An Interview with Tom Shilton
It’s fair to say we’ve got some pretty fascinating customers—each with their own unique style, and each with a story to tell—so we thought it’d be nice to introduce some of them.
In this interview, we talked with Tom Shilton (@mr.shiltons). A barber by trade, Tom also volunteers as a coast guard, and is regularly called upon to help with perilous rescue operations on the Cornish coast. Interesting stuff, to say the least.
We called him up to find out more about cutting hair, saving lives and his love of authentic clothing...
Starting things off, how did you get into cutting hair?
I’ve worked in the hair industry since I was 16, straight after school. After a bit of travelling, working around the world, I eventually ended up settling in Cornwall, of all places. I opened up a studio, and I’ve been here for eight years now. I’m classically trained in cutting both men’s and women’s hair, but as the trend for men’s hairdressing has become more popular, it’s difficult not to get pigeonholed as a barber. It’s probably about 70% guys—but that’s maybe because women get their hair cut a lot less frequently, so you’re always going to get a much higher turnaround of guys coming in. Some gents come in once a week—although I’m not sure if it’s for the haircut, or the chat.
That’s a big part of being a barber isn’t it? The conversation is important.
I’m so lucky that I have a really good clientele, and we have such a good relationship. I think your customers are sort of a representation of yourself. I’ll do hourly slots, and sometimes the hair-cut will only take 20 minutes, but we’ll still talk rubbish for the other 40. People go, “It’s great in here, it’s like a counselling session.” But then I think, “But how much do you pay for a counselling session?” I should definitely be charging more…
Everyone coming in has a different story to tell, and they’re all different on the day they come in. Every hour you’re constantly fine-tuning your mood. Sometimes people want to talk, and you might not even get a word in, and sometimes you’ve got to put a lot more effort in. But because it’s a one-on-one situation—it’s just me working in the studio, I think people feel much more obliged to make the effort into having a conversation.
Gone are the days when I worked in a salon, and there’d be eight people working, and the client would sit down in the chair and read a magazine for an hour, then they look up at the end, you show them the back and they say, “Lovely, thanks,” and that’d be it. I think in that one-on-one situation, people are much more open, with what they talk about, which is nice. It means I can really get to know someone, and I love that. I love the psychology behind hair-dressing—it’s definitely something they didn’t teach you at college.
There’s a lot more to it than just the cutting hair.
Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes you can’t let your feelings from the day get in the way—you have to put on a face and get the day done. You’re providing a service at the end of the day. Once in a blue moon people might ask how you are, but generally people want you to ask about them.
Will there be a newfound respect for hairdressers after lockdown is lifted again?
After the first lockdown, the people who looked alright were the ones who’d done nothing. They still had that shape that I previously cut, it’d just grown out to a longer version. But I had a couple of guys who’d left it, and then maybe three months in, they’d got their partners to cut around their ears, and they’d come in with that almost ‘medieval knight’ look.
Or a lot of customers, maybe two weeks into lockdown, with nothing to do, got their beard trimmers and did it with them. But then by the second time they’d do it, they’d only be following half a shape, and then by the third one, they were going full solo. They were the ones who said, “Yeah, your job’s quite difficult.”
There’s definitely an art to it. You’re a coast guard too aren’t you? How did you get involved in that?
One of my customers is in the coastguard, and any time he’d come in, I was so fascinated with it. He said, “Why don’t you come along and meet the guys?” So I’m now coming up to my fourth summer with the coastguard—and we’re expecting a busy one.
But it does always catch you off guard—on a bank holiday weekend, I might think, “Right, it’s going to be busy.” So I’ll cancel all my clients—have my shoes by the door, and my jumpsuit folded up—but then nothing will happen. I’ll then go back to work on Wednesday, and my pager will go. My pager tone is ‘Flight of the Valkyries’. My girlfriend loves it when that goes off in the night…
It’s really good fun. I think because I never really scratched the itch of doing the military thing, it’s really nice to feel like I’m doing my bit. And because we’re in a seaside town, people really respect you for it. A lot of people won’t know you do it, and then they’ll see you in a blue Thunderbirds suit.
I was going to ask about your clothes actually. What do you wear as a coast guard?
Our new uniforms are very Tracy Island at the moment. The previous set we had were a lot like your bog standard blue boiler suit, with the Queen’s crest on the top pocket—but this one is like what those critical care paramedics wear. There’s padded knees and slots for pens. Before I joined, I used to dress how I imagined they used to dress years ago—a cream roll neck, a beanie and a big pair of boots. But now that I've joined up I’m wearing high-vis jackets.
Is it hard to balance it with your work?
We can be searching through the night, getting to bed at six o’clock. I’ll then wake up at half past six and go into work, doing haircuts. But it’ll just be the most euphoric day—the following day is an absolute dream. I’ll think, “I’ve just done ten haircuts here, and the night before I was doing a ten hour search.” It’s good. It keeps me going.
What are you usually helping with?
We’re generally inland. We do a lot of the technical cliff rescues—so if there’s a cliff fall, or a rock fall, or someone’s twisted their ankle, we’re there. We assist with the ambulance, so we do stretcher carry outs across the rural terrain. The stretchers aren’t really made for sand and beaches, so we help with them.
I think for me, I never grew up being a huge sporting person. I never played football or rugby, so I never had that team camaraderie, so I really feel that this is my version of that—working together as a team. The only way to describe it is as a brotherhood. You annoy each other, and you also love each other.
Everyone has their own unique skill set, and because it’s such a team effort, you don’t need to be the man hanging off the cliff doing a rescue. You’re as important as the guy doing the radio comms, or the person at the top helping the helicopter landing.
Changing subject a little now, how long have you been into clothes? Was it an obsession from an early age?
Yeah definitely, it’s something I’ve always been into, but I think as I got older, my character has started to come out a lot more. I’ve always had my own way of doing things, even if that’s not always been received the right way.
What sort of clothing do you look for?
I really stick with the basics. I’ve always been into work-wear and that kind of thing. Looking at photos of factory workers and my grandads in their army uniforms, it’s something I’ve always been attracted to. When I was growing up, I literally just wore camo the whole time—I wanted to be Action Man. I think it’s kind of stemmed from that really.
I’ve always looked up to my grandfathers—one was a carpenter, and the other had a car garage. They came from a time when they had unique skills, and could put their hands to anything. It’s funny, because anyone you speak to from our generation will say, “Oh, my grandad could fix anything.” And then you’ll think, “No he couldn’t, my grandad could.” It’s almost like a competition of the older class.
I think it’s just having something with a classic shape—it’s the same with haircuts too. People are constantly trying to reinvent the haircut, but people’s heads haven’t changed. Generally, people have two legs, and the waist is at the same point. Fashion almost became very confusing, with so many options, but I just like the classic shape. And with me only being five foot six, I’m probably the same height as most men in the 1920s too.
I’ve always been selective with my wardrobe. If I buy something, I have to make sure it’ll go with everything. I think that’s why I love the Cabourn stuff, and Nigel is just so good at showcasing it—that’s almost genius in itself. He looks great because that is him. I think it’s about buying something for yourself, not for other people. I think that’s the most important thing.
And with your profession, you almost need to have character.
Definitely. The most difficult thing is that you can’t become a caricature of yourself. Barbering is the perfect example—you’ll walk past a shop, and it might have the old chairs and the guys are there in tweed waistcoats, but you know that they go home and put a tracksuit on. It’s not authentic enough—you can really tell if people live a look. But the problem is, on a Sunday morning, when you’ve not got milk for the porridge, and you’ve got to go to the shops, you might have to dress down a bit.
Are you a hoarder, or is it about wearing the clothes for you?
I go through stages. Sometimes if I buy something new, I almost go through an obsessive stage, where I want it to be completely pristine, but by a week, I’ve usually forgotten about that. And then as it wears in, it just becomes a part of your character. I don’t buy stuff to sell on, I buy it to wear it. I’ll often buy old items and wear them to death.
There are a few car collectors out there, who have these cars that are worth millions of pounds, and they drive them. They’re there to be used. I think it’s a bit sad if things get stowed away because someone thinks they might be something in so many years. Everything should be fit to purpose—if you have a jacket, you should just wear it.
I remember listening to this podcast, and on it there was this barista who wore black jeans. Every time he’d smack the coffee out, he’d always wipe it on his jeans, and over the years of wearing them, they developed this beautiful worn-in patina. It’s these stories that the clothes carry that can’t be prefabricated. People can buy a look, but you can sort of tell if it’s their look or not. I think that’s what’s really important—to buy what’s right for you.
Definitely. We’ve talked for a while now—have you got any wise words to wind this up with.
Any wise words? Swim between the flags if you’re on the beach—I might be doing a haircut at the time.
Photos by John Hersey.