My beard

Wednesday, September 30th 2020
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It’s probably surprising how little time and attention I’ve put into my beard over the years. 

I’ve had it almost 20 years, long before it was fashionable (which I do tell people, to my shame). Yet I’ve always cut it myself, using clippers on my hair and a combination of clippers and scissors on the beard. 

This amateur approach might be down to the fact I grew it as an accompaniment to shaving off my hair. The latter had been thinning for a while, and I finally took the decision to cut it all off when I left university. Growing a beard at the same time seemed like some kind of compensation. 

Given I could easily trim the hair myself (with my wife tidying up the back) I took the same approach to the beard. I used clippers to keep it at roughly the same length, then trimmed the moustache and the neckline by hand. 

My technique improved a little over time, with an increasing difference in length between the sides of the beard and the chin, for example. But I always resisted going to a barber regularly. 

If I was being generous, I think I’d say this is was also because I’m actually not that vain. 

Although I love clothes, I’ve resisted obsessing over other aspects of appearance. I exercise in order to be able to compete, or play sports - not to look good. I’ve always been put off my men’s sites that include pieces on six packs or whitening your teeth. 

Mastering clothes is akin to mastering cooking, for me: a necessary aspect of life that it is enjoyable to do well. Not akin body building: good for nothing other than showing off.

But at the same time, I think I was also a lazy about my hair, and probably a little cheap: I didn’t like the idea of spending quite a lot of money just to return something to normal - to maintain rather than to grow. 

Whatever the reason, that approach finally changed a few months ago when I started visiting Stefan Avanzato (above), the barber who works downstairs from Private White VC on Duke Street.

I think the biggest thing that changed my mind was that Stefan was so approachable, and happy to give me advice on doing my hair myself, rather than wanting a frequent customer. This immediately put me at my ease: the few barbers I have tried in the past (often chains that had just hired a PR team) were much more commercial.

Of course, after a few sessions with Stefan, it’s clear there’s an advantage to going back regularly if not often - if only to tidy up hairlines that I haven’t quite been able to perfectly maintain. But that still might only be every couple of months. 

I like the job Stefan has done, both in terms of the small changes he has made and the understanding it has given me of how my hair works. I’ve enjoyed firing questions at him: how the hair grows, what effects different beard shapes have, what equipment to buy etc.

Here is a brief description of the changes he has made. As ever, this could seem self-involved (that vanity comes into question again) but readers have asked about my beard in the past. 

And I do think there is an overlap with menswear, in terms of what your aim is with grooming: as with clothes, my aim is to appear simply well put-together, rather than too obviously stylised. 

In fact, that was the first thing I said to Stefan, and directed the look I was after. I wanted my beard to look tidy, and flattering. I wanted confidence in this look, and in my ability to maintain it myself.

But I didn’t want any sharp angles, or definite styles. My idea of hell would be designer stubble that was shaped into a thin line along the chin; or indeed a long hipster beard with an obvious shape chopped in. 

Stefan agreed that the best way to avoid the former was not to shave the beard too high under the chin. It needs to run all the way back to the point where the chin meets the neck. 

I had been maintaining a good height there, apparently, but had been rounding off the corners where the beard turns upwards. You can see that effect in the first image below. 

It doesn’t look bad, but by lowering the bottom-left corner, making it more into a right angle, the beard is widened and the jaw looks bigger. 

You can see the difference in the second image, after a recent trim from Stefan. It’s not the kind of thing that I’d classify as a ‘style’, yet it does have a noticeable effect. 

The second thing Stefan changed was the line I shaved on my cheeks. Here, I’d been going for a more horizontal line, with the same general aim of squaring the jaw. 

But his suggestion was that it looked better if that line sloped downwards, essentially pointing towards the corner of my mouth. That also helped tidy up the top line of the beard (it’s a little patchy on that side) without looking too mannered. 

Again, you can see the difference in the two images below. 

I’ve always liked my moustache to be quite trim. I guess because I wanted to frame the mouth, rather than hide it. 

Stefan agreed with that approach, but suggested cutting it even shorter. He also used a small trimmer to cut a wider gap between my mouth and the moustache. 

This line around the mouth was borderline for me in terms of looking too stylised. Particularly when Stefan then used a razor to shape the top of the moustache. But it does also look a lot cleaner. I think that’s something I’ll play with myself over time, and find a line I’m happy with. 

I also used the experience with Stefan to try cutting my hair shorter. 

I’ve never liked the idea of it being very short - basically invisible, essentially bald. But my hair has been annoying me in recent years, thinning on the back and developing areas of uneven grey that make it look patchy. 

So we moved from my normal grade 1 to grade 0.5. I felt it was a bit too short on day one, but of course the hair growth shows quickly at that length, so over all during the span of a week, I preferred it. That is now my default setting. 

There are a few other small things I ran through with Stefan. Trimming the beard every week, for example, by using trimmers going down the face (not up) at different grades: 5 on the chin, 3 at the side. 

I learnt to trim longer or straggly hairs by combing and then using scissors (always comb then cut, comb then cut), and keep the hair under the chin a little shorter than the rest (something it’s easy to go too far with). 

We talked about shaving, and the nature of my hair (tough) and skin (sensitive) that means I almost grow a 5 o’clock shadow, yet find it hard to shave every day. 

And I invested in some better clippers (Wahl Senior Cordless) which made an immediate difference.

Going back to the objectives mentioned at the beginning, I think the key thing Stefan has given me is confidence - that my beard looks as good as it can do, and I’m not screwing it up. It’s akin to being able to polish your shoes well, or indeed some basic DIY.

Stefan was patient, listened, and didn’t assume he just knew best. This is the kind of attitude that I’m sure develops long-term relationships (that old idea that ‘a man needs a good tailor, barber and barman’) and is rather contrary to some of the new fashionable chains of barbers.

That’s it for grooming on Permanent Style - probably for ever. I have no interest in reviewing moisturisers or suggesting cleansing regimes. Someone else can do that. 

I just thought the experience with Stefan had enough parallels with dressing well, and the ideal relationship with a tailor/retailer, to be of interest. 

And if anyone asks about my beard again, I have somewhere to direct them.