Call it the ground zero of gender equality or just another urge to be up-to-the-minute trendy, unisex grooming is the latest international fad to hit the metroscape. Citrus and Squeeze, two unisex salons launched this year, have Calcutta talking. Delhi has Victoria, Bubble Lounge, and Habib's. Chennai has Salon Nayana and Limelite. Mumbai has B:Blunt, Juice, Nalini and Yasmeen, Butterfly Pond, Kaaya and many more. Even in Jodhpur, where a lot of women still hide behind the ghoongat, barriers have come down in the unisex area of a local salon.
According to Simmi Keer, technical manager at L'Oreal, "The concept of unisex grooming typically attracts customers who are socially more aware, well travelled and comparatively rich, and who want value for money." The growing popularity of these salons also seems to have a lot to do with the quality of services being offered. Most of them pamper clients with beverages, and boast professionally trained hair-dressers, manicurists and pedicurists who can give the client expert individualised advice on how make the best of their looks. Customers also give them brownie points for cleanliness—with all those glass walls, says regular customer Shalini, "there's no way you can hide grime behind ratty hairdye-stained curtains, as they do in those neighbourhood beauty parlours." A new attraction in this wedding season is the special package for bridegrooms—which includes a facial, bleach, hair highlights, eyebrow shaping and a manicure-pedicure for his suhaag raat, plus some deftly applied make-up so that his acne and blackheads don't show up in those wedding videos and photo albums.
Another plus for unisex parlours is they often save on time. "If a couple has just one vehicle, a grooming appointment at the same place saves them time, fuel and money," says Anjali Vishwanathan, co-owner of Bubble Lounge. For working couples, it's a way to gain quality time together. "My wife and I can chat while we get our toes done," says Anubhav Rawat, who frequents Blonde and Bliss.
For Mallika, the fact that Limelite in Bangalore also has a kid's section is an added attraction. "I can get my treatments done in peace because I know my daughter is being looked after properly as she gets her hair trimmed." Then there are others like upcoming entrepreneur Sarvesh Saharia who finds unisex salons a fun way to get his locks in shape. "I come here for the ambience, the good music, and to check the latest fashion...get a look at what others are doing," chuckles Saharia, whose hangout is Mapui's in Calcutta.
The owners aren't complaining either as running a unisex salon makes more business sense for them too. "In the same floor area, you manage to get more footfalls," points out S. Jagdish, business manager of Limelite.
Mumbai and South Indian cities seem to have taken to unisex grooming in a particularly big way. According to a market survey by cosmetics company Cavin Care, there are about 30-35 unisex salons in South India. Their own unisex chain Limelite has been registering a growth of 40 per cent in the last three years.
The popularity of unisex parlours in Chennai is something of a paradox, reflecting the schizophrenic culture of a city where, on the one hand, people are pilloried for voicing their opinion on pre-marital sex, and on the other unisex parlours find a ready market. "Society here is in a state of flux...but concepts like unisex grooming are slowly finding acceptance," says a spokesperson at Salon Nayana, the first unisex salon to open in the city three years ago. Now their clients include Kollywood stars like Arjun, Jeeva and Sandhya, as well as IT professionals, college students and even housewives. "It's become fashionable to get a haircut at unisex salons," says P. Uma, a high school teacher in Chennai who along with her 16-year-old son are Nayana loyals.
In Mumbai, on the other hand, unisex grooming is already well-established. Nalini Naegamvala of the legendary Nalini and Yasmin (N&Y) says, "Initially, the concept wasn't very popular but now 20 per cent of our clients are male." At B:Blunt, the celeb hair salon run by Aduna Bhabani-Akhtar, approximately 40 per cent of their clientele is male. Actor Jugal Hansraj, a regular, finds it more professional too. "My earlier gents-only parlour was very drab. But the staff here are so smart and suggest so many options in styling and hair care."
But for a lot of women, getting their upper lip threaded even as the hunk on the next chair gets his nose hair trimmed is taking trendiness—or gender equality—too far. "It's guaranteed to kill any budding romance...and stamp out the feminine mystique part," says a Delhi-based model. So a lot of salons which carry the unisex tag have a partition between the men's and women's sections. It's not just the women who feel shy. "Even men don't feel comfortable being seen with a face pack and curlers," says Anjali of Bubble Lounge, where the men's section is screened off.
It's also true that a lot of men flock to unisex salons in the hope of finding female company, or being ministered to by women. Feroze, a hair-stylist at Bubble Lounge, says male clients often ask for only female stylists "but our management doesn't entertain such requests". And it's not like the male bastion has completely keeled over. Die-hard anti-metrosexuals, who flaunt their sweat and stubble, still believe that only gays or the desperate ones flock to unisex salons. Tell that to the likes of actor Hrithik Roshan and singer Kunal Ganjawala, regulars at unisex parlours.
Shobita Dhar with Payal Kapadia in Mumbai