Inspiration can arrive in unexpected places. Today Saskatoon Barber Cody Dunbar style hair out of Bourbon Barbershop and Shave Club, the Saskatchewan city’s picture-perfect homage to the classic barbershop of decades past. It’s a long way from his tiny hometown of Caronport, Saskatchewan, and even further from the shantytown in India where this one-time Christian Missionary had his hairdressing Road to Damascus moment.
“Growing up I knew I wanted to have a trade and use my hands,” he explains. “My Dad would cut my hair when I was a kid and taught me a few things so I could cut his. It was mostly bonding time with each other. I trained as an electrician but after I got into missionary work and travelled to India I realized that electrical wasn’t going to help out that much.
“I came back home and was working as an electrician on the Trans Canada Pipeline, but I knew it wasn’t my calling in life. So I saved up my money and went back to India. One evening I went into the slums and started cutting a kid’s hair in someone’s home. People were coming home from work and saw a white kid cutting their children’s hair. By the end of the night there was a line of people out the door waiting for haircuts!
“It was amazing to go to the homes of people from the lowest caste and prove to them that everyone is equal. I had an interpreter to help me chat with people but I was still blown away with how hair helps you communicate with people. It was so fun. No matter where people are in their lives it amazing to talk and try to encourage them. To see people walk out the door with their head held high and excited about what’s ahead of them is an incredible feeling.”
“To see people walk out the door with their head held high and excited about what’s ahead of them is an incredible feeling.”
Invigorated by the personal connections he’d made during a few hours of guerrilla hairdressing, Cody had discovered his calling.
“That was a massive moment for me,” he smiles. “I remember lying awake in the middle of the night—it was so hot that I couldn’t sleep—and thinking, yeah, I could do this as a lifestyle. I was energized by the people!”
Cody was enjoying a haircut during a visit to Vancouver when a conversation with the barber pointed the way to his future Hair School.
“His name was Jason Hatheway. He’d travelled from Germany to Vancouver, and he loved the lifestyle. I asked him where he’d studied and he said Blanche Macdonald. He told me to go talk to Phil Loiselle in the Hair Department and tell him that the class clown was doing well in the industry.”
Cody paid Blanche Macdonald’s Hair Department a visit as Jason suggested. That was enough to convince the future Saskatoon barber that this was the perfect school for him. Once classes began, he knew he’d made the right choice.
“Working on the pipeline I was used to roughneck people so it was nice to be treated with respect,” he laughs. “It was great to be in a professional environment. I really enjoyed my time at Blanche. I had everything I needed. I just needed to practice to become good. I wouldn’t call myself a star student but I did ok with my grades. I wasn’t the best in my class but I always had passion. Phil would always say that he could see so much potential in me.
“When I started, I thought I was going to go into men’s hairdressing but that idea would change continually as we learned more. I’d call my parents and say, now I want to be a wigmaker or a colourist or a red carpet stylist or a wedding stylist. I went to do my work experience at Avant Garde. It was amazing to see the technique and the overall atmosphere of very high quality.”
Cody had visited Bourbon Barbershop during a trip to Saskatoon for a cousin’s wedding and was drawn in by its retro décor, 100-year old barbers’ chairs and (as an observant Christian) the fact that it’s closed on Sundays.
“I called them one day when I was commuting to school. I sent them a portfolio, did an over-the-phone interview and they liked me. They told me about the environment, the quality of cuts they do and how much I’d be making. I thought, ‘Yeah, that will do!’ They explained how they always want the shop to function smoothly, and I loved that. I actually skipped my grad at Blanche so I could be there for my first day of work on a Monday morning.
“When I started, I thought I was going to go into men’s hairdressing but that idea would change continually as we learned more.”
“The artisan movement is showing the value of quality over quantity. Bourbon is an experience first; and a new one for Saskatchewan. Clients walk in and there are beautiful antique chairs, there’s blues music playing, and they’re treated like a gentleman. The service is above what they’re expecting. We make a point of putting the cherry on top of a shave, trim or haircut—checking hair on the nose, neck, ear and eyebrows. Guys enjoy it when you can do a cut quickly and effectively, double-check everything, then provide additional services.”
Cody caught his burst of inspiration with an evening of unexpected social interaction in India. Now the busy Saskatoon barber explains that it’s the social aspect of his work that keeps him excited about coming into work every day.
“Hairdressers can seem like superheroes because we know so many people!”
“If hair wasn’t attached to humans I wouldn’t do this,” he laughs. “I love working with people. I always look at my clients’ eyes in the mirror when I’m working. I’m looking for their personality and what they’re looking for—gauging the haircut to suit them, both with their face shape and their individuality. Technical theory is so important but after time you start to understand the concept of cutting for a person.
“This is a social industry. That’s how you network. Hairdressers can seem like superheroes because we know so many people! I know hundreds of people now. Every time I meet someone new we’ll always have mutual friends, perhaps someone who told them about this great barber!”