How Sultans of Shave transformed barbershops into a luxurious experience for the modern gentleman in Singapore
Entrepreneur and Sultans of Shave co-founder Lewis Lim played a key role in taking barbershops to the next level and made shaving a rite of passage for men in Singapore.
A sleek bar stocked with a range of fine whiskey beckons in this handsome space clad in dark blue tones and wooden panels. Further in, there are private rooms for facials and a lounge where members can enjoy their tipple or even take a quick meeting or two.
This is The Mezz, an upscale barbershop meets members lounge – the brainchild of Lewis Lim who co-founded men’s grooming chain Sultans of Shave.
“The Mezz is our premium brand where we set out to elevate the barbering experience by incorporating new elements into a barbershop like a bar, lounge and private rooms for facials. We worked closely with our partners to curate each element from the wine and whiskey lists to the products used for our facials,” said Lim.
Consider this the gentleman’s version of the popular high-end hair and beauty salons where women spend hours primping themselves to perfection. It is the latest barbering concept by Lim, who co-founded Sultans of Shave in 2013 when he became interested in the trade almost a decade ago.
“Barbering is one of the oldest professions in the world and there used to be a time when a surgeon and a barber was the same person,” said Lim.
But he noticed that the job was not well regarded in Singapore. “One would equate a haircut at a barbershop to being quick and cheap, naturally resulting in the trade becoming a dying one. However, this was not the case in the Western world where the trade was flourishing and a respectable one as it was de rigueur for men to go to the barber for a quality haircut and shave,” he observed.
“There wasn’t any fundamental issue with barbering locally, rather it was an issue of positioning and it was something that I felt could be tackled and changed.”
A skilled barber is able to accurately analyse skin types, to select the best products and able to execute a shave to suit an individual client’s preferences.
So in 2013, together with two business partners, Lim launched Sultans of Shave, with the aim to elevate the local barbering experience to a level similar to the standard bearers in the United Kingdom. He said, “We did not just set out to give the best haircut or shave but rather to deliver the perfect barbering experience.”
With few other similarly experiential men’s grooming concepts at that time, it is no surprise that his brand took off. As it turns out, the men do get it – so much so that there are currently five Sultans of Shave outlets islandwide.
“While barbering has evolved over the years, the barber has always been a person trained to groom a male professionally. A skilled barber is able to accurately analyse skin types, to select the best products and able to execute a shave to suit an individual client’s preferences,” said Lim.
Besides getting a refreshed look with cool undercuts, sharp edges and modern comb overs, customers can also stay on for a facial and massage to round off their grooming session.
“A shave is not just an exercise in facial hair removal. We want it to be an experience where you can disconnect, pamper yourself and get groomed,” he said.
It is one of the reasons why every Sultans of Shave outlet has a different design. For example, their first outlet at Raffles Place reflects the vibe of a gentlemen’s club while the Duxton outlet pays homage to its conservation shophouse heritage with chinoiserie elements and vintage furniture.
“These design elements not only give each outlet a voice and personality but sets the tone for the barbering experience and for that, no expense is spared,” he said.
Lim, a whiskey aficionado who enjoys kicking back over a nice drink with his friends, also began noticing how clients would drop by Sultans of Shave with a bottle. Some would even drop in for a drink in between meetings or after work.
This sparked the idea for The Mezz, which he introduced to elevate the barbering experience even further. Launched in 2021, there are currently two branches of The Mezz at North Canal Road and Raffles Place.
In the same year, the group also bought over the local franchise of Truefitt & Hill, the world’s oldest barbershop according to The Guinness Book of World Records. It is considered the most premium barbering brand in the group and offers “traditional barbering at its finest” together with a stable of curated grooming products to complement the services, he said.
You read that right. Lim actually led the group on an expansion drive in the middle of the pandemic – with a total of five outlets launched – during a time when many other brands were downsizing in an attempt to stay afloat.
“The pandemic hit the business badly but presented opportunities at the same time. We were able to digitise a lot of our processes on the backend and expansion plans, which we found too hard to pass up on in spite of the business climate, presented themselves,” he said.
Even though margins became razor thin (no pun intended) he said there were no pay cuts instituted and no one was laid off as he did not think it was fair to impose cuts on the staff while the company embarked on an expansion plan.
Of course, now that many restrictions have been lifted, the group is well positioned to optimise the business especially as more customers start rediscovering the pleasures of a grooming session with a spot of socialising thrown in for good measure.
That said, he has not lost sight of his mission to introduce barbering as a rite of passage to as many men as possible. Sultans of Shave has one more brand called We Are Sultans, which is a more no-frills version of the original brand for the more budget conscious.
“This was created to cater to a younger crowd looking for barbershop quality haircuts at wallet friendly prices with outlets typically located in suburban areas,” he said. Prices are lower as the barber focuses solely on the service rather than the whole barbershop experience.
His goal is to eventually expand into offering more lifestyle options too. “I would like to see the company successfully transition into a grooming and lifestyle company where we execute concepts not just for men to get groomed but to socialise, relax and entertain at.”