By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
When Lesley Bryant opened The Lady Clipper Barber Shop in 2017, she wanted it to serve people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and ages in part because she remembers what it’s like being bullied.
Bryant, 38, was born in Trinidad and when she arrived in Washington, D.C. at the age of 12, she remembers her middle school classmates constantly teasing her about her accent, her clothes, her light skin and her long, curly hair.
“I feel like it was kids being kids,” says Bryant, who keeps her locks closely cropped out of convenience and does not speak with an accent. “I just feel like it’s routine bullying — I feel everyone experiences some level of it.”
And before opening her woman-staffed barbershop, Bryant spent two years working as the only woman in a Shaw barbershop where she says she constantly butt heads with toxic masculinity.
Bryant remembers keeping her temper in check when male clients doubted her abilities and asked the other male barbers if she really knew how to cut hair.
Some would nitpick a perfectly good haircut just to get a rise out of her.
“They’d say, ‘You cut pretty good for a girl,’” Bryant says. “They think it’s a compliment, but it’s an insult.”
The barbershop often felt more like a fraternity house than a business, she explained to the AFRO.
Occasionally, male clients would flirt with her and ask her out on dates.
Daily locker room banter among clients about their sexual adventures made Bryant feel uncomfortable. So did music videos or movies playing on the television featuring scantily clad women.
When she brought her concerns to management, not only did her issues fall on deaf ears, but she was outnumbered and made to feel like she was too sensitive, Bryant says.
So she sucked it up and did her best to make her clients comfortable.
“I would apologize to my clients and say, ‘I’m sorry, you know, I’m not responsible for what’s playing on the TV,’ or ‘Sorry about the conversation,’” Bryant said, declining to name the barbershop. “Constantly apologizing for that, for the environment. And that’s definitely a reason why I knew I had to go.”
Her experience there prompted her to open her four-chair barbershop that’s on 15thand U Street N.W., and employs three other lady barbers, a staffing move she said happened organically, not deliberately. Bryant spent the first year working solo to get the business off the ground and then started hiring people after that.
Rather than every barber monitoring what happens in her own chair, the shop functions as a unit. For example, if one of the barbers is running late for an appointment, clients know to ask another barber to step in.
“If a client’s here sitting more than 15 minutes past the appointment, that client is for everybody, if the client chooses,” Bryant told the AFRO. “This way, the service is always timely.”
Her company logo, inspired by the iconic “Rosie the Riveter,” is another expression of female strength. In Bryant’s version, she’s “Lesley the Riveter” holding a set of clippers as she flexes her bicep.
Meanwhile, Bryant’s path to the barber chair wasn’t linear.
She spent 12 years working as a graphic designer at a commercial real estate firm in Tyson’s Corner. But in 2014, the firm laid Bryant off as part of a restructuring plan, she said.
Bryant walked away with a sizeable severance package and booked a flight to Trinidad to visit her father for a month. But before she left, she got a haircut, and confided in her barber she didn’t know what career path to take.
The barber encouraged her to give barbering a shot, and after she returned from Trinidad, she started taking classes in the night barbering program at Roosevelt STAY Opportunity Academy in D.C. She completed the program after 18 months.
At Lady Clipper, roughly 25 percent of her clientele are from the LGBTQ community, between 5 and 10 percent of her clients are children and everyone else is men or women.
Every month, the shop features pieces from local artists, giving them a chance to promote and sell their wares from within the barbershop — most of the artists are clients, Bryant said.
What Bryant wants people to know about her shop is that it’s all about relationships. She wants a family vibe there because it keeps the clients coming back and keeps the barbers wanting to continue cutting them.
And they want to know how your vacation went, when your baby was born and would love to be a part of other major milestones in your life.
“Invite us to happy hour, you know, or to your birthday party,” Bryant said. “You’re part of a family if you want one; if you want to be a part of it.”