A foot in both camps
UK-based hairdresser Rob Czlapka juggles a lot. In addition to owning RCNQ Salon and Barber Below in Manchester, he is also actively involved in the world of editorial hairdressing, serving as a long-time assistant and producer to session stylist Gary Gill. How does he manage all this, and how did he manage to find his way into both worlds?
Where are you from originally?
I’m from a place called Barnsley, which is in South Yorkshire.
Tell us about your background. How did RCNQ and Barber Below come about?
In Barnsley, my family used to get our hair cut by a woman named Carol, and she was an absolute treat. I used to tap dance on her backwash stations, and the whole family would line up to have our hair cut religiously every six weeks. After I hit teenage years, I was like, “I’m rebelling, I want to go get a cool haircut,” so I started going to salons in the area, very uptight, and the stylists would make you look like them. You felt on edge, really uncomfortable and watched. I just didn’t like it. I decided I wanted to open my own salon after I got into hairdressing, and basically create a space that was relaxing – more like Carol’s, but in a center area. That hadn’t really been done before in Manchester.
Every inch at RCNQ was done with our key values in mind: Simplicity, nostalgia, education and well-being. The reception desk was my Mum’s 21st birthday present from her dad. All the building work was done by me and my parents. We used to have wallpaper that was the carpet in The Shining, and I describe the music that we play as what your dad used to play driving you to dance lessons: Tina Turner and stuff. The waiting area is like the living room to make people feel comfortable before they even come in. Our social media is an open book: You can see what we do, and who we are as a brand. Everyone wants to leave the salon feeling the best they can, but the reality is that you can’t do that just with a haircut, so we just looked into other aspects of well-being. We serve herbal teas meant to have uplifting or relaxing qualities; we offer yoga on Monday and Thursday, and we offer clients a discount so they can tune in with who they are inside as well as outside.
Did you always have plans to open a salon? How did you get into the salon business?
I got a text message in December 2012; I was 23 at the time, and it just said, ‘How do you feel about running your own salon?’ I sat down and spoke with this guy, and opened a franchise. After a year, I realized that I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it, so I got out of the franchise and took over the salon on my own. As for Barber Below, we wanted to do something that no one had done before, so we opened the basement as a cinema, and my Dad and I created massive benches that we could dismantle and be a salon by day and a cinema in the evening. 3 years later a friend of mine came to me and said, ‘I want to do barbering,’ so I invested the money that we’d made with the salon and turned it into a barbers. We are rebranding at the moment and trying to step away from the oversaturated, zero-fade barbers because so many people already do it well. We’re trying to focus on men’s coloring. We’re gay-run, and all the people who work here are gay, so our focus is on the fashion side and being more homo-centric.
You have an impressive background working with editorial stylist Gary Gill, and producing fashion shows across Europe. How did you get involved in the fashion aspect of hair, and what’s it like working in that world?
I was on the Wella creative team called ‘Generation Now’ which gave six up-and-coming stylists a platform to further their careers. We went to London Men’s fashion week to assist stylist Gary Gill that season. At the time, I wasn’t confident in my skill set. I had my own salon, but because I like to coach people to be the best they can be, I’ve seen people progress further than me. It’s terrifying to assist a person like Gary Gill. I told myself, ‘I’m just going to be an extra pair of hands... You need hairspray? I’ll give you that.’ He loved it, so after the show he told me, “I’d like to bring you on next season as my first assistant.” I didn’t realize what being first assistant meant. All these people on his team came up to me and asked who I’d been first assistant to before. I told them it was my first time doing fashion week, and they explained that they’d been working for years to get where they were, and I thought, ‘That’s insane.’
The next season was the first that we did Balenciaga; it was a huge thing, and Gary told me he needed a producer, and I said, ‘Why don’t I do it? I know your team, I know how you roll.’ Running production was amazing; I’d never done anything like it before, and it was one of the most talked about shows that season. As far as I know, I’m one of the only hair producers in the entire industry. I learned from dipping my toes in to working with other people how important the role actually is. Basically I do whatever I can so that Gary can go to a show, do hair and leave. It’s sometimes mayhem but we always get the job done and we do it well.
Which hairdressers you admire? Why?
Gary, without a doubt. He’s the most down-to-earth. He’s one of the only people that I can say anything to and he’ll respect what I say whether he likes it or not, and have a completely honest discussion. I have the utmost respect for Gary, and I’m extremely loyal to him because of that. He’s tapped into a market that I’ve never even seen in the fashion world: He’s going for a aesthetic that’s more raw than beautiful, and it’s really inspiring. The team that now assist Gary do incredible work: Rebecca Cheung, Mustafa Yanez, Amisha Gorby, Josh Goldsworthy, Thomas Wright are unbelievable. I’ve always seen session styling as an art form, and it’s amazing to see people shape it with their own aesthetic. It’s a really exciting time to be in the industry, and watch companies like Hairstory mix that simplicity and raw aesthetic with their brand values. It’s very inspirational at the moment.
What do you love most about being a hairdresser?
The ability to create, without a doubt. I always try to create something that’s never been done before that gives people joy. I work to live, not live to work, but at the same time, work isn’t really a word for me; it’s more a sort of calling. If I don’t like something, I change it; if I can’t change it, I change my attitude towards it. The way that I do hairdressing is quite slapdash; there’s a means to the madness in my own head, but it’s more of an art form. It’s about trying to constantly evolve, constantly better yourself.
What is your favorite Hairstory product and why?
Déshabillé (Undressed), because we can’t get it in the UK [laughs]. There are so many different salt sprays on the market that the more you spray the crispier it gets, or it dries out hair. Hairstory brought out a product that the more you spray the more texture you get, and it’s as simple as that. Nothing touches it. I have to pack them in my suitcase when I’m in the US to transport them back here, and they basically fly off the shelves. People who use that kind of product understand how much better it is than everything else. It’s one of the best products known to man.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We’re rebranding our barbershop. For the salon we’re going to start a lifestyle blog based on the people of Manchester who come into the salon. We’re promoting Manchester to the world; we’re the second biggest city in the UK, and we have amazing creatives in different industries. In 2019 we’ve decided to charge for time instead of service to take away the walls of gender. We have a very big trans community coming in, and we want to show a bit more respect in how we do and word things.
All photos by Lauren Kallen.