With his Peaky Blinders cap, Vivienne Westwood belt and Dr Marten brogues, Bristol hairdresser Doug Hobbs doesn’t dress like your average 65-year-old.
When we meet in his salon, he’s also wearing an Italian-made cardigan, a white t-shirt and Japanese ‘Edwins’ jeans.
Most men his age look forward to getting their free bus pass, but not Doug. He doesn’t take the bus and he often gets to work from his house near Bristol Airport on his Spanish road bike.
That’s when he’s not cycling around Europe, particularly Italy, where he has a holiday home, from where he has just returned after a short break.
Doug has been a Bristol hairdresser for 50 years, exactly half of that time running his popular Hobbs salon on Park Row.
With its basement café for clients and a well-designed garden – as well as cycling, cooking and hair, gardening is Doug’s other passion – it’s a salon unlike any others.
Although Doug employs several stylists, he’s still in demand with clients, many of whom have been calling on his services for years.
“I still have a big passion for hair, but Covid taught me to chill out more,” says Doug, who still works in the salon Wednesday to Friday.
“After 50 years I’ve only just stopped working Saturdays, but I’m 66 in January so I think that’s alright, isn’t it?”
With three children, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren, Doug certainly has plenty of other reasons to have some downtime, but he’s clearly proud of the fact his career has lasted for 50 years and he is building a legacy at Hobbs salon.
One wall of the salon’s café is plastered with magazine and newspaper cuttings about Doug, dating back to the 1980s.
But many of the articles are about the Hobbs Show, high profile Bristol fashion, dance and music shows which ran from 1997-2019.
What started as a show in a marquee in the garden of the Channings Hotel in Clifton for 360 people grew quickly and appeared at various venues including the Colston Hall and The L-Shed.
At its peak in the early Noughties, it was selling out for two nights at The Passenger Shed with audiences of 1,200 people.
As well as showcasing the best of Bristol, the shows raised money for several charities including Meningitis Research, a charity especially close to Doug’s heart as he tragically lost his son to the disease when he was a baby.
Doug got the idea for the shows when he was out of action after breaking his leg in seven places in a mountain biking accident.
“I got bored so I phoned local retailers and art colleges, then Massive Attack and Portishead – everybody got on board.
“There’s still a lot of talent in Bristol but that was a golden period in the late 1990s and it was the right time to do it.
“The first two shows had quite a fetish element just to sell tickets and we had girls stripping in cages and all sorts. Then we got local DJs involved, dancers and even skateboarders.”
At one of those early shows, one of the skateboarders hanging around backstage was a local artist who has since gone on to international fame.
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Doug says: “At the second show at the L-Shed, there was a girl doing some dancing and she was a friend of Banksy.
“She got him back stage to spray her in UV paint so she was illuminated when she came out on stage.
“He was just a skateboard guy who was known in Bristol but I was so busy that I didn’t even realise what was going on. It’s only now that I realise the significance of having Banksy doing that at the show!”
When Hobbs salon opened in 1996, Bristol was very much on the global map when it came to the music scene and Doug’s celebrity status grew at the same time as many of the local musicians he was hanging out with at places like The Dug Out.
“I was lucky to be learning my trade at the same time as the Bristol scene was evolving. I was just in the right place at the right time.
“That was a great time. Bristol’s still cool but in a different way – these days, it’s cool because of the food scene rather than music and fashion.”
Born in his nan’s house in Barton Hill and educated in schools around Whitehall and St George, Doug started out as a keen footballer and played for Bristol Rovers’ youth team in the late 1960s.
But by the age of 14, he was already into art at school and he quickly realised that he wanted to be a hairdresser.
In those days, it was an unusual career path for a boy from working class areas like Barton Hill, but he says nobody tried to stop him.
“By then, I was into music like Motown and Northern Soul, and I was going to the Locarno on Friday nights wearing an aqua blue ‘Sta-Prest’ suit which cost me a fortune.
“I had a layered page boy haircut like one of the glam rock band Sweet but I’d also be going down to Eastville on a Saturday to see the Rovers in my hobnail boots and ‘Sta-Prest’ trousers.
“Luckily, I was quite a good footballer and I was in the school team, which was seen as being cool, so I never got picked on.
“My dad worked at Rolls Royce, as did lots of men in my family, and it wasn’t the done thing in the early 1970s for boys from where I grew up to be hairdressers but I was surprised and shocked that my dad was really supportive.”
‘I was a bit of a rascal’
At the age of 15, Doug’s first job was as an apprentice at the upmarket Park Street hairdressers Andre Bernard, which came as something of a culture shock for the boy from Barton Hill.
“I was a bit of a rascal and suddenly I was working in this posh hairdressers where lords and ladies, and famous actresses came for their hair.
“Because I was a bit of a rascal, I had to do all the dirty stuff like clearing the hair out of the drains because nobody else would do it.
“I started as a shampooist but got suspended a couple of times for a minor misdemeanours, like putting spiders in the stylist’s roller boxes!
“I didn’t learn much about hairdressing there, and I wasn’t treated that well – it was a bit like Upstairs, Downstairs. I was probably seen as the riffraff but they taught me the art of service and that became really important for later in my career.”
Doug’s career really flourished as soon as he joined a cool new hairdressers in Bristol called Shaggers, which opened in 1973 and became the place to be in the city at the time.
“I went as an apprentice and within three months I was cutting hair because it was so busy. There were queues out the door everyday.
“We were lucky because Bowie was making an impact at the time and it was one of the first Bristol salons doing cut and blow dry, along with Guy Fawkes.
“It was an amazing time. People were dressing differently, in bright colours, and they wanted layered page boy cuts and asymmetric styles.
“Looking back, all the best hairdressers came from Shaggers and all the best salons in Bristol are still run by people who started at either Shaggers or Guy Fawkes.”
Doug worked at Shaggers for just under three years and says it was so non-stop that he had to have a break afterwards.
“I got a bit burnt out in the end. We were doing haircuts every 20 minutes and we didn’t refuse people who came in without a booking.
“I made a few mistakes but I also created my own look because I once cut somebody’s hair too short on the crown and it stuck up.
“I had about 20 of her friends coming in asking for the same cut as it was quite Bowie. I was learning on the job, trying things and making it up as I went along.
“The funny thing is that I was doing those haircuts in the 1970s and now the students are coming into our salon and asking for them now, it has come full circle.”
After working at other salons and even working mornings at the fruit market to earn extra money for his young family, Doug opened his first salon, Fifth Avenue, on Christmas Steps.
“I learnt more about business when I did that but it was hard because people knew me as the brand and if I wasn’t there, they didn’t want to have their haircut by the other stylists.
“But it turned out OK as I learnt so much running Fifth Avenue. It was useful for Hobbs salon because although I’m a prominent figure here and some people still want me to cut their hair, it’s all about the Hobbs brand now, not about me.”
Inspiring the next generation
Over the years, Doug has trained many others to become hairdressers and he says a lot of them have gone on to work around the world.
“There are people I trained here in Bristol now running their own salons but also in Australia, Phoenix, Switzerland and all over the world, which is great. I’m proud of that.”
Although modest when it comes to explaining what makes him so in-demand, Doug has firm views on what makes a great hairdresser.
“You do the hair to suit the individual person and you know as soon as they walk in.
“That’s why I don’t like college because all they teach kids is how to cut, they would be better off getting a job in a good salon.
“Sadly, we don’t get too many kids doing that as parents and teachers are fixated with sending them to college. Like other creative industries, you have to feel it, it’s not just something that comes with a handbook.
“Even after 50 years, I do things with hair I shouldn’t do but I know it will work. It’s not about just cutting hair, you have to understand the client and their way of life.”
Having travelled the world doing hair seminars and even cutting hair for Miss World, Doug still enjoys his work and he’s also still raising money for charities.
On January 29, he’s hosting a pop-up restaurant in the salon in aid of Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare condition which the nephew of his partner has.
“I know a lot of the local restaurants and musicians so we’ll have food from Thali Cafe and music from some local jazz guys.
“We’ve done a few of these before and people stop and look in – they think it’s a proper restaurant because it looks so cool in here with huge tables of food and live bands.”
After an hour chatting, Doug has to go because the first client of the day has arrived. He greets them like an old friend and immediately finds out exactly what they want.
But before I leave, I simply have to ask him if there have been any disasters over the 50 years of cutting hair.
“Ah, well, yes…when I was an apprentice I cut my mum’s hair. I thought it was looking a bit shapeless so I cut a bit more and then a bit more.
“She left looking like Herman Munster,” he laughs, removing his Peaky Blinders cap and cardigan to get down to the business of the day as he has for the past half century.