The Shop Charms ComplexCon With a Celebration of the Black Barbershop
By Bradford William Davis
For some people, a new haircut can be like acquiring a superpower.
“Getting a new haircut is like wearing an invisibility cloak,” said Nathan Keith.” Nobody can touch you.”
Beaming as he admired his shape-up, the artist and Las Vegas native described feeling like “a better person.” If the line circling the barbershop he exited at the Long Beach Convention Center was any indication, he was not alone.
Keith and hundreds of others were treated to free haircuts while attending ComplexCon, a festival celebrating the latest trends in fashion, music, sports, art and hypebeast culture. The barbershop itself was a model of the kind of shops frequented in LeBron James’ The Shop. Launched in August, The Shop is a free-flowing conversation with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. The activation, like the show, cycled high-profile attendees such as former NBA star Grant Hill and hip-hop artist Nas in and out of its chairs. Outside, a DJ promoted shoe giveaways from LeBron James’ Nike line, including the highly-valued LeBron 16 King Court Purple, to throngs of eager sneakerheads.
While scruffy beards were trimmed and rugged hairlines were straightened, attendees could peer in on lively debates about LeBron’s basketball career (comparisons to Michael Jordan were a given.) Sneaker Lab, a modern take on the shoe shining booths one might find on a busy street corner, offered free sneaker cleans right behind the shop interior constructed for the event, granting sneakerheads the opportunity to leave looking fresh from head to toe.
Those that received cuts recalled vibrant memories of their childhood barbershops. Most hair can outgrow an uneven fade, but the reputation earned from a suspect barber can follow someone the entire school year. Some of the young men had a “first shop” story that doubled as a coming-of-age experience.
“I was 11 years old when I went I finally went to a barbershop for the first time. I wanted a new fade and my dad, who usually cut my hair, didn’t know how to give me what I wanted,” said Cameron Johnson, flashing a tightly-lined shape-up. The Denver-native laughs as he recalls needing his mom to bring him because his dad was upset that his son no longer went to him for haircuts. “That haircut made me walk out with a little more confidence than I walked in with. It’s a feeling I will never forget.”
The Shop, both as a show and as a promotion, is modeled after shops serving predominantly Black or Latinx communities, shops that James and executive producer Maverick Carter were intimately familiar with growing up. These kinds of barbershops offer much more than mere grooming.
Keith likens sitting in a barber chair to meditation. “I had to sit really still in the chair, which I was terrible at when I first started going.” (Keith estimates he was no older than nine or ten.) “My mom was like, ‘If you don’t sit still, we gotta go.’ I insisted on staying, but it took me a long time to learn how to control myself. Now, the shop is a place I meditate, it calms me down.”
Nas, while sitting in his chair, insisted that barbershops were known for “uncut, real talk.” It’s one of the reasons he’s drawn to The Shop. “Put that shit on HBO. That’s where it belongs.”
Since its debut, guests on the series have bantered about the poverty they came from as children, the pressures of their newfound success as athletes and artists, and the racism they still encounter despite their popularity. In the first episode, James recounted his feelings after learning that someone had spray painted the n-word on his home in the affluent neighborhood of Brentwood, Los Angeles. The Shop quickly became a place where men like James and his high profile guests, people regularly scrutinized by their fans and news media, could find a community where they’re welcomed by their peers -- freeing them to be themselves. Uncut.