Black hair salons have long been an integral part of black life. Not just a place to get a haircut, they’ve functioned as community gathering places and economic hubs for neighborhoods across the country for decades.
Now, a new hair salon in Washington, DC is channeling that story and elevating it. Manifest, which launched last fall, takes the multifaceted aspect of the traditional barber shop seriously: it will also have a boutique, café and cocktail bar. “We chose Manifest as the hair salon name because when you manifest in these new spaces, these new ideas, you always think of better places, and it all starts well with a haircut,” says Brian Merritt, one of the founders of Manifest who also co-founded the Chicago clothing brand Sir & Madame.
The four-in-one concept was brought to life by KJ Hughes, a serial sports and entertainment entrepreneur, who partnered with Merritt and Susan Morgan, vice president of Team Epiphany, a marketing and creative agency based in New York. “I think all my years at the hairdresser influenced this particular innovation,” says Hughes. Her mother was a hairstylist at Shelton’s Hair Gallery in Washington, D.C., in the 80s and 90s. “There was the bag lady who came in, the polo guy who came in [with] polo shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies,” says Hughes. “The barber shop was no different. You had the man in a hurry who came with CDs, computers and laundry detergent. People were hustling and selling things because the barber shop was a captive audience. It definitely entered into the business model that we created at Manifest.
This mixed-use history of barber shops highlights the pivotal role they have played in black communities. “The black barbershop can be a social and even political anchor for a rapidly changing community,” says Quincy Mills, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland and author of Cut along the color line. “Once they have a barber or a beautician, [Black consumers] are quite attached to this person. Even if they move, they’re likely to go back to that hair salon in their old neighborhood, so that way, I think a hair salon can serve as a foothold even when things change. A membership program at Manifest offers even more community involvement, with exclusive discounts, events and products.
As for Manifest, the partners brought in New York design firm Snarkitecture to design the space. Neon lighting, molded archways and mixed materials create a cohesive experience across its four businesses. “We created it to look like one space, but if you’re in the hair salon, you don’t feel like you’re in the cafe; or, if you’re in the café, you don’t feel like you’re in the barbershop, so sightlines were really important,” says Hughes, adding that the archways represent a ritual. “Getting your hair cut, getting a fade, shopping, and having coffee are types of ritual activities.”
Although barbershops are traditionally considered “boys’ clubs,” Manifest’s offerings are for everyone. “We welcome people from all walks of life – athletes, politicians, everyday people on the street, neighborhood guys, women, everyone comes,” Merritt says. “That’s what we wanted it to be, a beautiful point of community and discovery.”
Alongside the lavish barber shop experience is a well-curated selection of shops. Brands featured include Acne Studios, Engineered Garments, Rick Owens, Craig Green and Issey Miyake. “You see all the different backgrounds in a hair salon, so why not offer them all types of clothing? So we have luxury, street-style, contemporary Japanese stuff that they can experience here,” Merritt says.
This, too, is an extension of the role black barbershops have played for decades. “Historically, barbershops and beauty salons have been used in different ways,” says Mills. “These were the spaces that black people owned or controlled, which allowed them to be used for other purposes. This allowed cross-selling of other types of businesses within the same space.
Beyond the first-floor space, there’s a dimly lit hidden staircase that leads to Out Of Office, a 30-seat speakeasy, by reservation only. The bar mimics barbershop design elements, with tile and dim lighting. Later this spring, Manifest will further expand its offering by opening a fourth-floor townhouse that is available for rent. “DC is one of the few remaining black cities,” Merritt says. “So we have to do something good for our people, something high for our people. It’s not fair for us, but it’s for us.