Words Kirk Truman
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
“I made a joke about calling it The King’s Canary. Gav loved it, I was joking. We wanted to attach ourselves to bit of Fitzrovia’s legacy…”
Sat amongst the galleries and wholesale stores, towards the north end of Great Titchfield Street, an image of a bird is etched upon a sign hanging next to the glass window front of a long ground floor space at the base of a Georgian terrace. From the roadside, to the sound of ‘snip snip’ and the faint pattering of water dripping about a basin, there are distinct roars of chatter and talent echoing from a small group of hair stylists. Match made in Fitzrovia, I speak to duo Gavin Cornwell (formally of Joe & Co, Soho) & Stanley Watts (formally of Chandler Wright, Blackheath) about their business partnership that make up the foundations for The King’s Canary.
Before they met, both Gavin and Stanley were leading separate careers as stylists, yet, unbeknownst to one another, they shared a similar idea: starting their own salon. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, Lee Pavey, who was working in post-production in the area: “he had his hair cut by me and also by Gav. After a while he figured out that the two of us wanted the same thing so he said we should meet,” says Stanley. At the time, Gavin was in the process of going solo and setting up a barber shop. “I was way down the line with it. And then Lee and I went for a drink and said I should meet his mate who was really good with girls’ hair. I was always looking over this way, I looked at Soho too.” Quite soon, a meeting was arranged and the two were introduced at everybody’s favoured formal setting, the pub. Following this introduction, Gavin & Stanley made the decision to merge their business plans and begin moving forward with their salon vision.
The two went back and forth between ideas of where to lay down their salon and make it all happen in the West-End, but soon decided on Fitzrovia. They searched the area for a place that appealed to them and it was the former location of a wholesale clothing store on Great Titchfield Street that caught their eye, making for the perfect setting for the salon. But, there was a catch: “Initially we were up against a coffee chain to acquire the site, we were told that from the beginning. Me and a friend, who’s an architect, pulled all-nighters and prepared a CGI-presentation of what the shop would look like, as well as a pitch to show why an independent business like this would be more suited for the area.” Gavin explains.
The Fitzrovia area appealed to the duo due to its character and the sheer volume of independent local businesses in the area, thus they strived to ensure that their small independent business would claim the site over a major chain. The two feel that independent shops being squeezed out and chains trying to creep in isn’t an option for the region. For some time, Stanley had been looking to set up a salon with his wife in Greenwich, although, on choosing Fitzrovia as the destination for the salon, he says “it made a lot more sense to have it here.”
Soon after acquiring the site, Gavin and Stanley began pulling all-nighters and battling over power tools. “From acquiring the site to opening, it was a couple of months to get things moving,” says Gavin. Curiously, the question came about as to what to call the salon and it wasn’t long until a novel and former Welshman who lived in the area was mentioned. “The original working title was Bare Hench,” Stanley jokes, “I was on the train down to Cornwall when I called Gav. I’d been looking through Google and looking up Fitzrovia, what came up was a lot of history about poet Dylan Thomas. The book The Death of the King’s Canary came up, I made a joke about calling it The King’s Canary. Gav loved it, I was joking!” Laughs Stanley. I can see where Gavin’s feeling comes from, however, to me the title feels current and original, relevant and Fitzrovian.
In a letter Thomas had written to a friend in 1948 regarding plans to write a novel, he writes, “I’d like to make it the detective story to end detective stories, introducing blatantly every character and situation– inevitable Chinaman, secret passages–that no respectable writer would dare use now.” The Death of the King’s Canary, which is largely concerned with the assassination of a Poet Laureate, saw collaboration between Dylan Thomas and, noted critic/writer, John Davenport. In the same letter, Thomas wrote that “it could be the best fun, and would make us drinking money for a year.” In 1949, Dylan’s plans were executed and the canary was born.
With the name, The King’s Canary, the duo has achieved exactly what they set out to create: a modern hair salon with a subtle hint of Fitzrovia. “We wanted to attach ourselves to a bit of Fitzrovia’s legacy. We didn’t want to be called ‘Gav & Stan’ or ‘Cornwell & Watts’. That ‘90s approach would’ve made this a whole different place to be,” says Stanley, looking at the logo of the perching canary.
After the seemingly undying all-nighters spent building their bird, an echo of Dylan Thomas returned to Fitzrovia. The King’s Canary opened its doors just over a year ago, on the 1st of June, with a positive reception from locals, as well as many not-so-distant Londoners far and wide. “A lot of my clients from Soho have shifted themselves over here, I guess their hair is something that’s quite personal to them,” laughs Gavin. Stanley is bold in saying, “simple; we’re a no bullshit hairdresser. You can see some girls are a bit, false eyelashes and blonde highlights. You can see that’s what they’re about. I always ask them why they don’t want to go to one of the big glitzy places. They say they’re fed up standing to attention whilst they get their hair done, they come to us because it’s relaxed, professional and chilled.”
The original concept of the salon had been to divide a minimalistic space with a barber shop at the back and a salon at the front, but as Gavin tells me, “now things have gotten rolling it’s all dictated itself.”. As you step into the salon, a table sits by the window with an arrangement of fashion and lifestyle journals spread over the woodwork. A long array of mirrors face a queue of barber chairs which lead on to the back of the salon flooded with light, where a number of basins are laid. Professionalism is consistent throughout the whole canary salon, experience complimented by a relaxed, non-stuffy environment with a team of staff evidently, selectively assembled to form a healthy salon family. Though professionalism is prevalent, Stanley remarks that “it is incredibly informal – no uniforms for the staff, nothing corporate, nothing too formal.” An introduction from a mutual friend was the unlikely matching of two people destined to collaborate. What is certain at the small window front of this unique salon is that, where The Death of the King’s Canary is a fictional work, this The King’s Canary has life, it has wings and they are certain only to grow.