Buth Thav Virak is one of the thousands of barbers in Cambodia. However, two things distinguish him from the others: his obsession with Western vintage hairstyles and his ‘being classic’. Taing Rinith talks with Virak at his barber shop about his unconventional trimming styles.
There is nothing at 7 Barber & Mss on Street 240 that gives its patrons the same feeling of an ordinary barbershop in Cambodia. First of all, it has a café in front, from where they can order drinks such as a hot latte or an ice-cold Americano. The right side of the shop’s entrance displays portraits of men with old-school hairstyles such as Crew, Forwarded-Combed Boogie and Flattop Boogie.
Inside, the walls of 7 Barber & Mss are covered with planks, where vintage objects such as a guitar, a pair of horse rider’s boots and a biker’s jacket are hung. Also on the wall are advertising posters depicting hair and mustache styles from an era prior to when people reached the moon and when music was dominated by young Elvis Presley.
From the ceiling hang a metal rust colour satellite lamp pendant, and under it are four vintage barber chairs painted in gold, each facing a mirror. Together, these elements carry the patrons backwards in an American country barbershop in the 50s although 7 Barber & Mss is actually located in one of the most crowded parts of Phnom Penh.
Wearing a pair of fresh tunnel earrings, dressed in a wrinkled white shirt and a pair of suspender pants and covered in tattoos, Buth Thav Virak, the 29-year-old owner of 7 Barber & Mss, is trimming a customer’s hair carefully with shears and a manual hair clipper. Usually, he follows the customers’ preferences, but when they do not have one, he always recommends the vintage hairstyles, with which he is obsessed.
“They are becoming more and more popular among both expats and locals,” says Virak while washing his customer’s hair in a small room at the back of the shop. “I am still studying every day to bring new vintage hairstyles to my shop.”
About ten years ago, Virak began to feel distaste for haircut styles by Cambodian barbers, and thought he could do a better job. It was not long after that he started his training to become a hairstylist and discovered his love in the trade.
For years, Virak has been an apprentice to many famous “beauticians” in the region, including Bunthoeun Stevens Outh, but he had not found a specialisation he is genuinely passionate about until he chanced upon a Youtube video featuring an American barbershop in 1950.
“Suddenly, I fell in love with those hairstyles as well as the atmosphere in the shop,” Virak says. “Although, they dated to almost 70 years ago, the hair and moustache styles provide a sense of what a real man looks like, and they are timeless.”
He then did more research and found there are many classic barbershops providing vintages hairstyles around the world but almost none in Cambodia. He saw it as an opportunity and vowed to create a space where he would be able to spread this fashion in the country.
His dream came true in November last year with the opening of 7 Barber & Mss. Having designed the interior himself, Virak always makes sure that his staff keep up with the standard of a classic barbershop. Trained by Virak, the barbers in the shop are required to wear fine clothes, which fit the shop’s atmosphere, and pay extra attention to their work. They are forbidden to make unnecessary jokes or chat with customers while cutting their hair.
“Many of my staff have left because they could not accept my discipline, but that is what being classic means,” Virak says. “The barbers have to blend with the ambiance of the shop to give customers a pleasant atmosphere and focus on nothing but beautifying them.”
7 Barber & Mss receives good reviews online, especially for the amazing result and high level of professionalism although the price – $7 per head – is quite high compared to most local barbershops, where a haircut cost only about 1-2 dollars.
“Virak is a very professional barber. I don’t tell him and he doesn’t ask me about the kind of haircut I want,” writes Ybarra Sarmiento, one of the regulars. “When I sit down, he knows already what I want and from time to time he has a new hairstyle for me.”
Virak claims that an investor from France wants to assist him in expanding the business, but he says he prefers taking it slow at the moment.
“Classic barber is very new in Cambodia, and we do not have many highly professional barbers to run it yet,” he says. “But, my ambition is there as I want to build up a Cambodian franchise which will have its place on the international stage and market.”