Health & Grooming

Growth potential

No longer confined to creative circles, beards are making appearances in the corridors of power. Charlie Porter reports.

May 13 2010
Charlie Porter

It is in many men’s psychological make-up to rebel against their forebears; it is far more likely, however, that we eventually return to their ways, particularly in matters of style. My grandfather had a vast, extravagant beard; I remember thinking, as a child, that this would have nothing to do with my life as a grown-up. As a young man, facial hair was a shaggy demarcation of youthful sloth. But as I progressed through my 30s, it became clear it would evolve into an inherent part of my identity. Now, like an increasing number of men, I face – and embrace – this fact: my beard may be around for life.

Not that this necessarily puts me in the vanguard the way that it used to. Though it could be said that beards have been trendy for some time, it’s only in the past few years that a fully whiskered face has evolved into an authentic style statement with a foothold in the mainstream. The image problem that has historically plagued it is that, to many, it simply doesn’t mean business. But while beards are still a relative novelty in the City and on Wall Street, wider shifts in the working conditions in many other industries – from new media to luxury goods to technology – have led to whiskers becoming not just an acceptable facet of male style, but a desirable one.

“One of my clients is a CEO,” says Alex Glover, head barber at Murdock, the London grooming salon with branches in Mayfair, Shoreditch and at Liberty. “He’s always travelling, never in the office, and he always has a beard. Another bearded client heads up an American bank in London. It’s not just making a statement of style, it’s also about social standing. In the middle tier, men might still shave to be safe. At these men’s level, you don’t have to be clean-shaven simply because you’re interacting with clients; you’re beyond that.”

“What someone ‘should’ look like in the City is definitely considered by an older generation,” says Raf Pariser, a VP at an investment bank. “But I don’t think anyone under 40 gives it a second thought.” Pariser lets his beard fluctuate between various short lengths. “I trim it down with zero grade clippers every two weeks, then let it grow. If it goes longer than two weeks, it gets a bit yeti-like. But [perception-wise] I haven’t had an issue with it at all.”

Alessandro Sartori, creative director of Z Zegna, who has for the past year been wearing a trim, elegant beard, agrees. “[A beard] has become a proper part of a man’s styling. It’s not saying, ‘I don’t care.’ It says, ‘I care more about myself.’” The whiskers Sartori sports are of a particular style: long enough to be more than just stubble, not too long ever to distort or overtake the face and become a mask – or appear unkempt. The professionals concur that, at this new beard’s ideal length, one’s skin should be just visible through the whiskers. Sartori says his is the length of two weeks’ growth, which he maintains with a trim every two to three days using a customised Panasonic beard trimmer he bought from the Milanese gentleman’s store, G Lorenzi. Since he started wearing a beard, he has shaved it off only once. His reaction on seeing his bare face in the mirror: “No, this is not me.”

Sartori reports that during the downturn, Z Zegna has seen suit sales outdone by sales of separates; men are still buying smart, office-appropriate clothing, but the tendency has been towards purchasing a jacket on its own, or with trousers that complement but don’t necessarily match it. He believes it’s a sort of recession-induced spike in an already long-observed trend of loosening business-dress codes – the same spike, it could be said, that has allowed the beard to gain its own legitimacy. “Men are wearing [fine] tailoring in a different way,” says Sartori, “and the beard is part of this new look.”

There are, of course, many traditional institutions, within the professions of finance, law or elsewhere, where wearing a beard is not (and may never be) the right style choice. But then, proponents of facial hair tend to circumvent such organisations. “It was the internet boom that blurred [the perception differences] between the so-called creative professions and more long-established ones,” says Van Capizzano, the manager of Freemans Sporting Club, a men’s grooming institution on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “There are also much freer codes as to what constitutes an office environment. Some of these boutique hedge funds [might be] run out of someone’s front room; and they’re making big money.”

And as creative professionals on what were once less orthodox career paths have seen their industries become legitimised (and hugely lucrative), so elements of their dress and style codes are now found in the traditional workplace; few would argue that Steve Jobs – a proud on-and-off beard wearer for going on four decades – is anything but a (very driven) leader in his field.

That said, the difference between attitudes in traditional banking and those in the more boutique world of hedge funds can be pronounced. “I stopped fully clean shaving seven years ago,” says Funsho Allu, a principal at a London-based hedge fund. “I was on the equity sales desk at Goldman Sachs, which was quite a conservative firm. If I weren’t 6ft 5in, I think someone might have said something about my beard. Knowing more now about office conventions, perhaps I was a little naïve. But now that I’m older, I don’t care. And now I work in hedge funds, where you can get away with most things if you perform.”

Capizzano agrees with the definition of the 21st-century beard – a happy and well-manicured balance between a full bushy masterpiece and a weekend’s worth of stubble – and, like Zegna’s Sartori, he believes the key to its successful maintenance is mostly in the trimmer. “Most beard trimmers are, unfortunately, fairly useless,” he says. “If you’re going to keep a good-looking beard, you have to invest in a high-end product. It’s something you’ll keep for the rest of your life.” He recommends the Oster Classic 9760 (£115) or a trimmer by the American producer Wahl (such as the Li+ grooming kit, £39.99).

While Capizzano and Glover endorse a neat beard, both counsel against shaving in false hairlines, or otherwise attempting to add contours to the face and chin with shaving. “Any time you put lines in the beard, it looks as if it’s been stuck on the face,” says Capizzano. “A line intended to define the chin just has the effect of making the neck look bigger.” Because a beard’s edges shouldn’t be precise – “it should be a subtle, blended edge” – Capizzano says it’s crucial to “blur” the beard at the neck. “Even if it’s not 100 per cent exact, it’s still going to look naturally how your beard grows,” he says.

Patrick Grant, director of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons, who has worn a beard for several years, agrees. “If your beard creeps down your neck or up to your cheekbone, you should either accept it, or have no beard at all. Sharp lines on either edge of the beard are not a good idea.” Grant is hardly an iconoclast: he may have manicured facial hair, and his version of Savile Row may be forward-looking compared with some of his more established peers, but the recent presentation of his ready-to-wear tailoring line, E.Tautz, was seen as a sufficiently serious occasion to be attended by Prince Michael of Kent (himself one of the country’s more conspicuous beard-wearers).

Because a beard necessarily requires time to cultivate from unkempt five o’clock shadow to the final result – a process which can, for some, have some unsightly stages – a holiday is the ideal opportunity to cultivate the look. Murdock’s Alex Glover notes that it is crucial to pay attention to maintenance during the early stage of growth. “Many men give up quickly, because the itching drives them insane,” he says. He recommends letting three to four days’ growth accumulate, then taking it back with a trimmer in lieu of a razor. “This will blunt the hairs off at a straight angle, rather than the sharp, pointed angle the razor creates, so the growth doesn’t irritate as much.”

Despite the current boom in male grooming, there are curiously few products on the market for men wanting to maintain whiskers. Glover often enlists products intended as shaving treatments for care of both skin and whiskers on his customers, but uses them creatively. “Pre-shave lotion can act like a conditioner for the beard,” he says. “I tend to use pre-shave on mine, and then when I moisturise the rest of my face, I apply an aftershave balm on my beard.” He recommends Beard Lube by Jack Black (£17.50, 177ml) as a pre-shave treatment, and Club Complete Anti-Aging After Shave (£14, 162ml) from the Pinaud-Clubman line, as an alternative to standard moisturiser. For a basic but very effective softener, Grover uses Almond Oil by DR Harris (£9.50, 150ml), which is easily absorbed by the skin and the whiskers. Exfoliation is essential, but presumably that’s a message that any man who pays attention to his skin, not just those with beards, will have taken on board.

As for the length of time required to get the beard into shape, both Capizzano and Grover say the longer the better – hence the holiday plan. “Stop shaving on the Thursday before a holiday,” says Glover. “Take a nice long one – two, three weeks if you can.” By which point it will be clear whether the bearded look is for you – and, in the event that whiskers come in thin, patchy, or of curious and unexpected colour combinations, there will still be time to shave it all off, embrace a smooth jaw, and pretend that the whole thing never happened.