At this woman-owned D.C. barbershop, it’s about the ‘beauty of inclusivity’

CJ Stack felt like she had tried nearly every salon and barbershop in the Washington region, desperate for her dirty-blonde hair to be trimmed into a short haircut. But stylists never seemed to take it down far enough, even when she insisted. And male barbers, thinking they knew best, would routinely leave her with a longer pixie cut instead.

“I had a few barbers tell me they didn’t do women’s hair before they would even talk to me,” she recalled. “I was getting really tempted to just grab my own clippers and shave it.”

But then Stack, 33, discovered the Lady Clipper.

That was eight months ago. Since then, Stack has made the 45-minute drive from her Rockville home to the Lady Clipper barber shop in Northwest D.C. nine times — and she’ll happily continue to make the journey.

“I know I’m not going to have any problems,” Stack said during a recent visit. “I’m going to get a haircut that I like in a comfortable, safe environment.”

For Stack and other regulars at the Lady Clipper, the experience is about more than a reliable haircut: the shop on D.C.’s historical U Street has become a safe haven for women, nonbinary and queer people, in an industry that has historically catered to straight men. Usually, customers have stories similar to Stack’s — an off-putting experience (or two, or three) that occurred as they tried to seek a haircut at barbershops, where workers deal more often with short hair and facial hair compared to salons.

The shop’s founder, Lesley Bryant, has her own story.

Around 2015, when she was the only woman cutting hair in a local barbershop, Bryant would talk to the owner about inappropriate comments she overheard that were occasionally directed at patrons. And she had noticed some of her clients wincing at the profane music videos that looped on the business’s television screen.

Though Bryant voiced her concerns, little changed. Then her customers began speaking up too.

“They were coming in and they would say to me, ‘When are you getting us out of here?’ They expressed that they were getting turned off, or wouldn’t come as often as they would like, because of this discomfort,” Bryant recalled. “That was when it was like, ‘Okay — I have to figure this out.’”

Around 2017, Bryant — a former graphic designer who moved to D.C. from Trinidad when she was a child — struck a deal with a salon and spa owner who occupied a brown-brick building at 1514 U Street NW. In exchange for affordable rent, Bryant was allowed to set up her nascent business in a third-floor storage area.

She called her new shop the Lady Clipper — based off her own nickname that was bestowed by her mother to help Bryant create a brand for herself. Eighty-two out of the city’s 567 licensed barbers are women, according to D.C.’s Barber and Cosmetology Board.

But Bryant quickly outgrew the space as her clientele and unique team of all-women barbers expanded. At the same time, the salon’s owner was thinking about downsizing. The two women struck another deal, this time, to switch places: As of October, the Lady Clipper controls the first two floors of the brown-brick building at 1514 U Street NW, now with five barbers and six available chairs.

Now 42, Bryant takes pride in doing the little things she believes will make everyone feel welcome: those who enter the Lady Clipper are to be greeted before they can step off the shop’s gray welcome mat. The business has movable benches available on both floors for plus-sized customers who might not fit comfortably in a regular barber’s chair. It also offers a closed-off room with a single barber’s chair and mirror — well suited for customers who are nervous or in need of privacy, from people with cancer preparing for chemotherapy to women with religious head coverings.

The space has become increasingly popular as a social spot, too. Bryant has hosted art shows, and other performances and events. In July, Planned Parenthood rented the space to host a talk for salon owners and practitioners about ways to discuss safe sex with their clients; and during Pride Month, the Capital Pride Alliance asked Bryant if she’d be willing to host a special “Ladies’ Lounge” event for women — she transformed the Lady Clipper into a makeshift bar and dance studio for the day.

“D.C.’s Pride is very male-centric. Even if it’s a women’s party, a lot of the men take over,” Bryant said. “There’s always somebody who feels left out. The key thing I feel has made me thrive is that I’m always thinking how I can make that one person who doesn’t feel like they belong, belong.”

Bryant’s efforts to create an inclusive space have a financial upside as well, says Anwar Saleem, chair of the Barber and Cosmetology Board, by appealing to women and other customers who may have hesitations about more traditional barbershops.

“Economically, there’s no question. In an environment like that, the income level will be a lot higher than in a traditional barbershop. Some barbers can be hurting economically and they’re still not aware they can make a change and do a lot better,” Saleem said.

When the Barber and Cosmetology Board asked Bryant to come up with a topic and present it at their practitioner’s forum in late June, she said yes, despite her fear of speaking to large crowds. The annual forum is attended by hundreds in the beauty industry and gives business owners, instructors and managers a chance to earn credits toward renewing their licenses.

She easily came up with a theme for her presentation: “The Beauty of Inclusivity” — focused on business practices like gender-neutral pricing that have paid dividends in building her clientele. But before Bryant could begin talking to the breakout group of about 75 of the city’s barbers, someone in the front row jumped in with an unsolicited observation: the man featured on the presentation’s opening slide appeared to have a crooked hairline.

“I was like, ‘My presentation is not about precision, it’s about inclusivity,’” Bryant recalled. The man responded: “How are you going to be a barber, giving a presentation, and the first picture on the cover has a crooked shape-up?”

Several of the Lady Clippers’ barbers witnessed the exchange. Fired up after the back and forth, Bryant went on to discuss how just like any good piece of art, there’s beauty in the imperfections, too. While the man apologized to Bryant and her team later, noting that he didn’t intend to be rude, someone else in the crowd asked another question toward the end of the presentation.

“What is this about you hiring only women, and this woman-focused thing?” Bryant recalled the man asking. “Isn’t that man hate?”

In response, Bryant discussed how it was her own former barber, a man, that encouraged her to give cutting hair a try when she was laid off from a graphic design job she had for 12 years.

“I learned from men, men are some of the reasons I went into this industry,” she said in response. “So it’s not about hating anybody, it’s about building up my own. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”

Inclusivity was never a major discussion point at D.C.’s practitioner’s forum before Bryant’s presentation, Saleem said. But he acknowledged that wholesale change in the industry, particularly to better serve those who feel out of place in some of the city’s barber shops, will take more time.

When a woman walks into a traditional barber shop, he said, “You may have these undertone conversations, or someone may express how they feel about something — then the looks — it can get out of hand,” Saleem added. “But it’s changing rapidly, I’ve heard it over the years. Now people are accepted as people more so than their personal preference.”

Albert Hillman, the owner of an H Street barbershop since the 1980s, agrees.

“I accept anybody. I don’t turn down anybody, LGBTQ, whatever. No problems with accepting no one,” he said. “People have choices. Most people who come here usually decide to stay. But we accept anybody who comes through that door.”

Bryant estimates her shop’s clientele is about 60 percent women and 40 percent men; on a recent Friday morning, an even split walked inside. Almost everyone knew to make an appointment, and all were greeted before they could step off the gray mat. Michelle Street, who discovered Bryant’s business four years ago through a referral, still has fond memories of the traditional barber shop where she used to be a regular.

“I had my guy that I went to, and the older guys would sit there all day and play checkers, I think there’s a place for that too, it’s just not for me anymore,” she said.

But Street has taken her two young sons to Bryant’s shop as well as others, wanting them to experience all kinds of environments.

“That’s a part of their community too. I think over time, a lot of them have had a reputation,” Street said. “But there are men who are coming to be more enlightened about things and more conscious about who’s around them. People are evolving everywhere, I think.”

Before cutting hair at the Lady Clipper, barber Angalique Ferris, like Bryant, worked in two shops where she was the only woman barber. She felt constantly in competition with the shop’s other barbers, who she said appeared to simultaneously doubt and feel threatened by her abilities.

And earlier in life, when she would go to a male barber and request a skin fade, they almost always cut it differently than she requested. Tired of facing obstacles, Ferris, who is lesbian, has been cutting her own hair for the past six years. Recently, a new client made a similar observation.

“She was like, this was the most pleasant haircut I’ve ever had in my life. Anytime I go to a regular barbershop, the men are trying to talk to me or keeping me in the chair longer so they can talk to me,’” Ferris said. “And those environments, I won’t say all of them are like that, but a good portion are.”

Lawmont Green and his husband, Alfred Barnes Jr., used to live 15 minutes away from the Lady Clipper in the District, but have continued to visit twice a month despite moving to Fort Washington last year. For Green, this most recent haircut was special: in a matter of hours, he would be watching Beyoncé perform at FedEx Field.

“This is my Renaissance haircut,” he said with a smile, referring to her 2022 album.

The gay couple likened the Lady Clipper as a welcome change compared to some of their past experiences getting haircuts, where on occasion they had overheard derogatory remarks about the looks of patrons who walked in after them. While Barnes frequently felt a desire to speak up about the comments, he said he had anxiety about doing so.

“I’ve been told I’m not the typical Black gay man, so I could fit in well, but I could also see the discomfort in other folks who came in to get a haircut,” he said. “I would like to see more places like this. We’re not there yet, but hopefully, it’ll be infectious.”

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