Custom Cuts

Rudy’s Barbershop–a West Coast mini-chain with national aspirations–may have a formula for growth that satisfies a new generation’s thirst for authenticity.

Among a certain subset of stylish but frugal women, spotting a like-minded friend in a new top prompts an inevita­ble question: “H&M?” On the West Coast, when one of those friends (or their male counterparts) gets a new haircut, the question is often: “Rudy’s?” But while each H&M is more or less the same whether you’re in Malmö or Manhattan, each Rudy’s Barbershop hopes to be a social hub of its neighborhood, with dramatically different interiors that still manage to retain the essence of Rudy’s. Currently it’s a regional mini-chain with 14 shops in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles.

I got my first Rudy’s cut about seven years ago at its first L.A. outlet, in André Balazs’s Standard hotel, on Sunset. It was the price that lured me in—just $21 for a cut that, if the surroundings were any indication, would be more stylish than anything I could get at Fantastic Sams. And it was. The stylists in the narrow, gleaming white shop were as cool as the vintage barber chairs, and I walked out with a long tapered bob, a sleek hairdo that would have fit right in behind the velvet ropes at the neighboring Skybar.

Eventually I grew tired of the Sunset Strip’s cosmos-and-convertibles atmosphere and headed east to a new Rudy’s out in the boho Silver Lake neighborhood. This one was located in a cavernous former auto repair shop and had a thrift-store vibe with warm woods, mismatched chairs, and a deliberately messy-headed clientele. My subtly sculpted tresses became more daring, my bangs inched upward, and I looked like I could be fronting my own indie band.

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But, like Goldilocks, I wasn’t quite satisfied. And then a new Rudy’s opened on Melrose, not far from my house, in an airy high-ceilinged space with a giant mural by street artist Eric Elms, done in the same modern palette of white, chocolate brown, and gray that dominates the shop. And my coif? A couple of visits and some concentrated growing resulted in my current long crop, with sideswept bangs and layers that make my hair miraculously wavy.

That’s the cut I sport when I meet two of the company’s three founders, Alex Calderwood and Wade Weigel, at the Rudy’s headquarters in Seattle, a buzzing second-story suite right around the corner from their first barbershop, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, once the heart of the city’s grunge-music scene. When I tell them it’s the handiwork of a Rudy’s stylist, neither one asks if I like the cut. Instead, they want to know if I enjoyed the experience, if I talked to other customers, if the vibe was good.

It’s obvious that what led Calderwood and Weigel into the business wasn’t an interest in hair. Rather, it was the idea of injecting new life into ritualized social interactions that intrigued them. “Wade used to fly back and forth from London and would see these barbers in Camden Market and Notting Hill where they’d just set up in the middle of the market and cut hair for the day,” Calderwood says. “And I used to live near Sig’s Barbershop downtown, this tiny old shop that’s never changed. I’d walk by it and think, ‘God, how cool would it be to buy that and get younger hairstylists to work there.’”

Weigel first suggested that they buy their own shop. Friends were skeptical, insisting that neither women nor the determinedly trendy would go to a barber­shop, no matter how alluring the design. Fifteen years later, the pair—along with partner David Petersen, who deals with the hair side of things—run a business that will take in a projected $10 million in 2007 and estimate that they’ve done 3.5 million pixie cuts, faux-hawks, shags, and bobs.

Rudy’s is just one part of a three-pronged operation with such a large cast of characters that at one point Calderwood stops to draw a family tree. At the root of it is Neverstop, the marketing, branding, and event-planning firm that he started in 2000 with Nasir Rasheed. That venture grew out of the club nights that the two party promoters threw. “We were the first to really bring different kinds of people together in Seattle—drag queens, club freaks, hip-hoppers, but also suburban kids,” Rasheed says. Those nights led to their first job as self-styled “cultural engineers,” creating cool for the Gap under its visionary former CEO, Mickey Drexler. They’ve since gone on to do a Nike Air Force 1 shoe campaign in China, a pop-up store for the Luella Bartley installation of Target’s GO International line, and a series of events for Japanese clothing behemoth Uniqlo.

They work for giant corporations, but don’t call them sellouts. “Nike might be a global brand,” says Rasheed, who started as a DJ, “but they understand the significance of local culture more than most brands. Those are the people we work with. We always try to embed ourselves locally, to meet the in­flu­encers, the creatives, in each area. And they’re more likely to be drawn to things that reflect their culture.”

That experience is apparent in their next enterprise, Rudy’s Barbershops, which started in 1992. The third venture (but likely not their last) is Ace Atelier, a hotel-development project that started with the eight-year-old Ace Seattle and recently opened the Ace Portland, whose inviting lobby, communal bathrooms, and displays of local art made a splash in the hospitality industry. Unlike such hotel-management groups as Kimpton or Joie de Vivre, which develop a portfolio of boutique properties with different names and concepts, Ace plans to keep its brand moniker, ramping up quickly with new venues opening in New York, Minneapolis, and Palm Springs.

Weigel and Calderwood consider fabric samples for the upcoming Ace New York, which will also be home to the first East Coast Rudy’s in 2009. “It’s this weird army green,” Calderwood says. “It looks like a linen and has a drape to it. And then Wade’s boyfriend actually made this.” He pulls out a piece of macramé. “We’re obsessed with macramé and the natural fibers and colors of it. We wanted to use it in Portland, but finding old pieces is difficult. But we’re working on three hotels now, so it’ll show up somewhere.”

That organic attitude has yielded some of the most significant design decisions. The first Ace Hotel, in Seattle, had a previous life as a flophouse in the Belltown neighborhood. “We tried to work with the bones of the building as much as possible, including the shared bathrooms,” Calderwood says. “People weren’t really doing that with confidence, in a kind of clean, fresh way. Hotel-industry people tell us that was one of the things that really put us on the map. Through our naivete, we were able to make that work and achieve a relatively good price point.”

The rooms at Ace Seattle and Portland start at $75 and max out at $250 for a deluxe room; there are also “band rooms” in Portland, with bunk beds that are an affordable $95. They hope to hit similar price points in New York, even in that city’s insane hotel market. These lower rates limit their ability to provide traditional hotel luxuries like fitness centers, yet the Ace properties manage to draw a well-heeled creative class. Nike, for example, often checks its visiting designers and executives into Ace Portland. In a world where money can buy anything, there is an increasing desire for the personal, a reaction against anonymous cookie-cutter experiences. The singular patina that places like the Chateau Marmont or the Chelsea Hotel have acquired through age and history, Ace attempts to create by design.

Many of the signature Rudy’s elements also stem from the urge to personalize that has driven the success of social-networking sites like MySpace that allow its users to create their own page layouts. A peek at the original Capitol Hill shop makes it clear that their aesthetic was driven by that ethos even before they consciously applied it to subsequent Rudy’s and to the hotels. Here are the riot of concert posters and magazine tear sheets, the long row of mismatched old-school barber chairs, the quirky collection that might be more at home in a suburban rec-room basement; there a few dozen gilded trophies, the mural on the wall, and the eclectic assortment of hipsters, rockers, professionals, and art-school kids.

Designer Eric Hentz, who has worked on Rudy’s and Ace properties as well as Weigel’s bars and restaurants, says, “Alex and Wade like to strike a balance between a well-worn item and something constructed around that which sets it off. There’s a point and a counterpoint always going on: highly conceived new things contrasted with really worn or beat-up things.”

Weigel and Calderwood call it “nondesign design,” but it’s actually a belief in chance, faith that the perfect element will be waiting on eBay or by the side of the road and that the space they’re able to lease will be worth keeping alive. The most recent Rudy’s is in the gentrifying Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, which Weigel describes as “a very charming up-and-coming Scandinavian fishing community. When you hit about thirty or want to have a child, you move to Ballard.”

The shadow of the old sign for Ballard Hardware, built in 1890, is still visible above the Rudy’s logo. “I’d spend hours going through it,” Weigel says, “because it was all this old stock. It had all these little cubbyholes, and it was always like, ‘What is that and what is it used for?’” Calderwood continues, “We deconstructed a lot of old shelving units. Where they kept nuts and bolts, we turned that into our retail cabinet. We left the old floors.” The ceilings are covered in salvaged wood that used to be the fire walls in an automotive garage Weigel bought. A “Superior finishing” sign atop the mirrors was found under blackberry bushes next to a dry cleaner.

The partners aren’t married to a particular aesthetic. Instead, they’re driven by the camaraderie engendered by spaces that feel warm, by the mixing of different types that occurs when some economic barriers are removed. They come by this interest in social interaction honestly, via a long history of promoting clubs and creating events, but it also happens to hit upon a generational desire for human interaction. Right now people want to find ways to be around other people. Happenings, a term last used in the 1970s, are in vogue again and urban living is being embraced.

The lobby at Ace Portland is not one of those overly mediated spaces you find in other design-driven hotels. Plate-glass windows provide a view of the street; a coffee shop on one end and a restaurant on the other draw locals, who camp out on the comfy low-slung couches grouped around a heavy oversize metal coffee table in a tableaux that looks like a living room. Hotel guests mingle with the Portlanders, downing Northwest-strength cups of coffee and looking at the photo-booth snaps they just took in the lobby. “We travel a lot all over the world,” Calderwood says. “You try to seek out those kinds of places, those social ambassadors, those local people, who can get under the skin of the community. It amazes me that in Portland every day there are those people sitting there in the lobby.”

“A lot of that is there’s no traditional hotel desk,” Weigel says. “At other hotels you have this desk looming over the lobby. You have all this staff sitting there watching you. One of our ideas was, let’s tuck this front desk away so you’re not feeling like somebody’s constantly watching.” The desk, hidden in an alcove by the elevator, was also a piece that they lucked into. “It was about to be thrown out from this factory we were working with,” Calderwood says. It was actually a bookshelf that they turned on end. “Originally, the desk was going to be this long desk, and then Wade said, ‘It feels weird.’” “It can be a buzz killer,” Weigel agrees.

Because of that experience, the hotel desk in the Ace New York will also be tucked away, and a similar mix of reasons to linger should lure locals into the lobby. “You need to provide a platform, a catalyst for exchange, some kind of interaction between the local and the out-of-town people,” Calderwood says. “We’re coming out of a cold design era, and people are craving something homey that feels more personal, going back to Mom’s house. That’s what’s drawn people to Rudy’s. Taking the hotel in that direction feels right—you want to be around warmth and happiness and a little imperfection.”

Imperfection that works, that feels authentically accidental, relies on a hands-on approach that will be harder for Calderwood and Weigel to replicate as they expand. The New York–based firm Roman and Williams is doing much of the Ace New York design work that the partners might once have handled. Other young firms will be hired to make design choices for Ace Palm Springs and Ace Minneapolis. Whether New York will embrace a strategy that worked so well on the West Coast remains to be seen. But if it does, Rudy’s and Ace might someday take their place in the pantheon of global brands—with a very local twist.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: December 2007

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