Salons at MUMBAI:
Rashid Siddiqui has handled some very important business heads. A snip here, a dash of color there, shampoo, then rinse and repeat. He’s been a barber at the salon of the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai for 40 years. Although past his retirement age, the Taj is loath to let him go. Why? Because his clientele which includes some of India’s top businessmen – is so loyal to him that they would stop coming if he left.
Or they might do what the late JRD Tata is said to have done. He was used to getting his hair cut by Abdullah at the Taj, or so the story goes. When the man retired and joined another salon run by arival chain, JRD switched without, as it were, turning a hair.
Siddiqui, 60, is part of an elite corps of hairdressers who work in the salons of Mumbai’s top hotels, most of whom have been persuaded to stay on even after superannuation.
Discreet to a fault, they might let a famous surname drop on occasion, but otherwise the hirsute and other secrets of their clients are closely guarded.
Salons at chains run by the Taj, Oberoi, ITC and The Leela have serviced several generations of top industrialists, some since they were children. Names such as Ambani, Tata, Birla, Godrej and Mahindra are commonplace on the client list. Some even call their favorite barbers and hair stylist’s home for the right look. One with a very famous surname will only let his favorite barber at the Taj color his hair. This bond stretches back to before he joined the hotel salon. Even now, the man is invited home for a quick snip and color; the instant version of the latter being a 10-minute job.
Not all these elder salon men cut hair. Bhupinder Singh has been at Silhouette, the salon at The Trident, since 1974. He’s a specialist in shampoos and head massages. He has retired this month, but the Silhouette has asked him to take a 10-day break and come back to work. People like Singh have been at their stations for so long that they know precisely what a certain corporate head wants without being asked. Their specifications of style, hair color and mustache trim have remained the same through the decades and only the likes of Singh and Siddiqui can be trusted with getting these details right.
Singh, who came to Mumbai from Himachal in 1974 and is 58, said he’s turned down offers from other salons and independents because he feels comfortable at Silhouette. He’s accepted a post-retirement contract and wants to continue working, keeping his clients happy, rather than sit at home.
Rita Sethi, who manages Silhouette, said old-timers with loyal customers are asked to continue on year-long contracts. Other salons retain their veterans as consultants. “These high-profile clients are comfortable with their familiar barber and insist that we retain them,” said Reena Sheth, manager of the salon at the Taj, which has kept on two of them as consultants, both in their 60s.
The clients come in with bodyguards and in 15 minutes get a cut and their hair colored if needed. Guests at the Taj salon can also get their coats pressed ahead of a board meeting and have jet lag treatments done. And, despite all the familiarity, barber-client confidentiality beats that of a therapist or doctor.
One veteran said business is never discussed in the barber’s chair, but industrialists always inquire about families, especially how the children are doing.The salon men are specially trained to talk softly and only when spoken to but the women business leaders tend to be more chatty, one said.
The most venerable of the Taj barbers is Siddiqui. In comparison, son Feroz, 43, has put in 18 years at the salon.According to the veterans, while industrialists have stuck to this tradition, film stars have stopped coming as many have their own hair stylists now. One of them offered this insight into the difference between businessmen and politicians. “The brass does not like to experiment with their haircuts and unlike politicians prefer a quick fix rather than a long facial or treatment.
They also want to know which products are being used,” said a barber who didn’t want to be named. Over at Silhouette, MS, Ali 56, has been with the salon for more than three decades and is a hair colorist and a barber. For his top clients, who don’t allow anyone else to touch their hair, Ali does house calls as well. He has received many offers from independent salons, but has rejected these despite promises of a substantial hike.
TIPS ARE THE MAIN ATTRACTION
The average monthly pay at these salons is around Rs 30,000 plus incentives depending on the number of number of cuts and shaves. But the main money comes in the form of tips, some of which can be generous, considering that their clients are among India’s richest people. The salons that have been in business for decades also provide provident fund, performance bonuses and medical benefits.
Still, the primacy of the hotel salons could be under threat as more independents crowd into the field and look to poach veterans, who may find it less easy to say no. “I received thousand of offers in the last two decades,” said one of the veterans, who did not want to be named. “That shows how much we are in demand.”
Among the later entrants in India is the Truefitt & Hill franchise, run by Lloyds Luxuries, which plans to establish 60 salons and stores in the next five years in India. “We will need staff with more than 10 years of experience,” said Lloyds Luxuries director Krishna Gupta. “Because with them, their clientele follow to our stores.”
Truefitt & Hill, which currently has three salons and two product outlets in India, has already picked up an employee from The Oberoi. There will be more such hires because “experienced barbers are in demand,” Gupta said.