Words Matthew Ross
Photography Kirk Truman
It was 1997, and Soho was down to the roach of its truly gritty days. Joe Mills bought the lease on a debt-ridden Peter Street cobblers and opened The Lounge, his first hair salon. The door was kept locked, and female clients were chaperoned to the salon from Wardour Street. DJs, Maltese gangsters, working girls and celebrities: Joe worked his craft on all comers. Two decades later, the neon sex-shop signs may be flickering out as the sanitising hands of investors sweep old Soho away, but Joe’s light shines more strongly than ever.
With its concrete floors, chilled beer, and Playstations for the clients, The Lounge blazed a trail that others would follow, with iPads replacing consoles as the digital revolution exploded. But after twelve years of styling at the same chair, and with women gazumping men for the lion’s share of his scissor-time, Joe struck out again in 2010 with a new, dedicated barbers. Joe and Co. was born. While the mainstream renaissance in men’s barbering wove its ubiquitous tweedy pastiche, Joe and Co. cut a distinctive cloth of its own. Right down to its logo and signage, Joe and Co. riffs in a graphic, geometric style on the traditional idea of a barbershop.
It’s a riff with pedigree. After a three-year apprenticeship under Dutch New Zealander Gert Renzenbrink, Joe took a job in the oldest barbershop in the City of London, perfecting traditional barbering skills as the only young buck in a company of retired Jewish barbers. Come the early 90s, it was time for change. Joe blagged an interview with Paul Burfoot at Fish on D’Arblay Street, and turned his craft to the punky energy of the salon that gave the decade many of its eponymous cuts. It’s no surprise that the openings of The Lounge and Joe and Co. were quickly lauded by the likes of Vogue, GQ and Monocle.
An inimitable pedigree runs through Joe the man too. He claims everyday dressing is his comfort zone, but Joe’s everyday is another man’s envy. From the peppery temples and close-clipped beard to the selvedge denim and vintage Vans, he inhabits a style somewhere between Walker Evans Americana and GQ urbanity. Vintage cars, motorbikes, a touch of rockabilly that belies the 1980s Margate of his teens: they’re all layered through Joe like multiple exposures on old celluloid film.
Jamie Dornan, Russell Tovey, Zayn Malik: icons for many but a day’s work for Joe. Surprisingly, for a man with a talent for making the handsomest even handsomer, and with two legendary salons, Joe is humility itself. “If this work teaches you anything, it’s that people are people. You see people at their best, and you see them at their lowest, whoever they are. Famous or not, barbering is about working with a person, finding a mirror to their personality. A friend once described me as being a facilitator, a gentleman’s gentleman. That captures it exactly.” Visit Joe and Co. and you might find yourself seated in one of their classic Japanese barber’s chairs next to a well-known actor or the hottest young band getting spruced up ready for a tour. When the Journal photographed Martin Freeman for our third issue, he arrived freshly coiffed from Joe’s chair. It’s a democratic style that comes from Joe himself.
It’s also evident that the ‘and Co.’ is as important as Joe. “It’s the hardest thing to take creative people and help them to gel. It starts right at the beginning. It’s not about how cool you are. I want inquisitive, questioning people. And it doesn’t stop here in Peter Street. It’s great that barbers who spent time cutting and learning here at Joe & Co. have gone on to become main players at new salons like Taylor Taylor and The Lion & The Fox. The ‘and Co.’ is far bigger than me.” Speaking of ‘Co.’, Lead Barber Hayley comes over between cuts to tell us about The Spiderman. “He’s this well-known Soho character, must be in his late 40s, comes in wearing a full Spiderman outfit.” Is he some kind of performance artist? “Nah, I think he just likes the slinky feel against his skin or something. It takes all sorts.”
Does Joe think Soho is losing these characters and its own special identity as the area changes? “I have an issue with not embracing change and being blinkered about the future. No one wants the crack dens back again. Soho has to be forward-thinking and diverse. Look at Paris and its mix of old and new architecture. Great cities change. Soho is changing. Joe and Co. is part of that. When everyone went east, we stayed in Soho. We had to weather the exodus and it took a while to regrow, but we’re here for the long term. The beauty of Soho is that it will always be an interesting place. We want to bring something to the area, not take it out.”
And Soho remains a constant inspiration. “I still cut hair at every opportunity. It’s what I love. And there’s an arsenal of knowledge in everything I do. Now, it seems like everyone wants to be a barber, but it takes so much more than twelve weeks of training. Behind the technique, barbering draws in culture, film, fashion, history, street style. Soho has all these things.”
“It takes more than twelve weeks” could be Joe and Co.’s mantra. Step through the door and the salon is simple and functional in the best way. But behind each cut there are decades of history populated by gangsters, ladies of the night and latter-day matinée idols. Stories to tell the grandkids for most of us. For Soho’s finest men’s stylist? A day’s work.