Until earlier this year, Jack Brett can't remember being happy with any of the haircuts he had received during a decade living in Abu Dhabi. His friend and business partner, Jasim Alkhouri, who was born and raised in the capital, felt similar frustration. "I've had two different haircuts in the same day, just to get it fixed, from two different barbers," Jasim says. "I've gone to one, hated it, gone to another one to fix it."
Jack has known Jasim's younger brother Zayed – they are both 25, while Jasim is 28 – since his school days. The three men, all with business-based post-secondary educations, are now the proud co-founders of one of Abu Dhabi's radical new concepts.
Local is a rare combination for the capital: a bustling barbershop, speciality coffee shop and, as of November 23, a consignment store for valuable, limited-edition sneakers, as well as clothes and skateboards.
'Shoes are my biggest passion'
The space, near Yas Island in Al Zeina, is gorgeous, and the design understated. The cafe is bright and uncluttered, with wood tables, succulents and special touches like the decades-old trunk being used as a coffee table that came from Jasim's family home. In the barbershop, which is visible through a glass wall but separate and soundproofed, there are marble floors and classic Belmont barber chairs ordered from Japan, complete with 1950s-era grey leather, white piping and old-school flip-top ashtrays on the right arm.
A glass display case shows off six of Jack's most prized Nike Air Max. "Shoes are my biggest passion," he explains. "I've been collecting shoes for a very long time."
He's such a fan of the culture surrounding limited-edition sneakers that he's lost count of how many pairs he actually owns. The first he can remember were Adidas Superstars; he could switch the colours of the stripes. He might have been 11 or 12. "That's one I think back now and say: 'Man I wish I kept them'," he tells me.
For years, Jack's chosen travel destinations have been based on sneaker stores he wants to visit, and he's helped people access shoes that haven't been available in the UAE through international channels. That's been changing a little, recently. The Ramadan Dusk to Dawn Epic React drop in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – with just 30 pairs of Nikes designed by Lebanese artist and Saudi resident Ali Cha'aban – is one example of big brands seizing opportunities in the region.
Local has tucked the shoe space away, down a hall they painted in dark tones to resemble an alley, behind an unmarked door that opens with the press of a button. They aren’t saying much about their opening stock, but expect an interesting range.
“We each like different things,” says Jasim. “I like Japanese fashion, Jack likes more American-British streetwear and my brother likes vintage weird. We all have our own different takes of what should be on the shelves, so it’s kind of a combination.”
'You want familiarity'
But back to the hairdressing, which was where the business conversation really started. Because like most men living in the UAE, all three well knew how frustrating it was trying to get a decent hair cut. With no background in the field, they hired Brighton resident consultant Paul Hewitt, who has been bringing traditional hairdressing into the modern world, as well as founding the lifestyle brand AONO (Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned). They ended up hiring two of his barbers.
Local is clearly filling a need: the appointment-only shop has been fully booked since opening in early October, with a wait that stretches up to five days. The basic service – no manicures or eyebrow threading here – costs Dh155 and comes with a coffee and expert consultation, providing highly skilled fades and cuts with a Western influence and, most importantly, consistency.
“You want familiarity,” says Jack. “The more cuts you get with one barber, it’s the better relationship and chemistry you get with that barber. To the point where you can sit in the chair, not even say what you want, he knows exactly what you want. That’s what guys want.”
In recent years, male haircuts have grown from a necessary exercise into an experience, says Faron Calder, one of the shop’s barbers. That’s why in the West, barbershops have been adding everything from pinball machines to cocktails, creating a place to hang out and making men feel relaxed and comfortable in the process.
“People have said: ‘I’ve never seen such a gap in the market’; there’s no one doing what we do,” says Faron. “We’re very experienced barbers, we’re knowledgeable about the product. They are just missing having a conversation about it.”
And it’s not just expatriates. The concept is also working for Emirati clients, many who are not used to asking a professional’s advice on their look, says Calder. “They give us a chance and then nine times out of 10 they come back,” he says.
'We’re trying to build a community'
Coffee is another passion of Jack’s, and in addition to the recent explosion in speciality coffee shops in Abu Dhabi, Jasim points out it’s basically the UAE’s national drink. The cafe has the kind of neighbourhood vibe common in other urban centres like London or Melbourne, complete with a hello from Jasim, Jack or Zayed, who spend a lot of time in the space, and bit of familiar banter from the baristas. “We’re trying to build a community,” says Jasim.
As for the name, there’s the clever twist on Emirati, the wider trend of supporting local businesses over large chains, as well as their pledge to work with UAE-born companies where possible. To that end, the beans are from Dubai’s Seven Fortunes Coffee Roasters, the tea is Avantcha, while the sandwiches and vegan treats come from Wheatfields Gourmet Grocer & Cafe, in Al Rayyana.
In addition to the launch of the consignment space, Local’s founders are adding seats to accommodate more customers in the cafe and setting up an outdoor area. All three say they never even considered launching their business anywhere other than the capital, wanting to buck a notion that the only edgy stuff in the UAE happens in Dubai. “We’re behind, but there’s cool concepts coming that are starting to make people in Dubai go: ‘Oh what is that’?” explains Jack. “And we’re having people come from Dubai to check us out.”