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Freemans sporting club on the lower east side of manhattan is a carefully art-directed establishment that re-creates the look and feel of an old-time barbershop. Customers sit in vintage chairs from the Thirties, and antique chrome dispensers ooze heated shaving cream. It’s an overtly masculine haven inspired by an era when men were men and the barbershop was a pretty straightforward grooming experience.
Still, this isn’t your father’s barbershop. A cut and shave here is actually a meticulously stylized experience in the guise of a retro-manly ritual. There are fancy products applied to the hair and face from pricy purveyors such as Malin + Goetz and Baxter of California. The straight razors are made by hipster artisans at Black Sheep & Prodigal Sons, and the barbers themselves are gussied up in plaid shirts with ties, up-to-the-minute premium denim and newsboy caps tilted just so.
FSC is one of a wave of upscale barbershops catering to guys who are seduced by the trappings of masculine tradition, but demand it in a fashionable form. These are the same male consumers who have made carefully groomed beards ubiquitous in certain stylish quarters, decreed that plaid is de rigueur and somehow turned DIY butchering into a trend (“Dude, let’s go scope out the Henckel cleavers after we check out the Quoddy boots at J. Crew Liquor Store”).
It’s all part of a movement some call “retrosexual,” a play on the dated and derided term “metrosexual.” If the latter heralded the rise over the past decade of a newly manicured and somewhat emasculated modern male, the retrosexual is at once an evolution and a renunciation of that trend. While these men are looking back to the styles, values and pastimes of traditional masculinity, they are doing so through the lens of the post-metrosexual male—one with heightened discernment about brands, aesthetics and lifestyle.
In the extreme, the retrosexual is hard to miss. Look for the flannel-clad urban woodsman with an encyclopedic knowledge of single-malt Scotch or the nouveau gentleman riding around town on a fixed-gear bicycle or the latter-day faux-laborer with meticulously inked-up arms in a boutique chambray shirt. But more subtle examples are everywhere. See Justin Timberlake’s taste for fedoras, Johnny Depp’s Buddy Holly–era eyeglasses and Jamie Oliver’s vintage Ford Bronco, which showed up regularly in the chef’s TV show Food Revolution.
The trend can also be seen in the burgeoning popularity of brands that connote Americana and heritage, whether real or manufactured—such as Filson, Woolrich, Pendleton, Gilded Age, Rogues Gallery, Red Wing boots and vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. Men’s retailers have also gotten into the act, creating old-school environments based on men’s clubs or hunting lodges. Tom Ford flagships evince the masculine swagger of swank bachelor pads, while stores such as Odin and John Varvatos have more of a Depression-era general store vibe, with rough-hewn floors, exposed brick and worn-leather furnishings.
“People respond to things that feel authentic and have a history, even if that history is fabricated,” says Taavo Somer, co-founder of the two FSC barber shops, as well as the associated Freemans Sporting Club haberdashery and Freemans restaurant, which all evoke the simple masculinity of the past in their decor and offerings.
While Freeman’s and its ilk cater to a trendy crowd, experts recommend that men’s retail in general adopt the strategy. In his book, Branding the Man, Bertrand Pellegrin makes the case that men avoid shopping because retail space is not designed for them. “In order for the male customer to understand the merchandise, it needs to be framed in a way that makes sense and can be instantly read as ‘masculine,’” he notes. “A man seeks places that offer compelling and emotional experiences that enhance his sense of manhood.” Just as the retrosexual pulls from historical male archetypes, Pellegrin suggests, men’s retailers should borrow from traditionally male spaces such as gyms, sports bars, men’s clubs and electronics stores.
Cultural observers say the current backward glance to the masculine norms of yesteryear is largely a reaction to the increased blurring of gender roles as well as male economic insecurity. While seeking authentic experiences amid today’s mass production and marketing, men are looking to previous eras for a surer sense of self. “Guys have experienced a loss of power, and masculinity has been under pressure,” explains Ian Pierpoint, chief executive officer of The Sound Research, a market research firm. “They are looking to the past to borrow what they see as more stable and authentic forms of masculinity.”
Pierpoint identifies two primary sources of male insecurity. One is unemployment, which has impacted men—who account for nearly 60 percent of the jobless—more severely than women. The other is what he calls gender parity: Not only do men and women play equal roles at work and share more of the same household duties, but increasingly, they share similar outlooks. “If you talk to young men and women, their views on sex, relationships, marriage and children have converged,” Pierpoint says. “There is less difference between the sexes than ever, and one way guys deal with that is by adopting the styles and attitudes of previous generations.”
Gender parity has deepened steadily since World War II as women have increased their financial independence. Women now comprise 46.5 percent of the labor force, according to the Department of Labor. “Men are competing with women in the workplace, and looking their best is part of that competition,” notes Jack Essig, publisher of Men’s Health, which has conducted studies over the past few years documenting the changing roles of men in society and as consumers.
As women have adopted traditionally masculine roles, men have taken on responsibilities once handled by women, such as shopping. According to Nielsen data, from 2004 to 2009, men’s “average dollar basket size” in grocery stores grew from $27.49 to $41.67, while women’s increased more modestly, from $37.44 to $43.50—now just slightly ahead of men’s. A Men’s Health study conducted in December showed that 29 percent of men say they are more involved with grocery shopping today than two to three years ago, up 9 percentage points from a similar study in 2007. Such shifts in behavior “open up a lot of untapped opportunities for marketers,” says Craig Elston, vice president of insights and strategy at brand marketer The Integer Group.