By Mark Mathews
Nestled amongst the art nouveau and neoclassical buildings on the humming Meşrutiyet Caddesi of Pera Istanbul lies Cornedor Erkek Kuaförü.
Underneath the stenciled name on the glass window, a stained curtain partially covers the musty interior with its withered cream barber chairs.
To anyone not familiar with men’s grooming in the Eastern Mediterranean, they would most likely pass by the undistinguished building on their way to drinks at the Soho house or a tour of the Istanbul Modern without bothering to glance inside.
For locals and travelers in the know, this is all the better.
Patrons who venture inside embark on a grooming session where cutting and styling hair are only part of a meticulous ritual that stretches from a back massage and beard trim to a true Turkish singeing, in which a flame is used to remove stray ear hairs.
Indeed, the young generation of the Eastern Mediterranean prizes a healthy beard and crisp cheek line just as much as the skinniest pair of jeans or trendiest sneakers.
Athanasios Karadontis, co-owner of 1920 The Metropolitan Barbershop in Monastiraki Athens says beards and mustaches are classic and popular parts of the Greek look.
“The beard is something that will not change easily in Greece,” he told Levendeia when asked the chances of Greek men giving up on facial hair.
In recent years, a new generation of men's grooming enthusiasts have taken the gritty Mediterranean style to a new level by exploring trends in the region and experimenting with creative shop and brand design.
Nader Petro, a Jordanian-Palestinian barber and entrepreneur who started the company Beardaholic in 2015 is one of them. He has invented a range of beard oils which he says are best suited for the Levantine climate and infused with natural local scents like oud.
“In Northern Europe or the US you have a different climate and men can use different types of products. We produce all our beard oils here in Jordan and make sure it has zero alcohol and zero sodium content,” he tells Levendeia. “In some international products the alcohol content can cause men to have an itchy beard or red skin in this region.”
Nader’s venture began during his university days in Cyprus as part of an assignment for his marketing class. During the five years he lived on the island he says he began experimenting with cutting his own hair and his friends took notice.
“They really liked my work and soon they started asking me to cut their hair,” he says. “I was literally watching videos on YouTube step by step while I cut their hair.”
Seeing the potential for a long term business, he traveled back to Jordan to incorporate and locally produce his beard oils.
Sitting in Athanasios Karadontis' prohibition era deigned barbershop in Monastiraki, he tells me it was the economic crisis, which was particularly brutal in Greece that provided the spark for him to open his business in 2014.
“At the beginning of every new project you need to put in time and be consistent in the effort if you want to succeed. Even more during an economic depression, but a crisis is always a good period for new investments.”
He wanted a business that could withstand the massive economic crunch and generate a cashflow. Opening in the historic center of Athens with its large crowds made perfect sense.
“The tourism industry is the biggest industry in Greece, so we would have income from other countries without crises. Secondly, a barbershop is an investment that we could manage without bank loans, and thirdly, men will never stop taking care of their appearance,” Athanasios told Levendeia.
Their location off bustling Ermou Street is a kind of oasis in men’s grooming. White tiled floors, old-school hanging lights, and rich leather barber chairs dating back to 1904 provide the perfect ambiance for a laid back conversation with the owner and relaxing trim-up before heading out for a mezze and ouzo.
Athanasios says most of his customers come from the Attica region where Athens is located, but they attract a steady number of tourists in the summer months before they travel to the islands.
“Over 95 percent of our Greek costumers are repeat and 20 percent of our foreigners are repeat, mostly Greeks that live abroad and visit every summer,” he said.
Besides haircuts, customers can choose from old school wet shaves to ear waxing, and of course, beard trimming.
With so much care put into the Mediterranean beard culture today, it can seem taboo to not sport some form of facial hair.
“I think that the Greek style is a combination of a high fade and nice beard,” Athanasios said.
For Petro, this beard culture comes with a high demand for quality service.
“Right now I am focusing on building my team so that my customers can have someone available every 2 weeks for their trim even if I’m not there.”
In addition to his barbershop in the upscale Abdoun neighborhood of Amman, Petro sells his beard oils internationally, with customer followings throughout the region, especially Lebanon.
He credits his large social media following to his sense of style. “I have a classic, crazy style.” He smiles, “Beard products fit with who I am.”
He tells Levendeia that he sees more room for growth in beards and men’s grooming products in the Middle East.
“In the past years the beard community here has not been easy, because it is related to religion. After Daesh, people were worried about growing their beards too long.”
In many ways Petro embodies a younger generation of entrepreneurs who are embracing the lifestyle of the Eastern Mediterranean. His family, while originally from Palestine has roots in Greece and he spent five years living and studying in Cyprus where he learned Turkish. He also speaks his native Arabic and English.
“I travel all the time in the region. I go to Istanbul to shop and to party and to Cyprus. I’ve been traveling around so I know what’s trendy and what's new this year. I can help guide my clients about what’s in.”
One thing that he is sure will stay in style are beards.
“Beards are always badass.”