As a black girl with a full head of natural hair, I spent much of my childhood in and out of beauty salons watching my mother beg stylists to tackle the kinky, thick terrain of my hair. Now as a grown ass queer, I find myself in my mother’s position: trying to find a barber who will style my hair in a way that honors both my feminine and masculine presentation. Khane Kutzwell, a Trinidad born/Brooklyn based Master barber, has been addressing what many of us may experience as “queer hair crisis” for over a decade through her business Camera Ready Kutz. Next month, she’ll be celebrating the opening of her first barbershop space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and I had the pleasure of sitting down with her to discuss her history in the barbershop business.
Kutzwell went from store managing at Starbucks in the Village to cutting hair when she had people coming to her complaining about their experiences in the barbershop. Both queer and straight women who went into predominantly male owned barber shops told stories about being refused service, not getting the cut that they wanted or dealing with toxic masculine and homophobic environments, from comments made by customers to what was being played on the shop TV.
“I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit since childhood,” Kutzwell said, “While I was still working at Starbucks, I went to barber school where I graduated in 2007. I saw a need in the community and what started as a hobby became a business.”
Kutzwell began working in a shop right after graduating from barber school but left after her first month of work. “I didn’t like the looks my clients got and the questions I was asked after they left about their sexual and gender preferences.” Seeing the need to create a safer environment for her clients, Kutzwell began to run her business out of her home. She moved throughout the five boroughs for several years but continued to make space for her client’s in her home. In her ninth year of business, in an effort to cut costs, she moved to Far Rockaway and went back to working in a shop in Brooklyn so her clients would still have a barber they trusted in their neighborhood.
When I asked her what it was like to work in the male-dominated environment of barbershops, she shared how their perspective changed when she went from sitting in the chair to cutting clients hair. “I saw that barbershops were a necessary thing for men. It was a place they could go after work to talk about cooking, relationships, Father’s Day — it was basically a place for them to relax, drink and chill. The men still treated me like a woman, the opposite of how I look, but I was able to have good conversations with me and be honest. But on the other end, sometimes what’s pretty can quickly turn ugly.”
Though Kutzwell was always able to converse and relate to men as a masculine of center female-bodied person, they found that they were not always treated with respect as a professional. Environments that were once welcoming in the daylight began hostile, derogatory and volatile as lips loosened from ongoing intoxication in the evenings.
“There were a lot of times I had to advocate for myself and for my customers.”
She began to have the same experiences that started her off in the business. Shop owners where she worked would allow inappropriate and often offensive behavior from their employees and customers. She started looking at how she could change these dynamics in barbershops, creating welcoming spaces for folks of all gender identities, sexualities and cultural experiences. This was when her vision for Camera Ready Kutz barbershop came to life and in her tenth year of business, Kutzwell began construction.
“I wanted to create a space where customers can come in with confidence, a place where they don’t have to worry or be uneasy. When I was creating the shop, I wanted to make sure it looked a certain way. There isn’t any reason why people in the queer community can’t have nice things.”
Kutzwell approaches every client with sensitivity, intuition and a knowledge of psychology. Their clients range from straight folks to trans and gay men to butch and femme women. “I have parents who bring their trans and queer teen children from out of state because they can’t get a haircut where they live. I have gay men who will come into the shop crying because they can’t believe how beautiful it is and how safe they feel.”
In serving a diverse community, Kutzwell receives clients requesting a variety of hair styles. With each client she brings an understanding that queer presentation is hard to achieve. She listens with a compassionate ear that creates space for her clients to express their needs and offers guidance to those who are struggling to achieve it.
“I get a lot of women who are ready to chop off all their locks. Femme presenting women will come in and say ‘I want it short but I don’t want to look like a dude.’ I tell them it’s not about the length, it’s what you do with your hair to look feminine. For folks who aren’t sure what to do, I ask them ‘what is your goal?’ Many of my clients will talk about what they want their hair to look like down the road. I try to speak to that fear and help them take the risk and say ‘let’s just go for it, why not be happy today? I never want to tell people what to do, I want them to make their own decisions. I just always look for the right moments to put in my two cents.”
The care that Kutzwell provides for the LGBTQ community expands well beyond the vision of a barbershop. In her new location, she is striving to create a community space with times for forums on sexuality, gender and culture. Following the grand opening, her first event will be a film screening of “The Same Difference,” a documentary that examines gender roles in lesbian culture, followed by a discussion on Saturday, March 17th at 8pm. “This Ain’t Your Mama’s Tupperware Party, lol,” an intimate toy demonstration and sales party will be held on Friday, March 23rd from 8-12am. Khane will continue to host other social gatherings in Camera Ready Kutz backyard space in the warmer seasons and hopes to hire a tattoo artist to work in the shop in the near future.
Camera Ready Kutz’ Grand Opening will be held on Saturday, March 10th from 6 -12am at 73 Utica Ave. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment Khane Kutzwell, visit https://shops.getsquire.com/book/camera-ready-kutz-inc-brooklyn.