John Allan plays a round of billiards at his eponymous grooming shop at the… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
After a quarter-century spent raising the bar on the men's grooming experience — opening a handful of just-for-the-guys salons coast-to-coast and launching an eponymous line of men's hair- and skincare products — John Allan is going underground.
Underground, that is, to the basement level of the recently renovated Saks Fifth Avenue men's store in Beverly Hills, home to the newest John Allan's club. It's a 3,800-square-foot subterranean space appointed in 21st century man cave chic: unfinished concrete floors, exposed metal duct work, walls in a color palette of black and gray punctuated with blond wood accents and framed prints (on loan from a local art gallery), depicting exercises in pugilistic excess. Not far from a row of barber chairs and a pedicure room are a billiards table and a bar.
This particular part of Beverly Hills is hardly lacking in clubby-feeling man sanctuaries — the Shave of Beverly Hills, the Art of Shaving and Gornik & Drucker at the Montage Beverly Hills are barely a hot towel's toss away. But Allan's arrival in early April is noteworthy for two reasons. First is an optional membership model that encourages guys to fork over $1,250 upfront for a year's worth of haircuts, manicures and shoeshines. Second is Allan's successful 25-year track record of getting dudes to darken his doorstep.
The 56-year-old Allan (whose full name is John Allan Meing) is the kind of go-to guru of men's grooming that GQ magazine seeks out for advice on ingrown whiskers. But he'll be the first to tell you that wasn't his planned career arc.
"I really wanted to play baseball," Allan says. "I grew up in New York and New Jersey, and baseball was my first love growing up right through high school. How I got into this business was I met a girl who was a stylist, and that sort of intrigued me a little. But the real catapult was meeting Jean Louis David's wife at the time — she told me who he was and explained that he was coming to the states to open a shop."
Allan moved to Paris to train under the legendary French stylist, who specialized in women's hairstyles. "I was there for six months — '78-'79," he says. "And came back and helped open the store in the Henri Bendel Building."
He worked for David for eight years in a variety of roles — management, education, helping open new stores, hiring and training new staff. Then, around 1986, he decided to strike out on his own.
At first he wasn't sure whether he wanted to open his own women's salon or forge a separate path. so he spent time surveying the salon scene, wandering into barbershops and the like all over New York City.
"One day I walked into the barbershop in the Empire State Building — I figured I'd go right to the epicenter," he recounts. "And the place was empty. Not a soul in it. And the old-time barber was asleep in a chair in the corner. That's when it clicked; that's when I knew what I could do. I left that place, and my brain was just on fire."
Inspired by memories of his Uncle Babe's pool hall (Guys & Dolls in Belleville, N.J., which, Allan points out, is still there and run by one of his cousins), he set out to create a comfortable space that guys would want to visit.
"I wasn't going to even call it a salon. Men don't relate to the word 'salon,'" Allan recalls. "I was going to call it a club. That's something men can relate to, that they want to be part of. I decided to put a billiard table in it and a bar in it and give it this whole new face. And that's how John Allan's was born."
That first club opened in New York City in 1988; today there are eight, inluding four in New York, and one each in Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco.
Along the way, Allan formulated his own line of men's grooming products, starting with haircare (in 2003) followed by skincare (2004). Today the 11-product line is stocked at a range of retailers, including independent beauty supply stores such as Larchmont Beauty in L.A., boutiques like Planet Blue in Malibu and Barneys New York.
Allan's club membership model has been key to his success.
"I think that's what has given [the business] its longevity, that men have a feeling of ownership," he says. "I knew once I got them to feel that ownership, they'd frequent the place more often. And that meant I could keep them groomed."
The club's full range of services is available to non-member clientele as well. But annual membership, which is currently $1,250, entitles a guy to a year's worth of the signature full-service treatment: a 35- to 40-minute all-at-once regimen that includes haircut, shampoo and conditioner, a hot towel treatment for the face, a manicure, shoeshine and a beverage. Non-members can avail themselves of the same treatment for $85 a pop. (Members also get a 10% discount on additional club services, including beard trims, pedicures, massages and facials.)
For Saks, the club is a way to draw more business.