Philadelphia's Best Straight-Razor Shaves
BY BRIAN FREEDMAN
William Brown, at Francis the Duke Barber Co.
Francis the Duke Barber Co.
Smooth as a baby’s bottom: It is a phrase we have all heard a thousand times before, but is it ever really an apt description? I have seen it used in a host of ultimately inaccurate forms, to convey the suppleness of everything from high-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets to the texture of a particularly well-aged red wine. And I think we can all agree that most are not only flat-out wrong, but kind of creepy to boot.
So it is with no shortage of gravitas that I write the following: My face—from the flat planes of my cheeks to the awkward curve of my chin to the pinched canyon between my nose and upper lip—after a proper straight-razor shave from William Brown, managing partner and master barber at Francis the Duke Barber Co. (The Piazza at Schmidts, 215-469-1868), was indeed as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I mean this quite literally, as I am the father of a 10-month-old daughter—the textures were remarkably similar. This, perhaps inevitably, led to a rather painful question: Had I really been shaving so poorly all these years? Perhaps I had been. Most guys “rush through it,” Brown explains. “They don’t take the time to get the hair soft or prepare the skin the right way for the shave to be smooth and transitional and last longer.”
“Basically,” he continues, “with a straight-razor shave, there’s no bumper [on the razor], there’s no gappage in blade. It’s just all blade... and it’s getting it super-close, where you will get maybe an extra day or two without having to shave.” Such is the magic of men like Brown and other straightrazor wizards—in less than half an hour, you will be treated to not a mere shave, but to something far more soulful and perhaps unexpected. This, after all, is one of the last great affordable pleasures available to all men.
For most guys, myself included, shaving is a necessity, albeit one to be done in as little time as possible; if there are a few stray whiskers left behind or a bit of blood is drawn in the process, the logic goes, then so be it. An old-fashioned straight-razor shave, however, is an entirely different experience. Its appeal, it seems to me, is born of the same desires as a properly made cocktail or a wellthought- out sense of style—both of which are on the ascent among Philadelphia’s conscientious male population. It must be noted, however, that a straightrazor shave has the potential to strike a bit of fear in the hearts of the uninitiated. When my editor called me up and asked if I would undergo the procedure in the name of journalistic research, my first reaction was an involuntary flinch. Would I want to lie down in a barber chair and expose my jugular, Sweeney Todd– style, to the sharpened edge of a perfect stranger’s blade? Suuuure, I stretched into three syllables. Sounds like, uh, fun?
Turns out it was a spectacular experience, and on a far deeper level than I ever could have expected. Once I settled into my vintage barber’s chair at Francis the Duke Barber Co., Brown—a fifth-generation barber—covered my face in a warm towel, applied a pre-shave oil, and then lathered on a layer of warm, high-glycerine shaving cream. Before he put his blade to my face, he explained the entire process with a deeply comforting combination of knowledge and delicacy. (He is an accomplished mixed martial artist, but his touch is as delicate and as deft as a surgeon’s.) Here is how it works: After the application of all the pre-shave emollients, you are given a shave with the grain of your hair. After this, another layer of warm shaving cream is followed by a shave against the grain. Brown described the sensation of this second scraping as similar to being “licked by a cat”—scratchy and comforting at the same time. (He was dead-on.) Finally, he gives you a spray of rose-water-infused witch hazel to soothe the skin and a cool-towel wrap to close up the pores. I walked out in a similar state as I have after a particularly successful massage, or the dip I took last year in a Turkish bath: refreshed, rejuvenated, and antsy for my next round.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN WELDON. SHOT ON LOCATION AT FRANCIS THE DUKE BARBER CO.