Hundreds of clients have sat in Khane Kutzwell’s barber chair. But after a decade, only one motivates her to keep cutting.
A 5-year-old girl wanted a buzz cut with the Batman symbol carved in the back. Her parents drove 190 miles for it.
Kutzwell lived in Brooklyn and the girl and her family lived in Baltimore, where almost every barber refused the kindergartner service, except for one barber who agreed to do it if they came in after the shop closed.
“I just didn’t think that was right,” said Kutzwell, who prefers not to use a courtesy title. “They had to travel all that way just to get a simple haircut.”
But that simple haircut proved profound and has inspired her every cut since.
“When I gave the little girl the mirror — the look on her face was — I’ve never in all my years of barbering seen and still haven’t seen a face like that. She lit up,” Kutzwell said. “Not because of my cut, but because somebody did what she wanted. In that moment, I was like, O.K. This is why I’m doing what I do.”
What she does, she said, is sell self-esteem.
As a female barbershop owner in a male-dominated industry, Kutzwell—her government name is Cindy Morris—finds self-esteem especially necessary for her fleet of female barbers and unique clientele.
Barbershops are traditionally the ultimate boys’ club, often protected by an unspoken but ubiquitous men-only mentality. All that tradition stops at Kutzwell’s Camera Ready Kutz Inc.
The shop embraces the unconventional by promoting an environment that welcomes women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and anyone who has felt unaccepted by the average barbershop.
“That’s important to me,” said Kutzwell “Everything I do I make sure I mention that I’m black, I’m female, I’m Trinidadian, I’m gay. That’s me.”
The New York City Human Rights Commission recently expanded its anti-discrimination law to include hair bias, which outlaws bigotry targeted at ethnic hair. While the city enacted the new guidelines in response to a number of discriminatory cases, Kutzwell works to ensure that discrimination does not occur in the barbershop itself.
“I think that’s really something beautiful about this space,” said Nia Osborne, the shop manager, who goes by NATO. “It’s for everybody. It’s not just for L.G.B.T.Q. folk. It’s not just for women. It’s for anyone that wants to care for themselves and choose for themselves.”
Choice is a mantra at Camera Ready Kutz Inc., because Kutzwell feels that society often does not offer it to minority and marginalized populations. Many see the shop as a crown jewel of their gentrified Crown Heights block.
Not only does the Brooklyn barbershop aim to fight gentrification, it also aims to undo toxic masculinity and misogyny one head at a time.
“If that little girl was a 5-year-old boy, she would have gotten her hair cut right away,” said Kutzwell. “She would’ve been welcome. She would’ve been celebrated. Regardless of what everyone else thought, this young lady made an empowering choice for herself.”
To her, the empowerment is in the choice as much as it is in the cut.
Cassandra Mendoza, another Queens native and female barber, agrees with Kutzwell.
“I’m about empowerment, especially when it comes to hair,” Ms. Mendoza said. “A client shows me a picture of what they want and I’m the person who tells them, ‘Listen. Own it.’”
Ms. Mendoza is the visionary behind Ztylez Studio, a barber shop in the diverse Woodside neighborhood, where she grew up. Owning comes naturally to the 30-year-old entrepreneur. But it does not come easily.
She is a first-generation Filipino-American with five generations of stylists preceding her, so becoming a barber seemed almost like a birthright. But a bloodline claim was not enough and she struggled as a female barber.
Fresh out of cosmetology school, Ms. Mendoza was unhappy at her first salon job with an owner who belittled her ability. She began to cut hair at her family’s shop. That job became a refuge and soon a full-time job.
Her first clients at her family’s shop were mostly male, but today she prides herself on the inclusive atmosphere of Ztylez Studio. She does not even refer to the L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly spot as a barbershop, but as a “hair studio.”
“Coming from a place where I wasn’t growing and was almost depressed, I’m very happy to just provide them that space,” Ms. Mendoza said.
The studio itself reflects the eclectic community Ms. Mendoza serves, from cutting capes featuring the Filipino flag to the vibrant locally sourced graffiti spray-painted on the salon’s walls. Red picture frames bearing the logo greet customers, a gift from a longtime client, Dennis Garcia.
“The vibe you get from her, her fellow barbers, the barbershop itself sets them apart,” Mr. Garcia said from the barber chair. “She’s like family.”
That “family” includes a tight-knit team of barbers and stylists that Ms. Mendoza carefully refers to as artists: Each is given license to cut to their own rhythm. Some had been cutting for years and others had Ms. Mendoza teach them how to pick up their first pair of clippers.
Gean Legaspi falls in the second category. She is a cosmetology graduate with seven months of cutting experience. The 18-year-old finished high school early to pursue her license, while Ms. Mendoza became a mentor for the budding barber.
Standing just shy of 5 feet, Ms. Legaspi has grown accustomed to the skeptical gazes of men who decline her open chair.
“Guys put a stereotype on us female barbers, and it’s our job to prove them wrong,” said Ms. Legaspi.
And to prove that a Batman buzz cut is just as good as a pink bow.