Hidden a few blocks away from Tijuana’s main thoroughfare, an old warehouse has become a cultural landmark for the city’s fashion-concious men.
Wings painted outside the building are the only indication something is different about the space, most recently used as a gym. Inside, a Drake song blasts over stand-up speakers, the smell of aftershave fills the air and scissors snap over men in antique barber chairs.
The space is home to one of Tijuana’s rising social media stars, 30-year-old barber Edgar Buena, better known as Don Edgar. Using Facebook, he has cultivated a following with instructional videos on men’s grooming aimed at a new generation of Mexican men, who want well-maintained beards and fade cuts, where hair on the sides and back is very short and tapers to a longer length at the top.
Edgar who dresses intentionally like an old time barber - handlebar mustache, gray-rimmed glasses, bow-tie and suspenders - said his customers no longer scoff at spending money on their looks.
“Men enjoy how they look and take better care of themselves now,” he said.
Don Edgar Barberia is one of more than 100 barber shops that have opened in Tijuana in the last three years, mirroring growth in the men’s grooming industry in the United States and Europe.
Tijuana had roughly 50 to 80 barber shops in 2013 but now has more than 150, said the city’s economic development office. Baja California now has the second most barber shops - roughly 220 - of any Mexican state (Sonora has around 270).
Retail experts say going to a barbershop is a way of selling masculinity, but there are other factors that attract clients: Nostalgia, bargain prices , access to beard products and increased amenities offered by barbers.
The process at Tijuana’s new barber shops isn’t all that different from a classic shop, with a few notable differences. Barbers tend to trim and style facial hair first, followed by a mix of clippers and scissors for the head and finish off with a hair wash and styling. Other services include a hot towel to the face (with or without a shave), a face mask during the hair cut and a few shops offer manicures.
Barbers also use a vibrating hand massager on men’s heads, neck and faces after a cut. The device, which straps to the back of a barber’s hand while a blender-looking engine sends vibrations through fingers, was first used by barbers in the 1940s and has become a staple of the Tijuana barber scene.
Ruben Chavarria, 40, a machinist in San Diego who lives in Tijuana, used to get his hair cut in San Diego now but goes to Don Edgar Barberia once a week.
Chavarria’s girlfriend, 30-year-old Nallely Preciado, sat at a cafe in the same space rented by Don Edgar, sipping coffee and surfing Instagram. She goes to a salon every two months but doesn’t mind her boyfriend getting groomed weekly. “It’s the trend right now,” she said. “And it (haircut) looks good on him.”
The big rage in all of Tijuana, though, are beards and that has led to another trend: beard tinting. Cali Cuts, which has four locations in the city and another in Mexicali, uses a black wax that stains the skin to make a beard look more full for about $11.
It sounds crazy, but the results work so well it seems like magic and is offered at most Tijuana barber shops - even if most treatments last only a day.
Miguel “Robo” Angel Gomez, 39, is a master barber at Cali Cuts with more than 10 years of experience tinting beards. He loves his job because he says tinting and trimming beards brings joy to his clients.
“That look on your face,” he said after trimming a Union-Tribune reporter’s beard. “That’s why I do this.”
Gomez said a high-end barber in Tijuana could earn up to $27,000 a year. It might seem small compared to San Diego wages but that’s more than the average pay of a Tijuana police officer.
Marco de la Cruz, owner of the Cali Cuts in Colina Cacho, said the store was making about $1,000 a month when it opened in 2014 but now earns roughly $22,000 a month. Much of his sales come from grooming products, such as Mel Bros Co. beard growth cream (containing minoxidil, used for Rogaine) and what seemed like the most popular pomade in Tijuana, Suavecito.
Prices at Tijuana barber shops range from $5.60 to $8.50 for a child’s cut; for an adult cut, $8.50 to $16; and usually about $11 for a beard trim.
While barber shop owners in Tijuana say Americans and tourists are not shy about going to their establishments, there might not be much of a recourse for a bad cut. In Mexico, barbers have no governing body or requirement for a license, unlike its neighbors to the north.
In California, the state Department of Consumer Affairs governs barbers by issuing licenses, overseeing exams, receiving complaints, doing inspections and issuing citations. In the first three months of this year, 273 barbers were issued citations and 3,603 inspections conducted.
A bad cut in Tijuana, or injury, could be reported to its consumer protection agency, Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor, or PROFECO. Still, Don Edgar said the next step for the industry will be some sort of certification program because people complaining about bad cuts from untrained barbers hurts everyone.
To the untrained eye, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in quality for men’s cuts between Tijuana and San Diego.
At Noble & Fine in Playas de Tijuana, about 2,500 feet from the ocean, owner Sergio Alberto Madero proudly declares his barbers are self-taught. Regardless of potential American sensibilities about a lack of training, residents of Playas can’t get enough.
Jeanette Arreola has been taking her sons, Gian, 9, and Andre, 4, to Noble & Fine since it opened in November. She said she would take them to the salon with her before but Gian has insisted he will only go to Noble & Fine.
“I want to look like (Cristiano) Ronaldo,” Gian said of the Real Madrid soccer player.
One of Noble & Fine’s most seasoned barbers, 45-year-old Edward Avila, has been at it for 28 years. When he was deported from the United States 15 years ago, he worried he would not be able to support his four children.
He said it was rough making ends meet for many years, but the recent demand for barbers has been a lifeline financially.
“I worried a lot,” Avila said of when he was deported. “I thought, ‘Wow, how am I going to make it without a U.S. job?’”
While the Tijuana government is aware of the increased popularity of barber shops, the focus remains on aerospace and electronic companies in the city, said Javier Michel Payan Mendez, a Tijuana economic promotion director.
Mendez also happens to own a high-end barber shop, The Barber Shop Mexico, which features individual rooms for customers to get their hair cut. House and pop music is piped through the establishment while modern fashion icons, like Irish UFC star Conor McGregor and Canadian actor Ryan Gosling, adorn the walls. It’s also one of the only shops in Tijuana to have female barbers.
It’s most extravagant offering, costing $16, includes a haircut, face wash, massage, shampoo and water or beer.
While estimates for more growth in the Mexican barber shop scene are spotty, the U.S. forecast could provide some indication. There is expected to be a demand for 10 percent more barbers, hairdressers and cosmetologists by 2024, said the U.S. Department of Labor.
“This is one of those e-commerce proof services. You can’t get a haircut online,” said Pamela Flora, director of retail research at Cushman & Wakefield. “A lot of barber shops are tapping into that experiential retail, making it a place for men to gather, socialize and relax.”
In an often struggling retail market, barber shops have been a bright spot, and the male grooming industry is predicted to grow substantially worldwide. In 2012, the year before most researchers say barber shops and men’s products took off, the industry was valued at $15.68 billion, said market research firm Statista. By 2023, Statista said it will be worth more than $27 billion.