Twixt a barber and the barbered, the full array of human emotion, the palette of power and the exertion of it, the circuits of cordiality and spurs of challenge can crackle through a few inches of air at every snip of the clippers. There are a thousand determinate factors in this chamber drama of the hair: the standing of the client in the world, the standing of the barber, the price of the haircut, familiarity, insecurity, a receding hairline.
Some of us prefer to be shorn by a stern authoritarian barber. Call him Barber Familias, he who knows what’s best for our head. This type of docility is often observed in the neighborhood barbershop, where a shave and a haircut might cost little more than the modern day two-bits (or about $7.58). One goes there for the cleanup, sure, but more so as a conduit and continuum with mankind for the last 600 years. The barber pole—rotating, patriotic, hypnotizing—is perhaps the most direct connection we men of the 21st century have to those of the 15th century. One goes for the brotherhood of the andron, where talk can be raw and unvarnished.
But at the higher end of the spectrum, the asymmetrical relationship between expert and client breaks down like time and space at high speeds. It’s a delicate dance, a tonsorial tussle. Nowhere is this relationship more complicated than in the hushed corridors of high-end men’s salons, and no corridor is more hushed or high-end than that of Martial Vivot Salon Pour Hommes in Midtown Manhattan.
Martial Vivot, 46 and French-born, is among the few certified master barbers in the United States. He began his career at age 14 in the small village of Besançon and moved to the United States in 1999. Today his salon, which occupies the ground floor of a stately brownstone just north of the Museum of Modern Art, is regularly filled with C-suite execs who need their hair trimmed. (Given that haircuts there run $320, they’re also about the only ones who can afford it.) That men of such standing occupy his chairs, says Vivot, presents a dilemma.
“These guys are powerful,” he says, “They’re used to making decisions.” Yet the reason they choose Vivot is that his area of expertise is incongruent with theirs. So, says Vivot, establishing one’s authority early is paramount. Even before the man sits down, the games begin. “It starts with the handshake and the eye contact,” says Vivot. “You can’t be too familiar but you can’t be uptight.”
Like Steely Dan, Vivot must be at once approachable but make clear, as he says, “I am there to rock ‘n’ roll their life a little bit.” Once the man is seated, the real interrogation begins. At this point, mano a mano, the razor comes out. “Don’t ever be impressed,” warns Vivot, “You cannot show weakness with those types of clients. Weakness is the opportunity for failure. If you let them pass you, you lose control.”
At the same time, Vivot asks a series of increasingly personal questions. Unlike the large sunny aeries one encounters in the better women’s salons, the five chairs of the Salon Pour Hommes—hefty Belmont chairs—are separated by opaque partitions. “I created layout,” says Vivot, “for maximum privacy.” After all, though it is acceptable for a woman to engage openly with her beauty regime, there clings to a man’s toilette a faint stain of shame. And so, gently, Vivot elicits from the silverbacks their innermost secrets through a series of ever-more-probing questions. “It’s like riding a wild horse,” he says. “At first you have to make sure the animal is comfortable near you. Afterward you can do tricks with it.”
Vivot begins with the relatively anodyne. What is your routine? When was your last haircut? He begins to penetrate that carapace of self-worth so many men protect with silence. “When you look at your hair at this moment, what bothers you?” he asks. “What do you like? Do you use conditioner? Do you use shampoo? Do you use a brush, a finger, or nothing?” He may even hand them the tool they use, to see what actions come naturally to the man at hand.
By such interrogations, Vivot gently uncovers a man’s level of knowledge about his hair and the agility with which he manages it before he even lays a hand on the man’s head. “It lets me know whether I must be gentle with them or whether I can be dramatic.” Even the first snips are more gestural than actual. “If I am unsure of how to proceed, or if the client is not forthcoming with information,” admits Vivot, “for the first few minutes, I play around with texture, not length.” Vivot, who favors suits by Commes des Garçon and Helmut Lang and often wears a pair of custom-made Berluti shoes, a gift from a client, says, “that way, I can discretely gauge their reaction in the mirror.”
Sometimes, says Vivot, he himself is stumped. “It’s rare but happens,” he admits, “that a gentleman just won’t open up at all.” He recalled a recent client, a surly 25-year-old who answered Vivot’s queries with the laconic grunts of a tween. “I was trying all my weapons and secrets,” says Vivot, “and he would give me no hint.” (Often it is his younger clients who are the most difficult. “By the time you are 40 or 50,” he says, “you have a pretty good idea of what looks good.”) Instead, the soon-to-be-shorn gave answers infuriatingly vague. “I want something different,” he said. “Than what?” asked Vivot. “Don’t know,” replied the man.
Eventually Vivot gave up. He opened his eyes, cocked the scissors, and went with his gut. The scissors moved in a blur. Hair went flying. Mussed and tussled, the man’s hair began to transform. Vivot cut it short but sculpted. For if he couldn’t get inside the man’s head, he could at least get close to it. After 30 minutes of non-stop action, he bade the man lie back. He summoned a salon assistant to rinse and dry him. Vivot made some last minute adjustments, and then, after 45 long minutes, he was done. “How do you feel about it?” he asked, as he returned the chair to face the mirror. The man thought for a moment, then replied, “Martial, I love it.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously priced the haircuts at Martial Vivot Salon Pour Hommes at $215.