychecks weren’t enough, I didn’t have the salary I desired, I felt frustrated. The idea of starting a business was the only tangible option I had. I’ve been doing so many jobs, the actual system we’re in didn’t fit me. Then, luckily, I got the opportunity to travel to Seattle to visit my cousin who was graduating, I didn't stay longer but I could already feel a change. Thence we went to New York, it blew my mind. I was this kid who embraced Hip Hop Culture while growing up, it was a game changing. Once there I went and visited some Barbershops, I already knew a bit about this Culture, it was a rewarding experience. Have you seen the infamous movie Barbershop () from Troy Garity?

No, I haven’t!
Willy: It’s a cult movie! You have to check it out!

Will definitely do, thanks for the tip.

Did you get a haircut in New York?
Willy: No, I did not, but I remember everything single moments like it happened yesterday, the vibe, their manners, the way they were talking…

All over the country, in towns big and small you can tell that Barbershop are a staple of American Culture.
Willy: Truth and we don’t have that kind of Culture here. When I studied about the Barbershop history in Taiwan, twenty years ago mostly Auntie’s used to work as a barber, it’s a part of our history, back then not many women could get the same job as men. What’s the easiest thing to do? Cutting hair. You don’t need a lot of knowledge, that’s why you could see a lot of Auntie’s working in that field. From there I talked to my Grandma, Grandpa, to the Auntie’s I could meet along the way. They told me they used to go to the Barbershop whenthey were young but there aren’t many Barbershops in recent years who are opening, instead, we can see the growth of hair salon everywhere.

So, what’s the difference between Hair Salon and Barbershop?
Willy: Not much, I guess the main difference comes from how a bunch of people are thinking, most of them conceive that going to Barbershop is not trendy. You can see that more teenagers are going to Hair salons…

Same price range as the Barbershop?
Willy: Almost, I think there is a lack of education as well, over the years it became a place not frequented, not hype…

When you came back from the US, you already had this idea of opening your own?
Willy: I had a feeling, to do something with my life, launching my own Barbershop wasn’t the first option.

What was your first option?
Willy: Well, to learn how to cook. I got this job, working in an American Restaurant. I kept going to Auntie’s, I remember that specific night I was talking with one friend, David my business partner, and the idea came up…

We knew we couldn’t make a lot of money at the beginning but at least I wouldn’t have to work for someone else. I sat down with Auntie talked about this project, the details and that’s it, we went for it.

How did people react when they found out about your business?
Willy: Overall comprehensive. We built up the trust, the reputation of our business step by step. Our friends showed a lot of support. Five years ago there wasn’t any much going on especially about the Barbershop retail. I put a lot of effort into developing the marketing & communication of our business by making videos, trying to stay relevant by showcasing what we were doing…

The Auntie taught you how to cut haircut as well?
Willy:I never thought about becoming a barber. I could imagine being a salesman, in a suit and tie but a barber, not in a million year! I think being around Auntie, spending time with her, seeing her costumer coming every day, studying Barbershop history, that is when I realize that the legacy, passing on the Culture is fundamental.

Two, three years ago I traveled a lot, not abroad but all over Taiwan, to get a vibe from our Barbershop Culture, talked to the owners and I felt sad because the younger generation has no interest whatsoever in it.

Nobody tells them…
Willy: Exactly.

How long did it take you to learn the process?
Willy: There aren’t days when I am not learning something, you can always improve yourself. Although I’d say it took me two years to learn the basics, the fading technique for example. I have been abroad to study how people are working..

I guess it was exciting and at the same time scary to process all of that, keep learning haircut techniques, open and develop your business. How did you manage everything?
Willy: Of course, it is. I am thrilled about the challenges I have to face on a daily basis. This is a great feeling, solving issues. Lately, I told my partner we aren’t born in a rich family thus we started our business from scratch everything we are achieving is a win, there is no need to be afraid. However, when your business is growing you have to face more responsibilities, pressure, you cannot fuck around anymore, you have to be careful. Even if you’re playing, you have to play right. Every day is a new adventure, I am trying to be generous and kind with the people I am working with..

I was looking at your Instagram account the past few days, I noticed you had two accounts. What’s @otbarbersupply?
Willy: The second account is about the material we are supplying. David helped me a lot when we took care of distributing the clippers, around two years ago. We needed to find a new concept for the supply and the barbershop so we just rent the place next to this one because we had to find a location to stock the material we received. It was the perfect spot when we need some time off, it is quieter, more relaxed, we can discuss, have a drink and spent time with our friends.

It’s like an office, stockroom and chilling place…
Willy: Yes and we also have from time to time celebrities stopping by at the barbershop, we don’t want them to feel embarrassed by the people when they’re getting a haircut.

How did you got involved with Wahl in the first place?
Willy: Last year I went to Shanghai to acquire experience. Once there I got an occasion to work as an educator where I was representing Wahl (one of the most popular clippers brands). I joined their Chinese team. They were hosting an event in Shanghai and were looking for people who were able to teach barbering and translate. I knew one of the educators, she asked me if I was interested to try.

Are you doing that frequently?
Willy: It depends, they have a definite schedule. They’ll contact me when there are events planned. I had several business meetings with people over there although everytime I am abroad I am missing my hometown, I want to represent my city as much as I can.

I noticed two apprentices working in the barbershop, is it occasional?
Willy: Like I’ve said earlier, our main goal was to pass on the knowledge, however, it’s not something we are doing frequently.

How old is the Auntie?
Willy: Not quite sure, I’d say around 60? It’s hard to tell because she’s so energetic!

I guess you guys know your clientele pretty well now.
Willy: Mostly, we are taking care of our clients. David is doing an excellent job.

You guys are not doing perming and coloring?
Willy: Not really. We try to keep everything legit and simple: haircut and shaving, we are focusing on the service. I usually say to the newcomers that we may not do the best haircuts however we are providing the best service.

I believe if people are coming from far away to Tian-mu we have to provide the best service. Of course, you’re a barber, your first job is to get the haircut right, the service is always the extra.

Seeing the two Auntie’s working alongside the youngers made me feel happy, I can’t say why I just kept smiling…
Willy: I know! They have the most solid clientele.

Willy: Period. Everybody enjoy chatting with them. They’re listening to you, make you feel at ease.

A feeling of being at home, talking to someone you can trust…
Willy: Truly. They give advice, they helped me a lot with everything and I can assure you it’s not about the money for them, they really do care about you, it’s like being a part of a bigger family.

And I’ve been to some Barbershop place where it’s the complete opposite.
Willy: I think it depends on the owner, the clientele and location. It’s ironic because in the past two years we didn’t put that much effort on developing our social media platforms at all, we are not focusing on that.

Is it a choice?
Willy: It is, I am not saying it’s not a good thing to do so but the most important aspect about owning a business like a barbershop is about making people come back and extend your clientele. We don’t do that many interviews, we are picky because we don’t need it, the business is doing great, I am thankful for that.

What do you when you have no slut for a client?
Willy: I apologize. You have to imagine, if you’re the client and you are driving all the way down to here just to found out that it is impossible to get a haircut straight away, without waiting 3 hours, how would you react? You’d probably be mad at us, right?

I might yes. So when something like that occurs, how do you guys are handling the situation?
Willy: It depends on our schedule but I will talk with a barber, if he’s available or not, I respect his time, if he is able to take over the client there is no problem but if we can’t, we can’t. The only negative reviews we are receiving are about appointments, it’s difficult to book one, we are delivering a high-value service.

You also don’t take pictures of every single haircut you guys are doing on a daily basis and upload them your social media…
Willy: Not really. I met so many talented barbers when I traveled overseas, listening to their stories, watching their work and skills. I told you when I met Auntie, she had tons of clients, if she thought about taking every single pictures (she had at least 20 by day) every time they get a haircut from her, it would be madness. Of course, you’ll pick a barbershop for his reputation, the package first and foremost but like what you’re doing with the magazine, you are more interested in the backstage, what’s behind, to tell stories…

There are many barbers I found inspiring that don’t even use Instagram and they’re still doing their things. Social media brings something new, I won’t say the opposite, it’s something you have to think about when you’re starting a business, however, in my opinion, you can’t rely only on it.

When did you open your first location?
Willy: 21st November 2013.

A year and half for the second one?
Willy: Everything went into place especially finding the right people to work with. I care and respect the elderly, what they achieved and what they can give back to the community and especially to the younger. I talked to other barbers about our story and they all feel surprised to hear it.

Respect & Values. It is true, you can’t see that very often, you have to care. It seemed that not many people are willing to do so, to pass on the Culture, especially the olders, I don’t know, it could be a deeper issue...
Willy: I think especially in America they care about specific philosophy of life: each one teach one. We just want to provide a way for the young ones to make some money instead of being on the streets doing things they’ll regret…

And you can always learn something good. What’s the next step for you guys?
Willy: I just mentioned about the responsibilities I have to face now. It has been five years and one of the things I can think of is that I never had any problem with finding new ideas, new concepts, however, maintain these ideas, in the long run is the hardest part, it takes commitment and hard work. I am always down for new projects, being with you today, it’s definitely inspiring!

Thanks man. What about Taiwan, what are in your opinion the pros and the cons of living there?
Willy: Safety, even know you can’t be sure it is at 100% safe everywhere but there are not many dramas happening there. Food, of course, is amazing. We are saturated of information nowadays, the world is changing so fast, you have to keep up no matter what and the great thing I’d say of living here is the possibility to catch a wave or create one… The cons, well, maybe the fact that we don’t make a lot of money. The market is too small but it doesn’t mean we are not that good, the market is just not that big. We are focusing on the quality instead of the quantity. Every time people come into our shop I try to make people feel like they’re in a world-class barbershop.

David, do you remember when & where did you met Willy? 
David: When I was 16 or 17 years old, we were in the same high school. 

Did you knew what was his project beforehand and for what specific reasons you decided to join this new adventure? Because you told me you had already thoughts, another scheme in head, becoming a pilot, right?
Willy: I didn’t really know about his plan actually. I joined the team when Aunt Guo and Willy opened the first shop. I still remember the first time I step into the shop, I was surprised by the haircut Aunt did on me, it was the kind of cut I couldn’t get anywhere else. Afterward, I became a regular. Willy knew I was going for a pilot license in the states, he asked if I could give him a hand before leaving. After a couple of months I worked there. I realized that Auntie’s was not only about the haircut, but also a place where everything is essential, the barbers, the customers, even the counter staff. I enjoyed the things that we had in that small shop with two barber chairs. When Willy decided to open the second shop he asked if I wanted to be a part of the businessIt was hard to take a decision but in the end, I chose to work in a place that always brings me happiness.

Can I ask you what’s your position at Auntie’s Barbershop? What are you doing on a daily basis?
David: I’d say I am the manager, my job is to make sure that all our appointments are on point, I also take care of a few other things.

What’s the most challenging part of running your own business?
David: For me, the most challenging part of running our own business in this industry is how you manage a team to make sure that when a customers walk out of the shop he is leaving with a smile.

I’ve seen some young apprentice in your shop and asked Willy about it too and he said that this was occasional.
David:In these couple years, being a barber become cool for those fresh graduate or the people who are already a hairdresser although we don’t really look for a apprentice. Our apprentice were the customers before.

In a recent interviews I’ve watched about you guys, one of the Auntie’s was saying that since you opened your own business a lot of people are trying to do the same by copying your aesthetic and company value. What are your thoughts about this?
David:  Before Auntie’s came out, you can barely see a young man who will walk into a traditional barber shop to have a haircut. I think Auntie’s is a shop that give confidence and encourage people to do something that many people wouldn’t. It’s like a collaborative project, gathering all generations. We’re more than proud to be able to keep our own traditional barber values, and to see various styles of barber shops opening everywhere now.

Thanks you guys!

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