Master barber Khane Kutzwell was inspired to make a change after hearing her queer friends’ collection of barber shop horror stories.
“[The stories] were all pretty much the same. Being refused service; being hit on; unwanted advances; being asked about genitals for the trans folks,” she tells GO.
Kutzwell owns Camera Ready Kutz, a Brooklyn-based, queer- owned, Black-owned barber shop. The original idea behind her shop was simple.
“I just did the opposite of everything that people complained about,” Kutzwell explains.
“Male barbers not wanting to touch [male clients], thinking that ‘the gay’ is contagious or something. For women, being asked why they want their hair cut short and things like that. Things that had nothing to do with the service that you’re being paid to do,” she adds.
In 2007, Kutzwell enrolled in the American Barber Institute, got her barber’s license, and started cutting hair.
“I’m the type of person where if I get something in my head, and it stays there, I know that I’m just supposed to do that,” Kutzwell tells GO. “I’m a risk-taker. So when it comes to business, when it comes to achieving goals and stuff, I just go for it.”
Kutzwell has always been an entrepreneur. Before she enrolled in the American Barber Institute, she managed a coffee shop. Before the coffee shop, she owned a store in the West Village, where she sold oils, incense, and homemade African art pieces. Her very first business venture had occurred decades before that, when she’d been in the third grade.
“A teacher put us into groups and said that we had to think of a business,” Kutzwell remembers. She’d been the one to come up with her group’s concept. “We would buy blank books and pencils and we would decorate them with stickers. We would draw on them, and then we would resell them to the class.”
Today, Camera Ready Kutz—Kutzwell’s most recent and successful business—is a spacious spot in Bed-Stuy, right off the Utica Ave A train. Colorful LED lights and potted plants frame the big front windows. It’s impossible to miss the black-and-white mural covering the side of the building, and the painted message that spills onto the storefront: SPREAD LOVE IT’S THE BROOKLYN WAY…
Inside, there’s a long room lined with barber stations, where Kutzwell encourages her staff to hang up framed accolades, certificates, and photos.
Kutzwell embellishes her own station with a Baby Yoda doll, a New York KUTZWELL license plate, and an unmistakable custom bobble-head. It’s her: complete with buzzcut, horn-rimmed glasses, chunky white Nike’s, and even the denim “Camera Ready Kutz” apron, which all of her barbers wear.
But it wasn’t always like this. The master barber spent the first decade of her career working out of her apartment. After graduating from the American Barber Institute, Kutzwell didn’t like working in other people’s salons. Often, the other barbers didn’t share her values.
“I didn’t like the questions that everybody would ask me about my clients after they left,” she tells GO, referring to how other barbers would ask her questions about her clients’ gender identities and presentations. “So I felt like it wasn’t a good environment.”
Then, one day, while combing through Craigslist, “it just happened that somebody was selling used barber chairs nearby.” So she in- vested $75 in one of the chairs. “And from there on, I said that I was going to cut hair out of my apartment.”
Her at-home setup was pretty much the same as the individual stations inside Camera Ready Kutz today. One of the mirrors in the shop was plucked right out of her apartment.
Kutzwell couldn’t afford to move into her shop in Bed-Stuy until an opportunity presented itself in 2017. One of her clients, his girlfriend, and her family, were looking to invest.
“He had been telling them about me, and they wanted to help me out,” Kutzwell said. “I met with them that week, and did a business plan, presentation—all of that—and they loaned me the money to get the shop.”
This gesture of kindness and good faith allowed Kutzwell to expand her business into what it is today. But additionally, it also inspired her to pay it forward.
In 2018, Kutzwell started the Morris, Harris, Dacey, Coleman Fund. She calls it a “giving program,” inspired by people that changed her life with their generosity. (Dacey and Coleman are the last names of the family that loaned her the money to buy the shop, while Morris is Khane’s original last name, and that of her mother.)
Harris was a client who helped her when she was struggling financially. “[Harris] didn’t know me from anything,” Kutzwell said. “He helped me out, just being a nice person, and he didn’t have to do that.”
Kutzwell spent years thinking about these people and wondering how, without much financial means herself, she could give back to the community.
“I’m like, ‘Man, these people helped me. I’m not really in a position to help other people,’” Kutzwell remembers. “Then something came to me and I was like, ‘I can still help people, through my clients and through everybody else. If we all pool our money together, then we’re able to help each other.’”
Kutzwell raises money for the fund by crowdsourcing from the shop’s clients and tip jars. Every month or so, she finds a worthy cause to donate to. In the past, funds have gone to COVID-19 relief, children in family shelters, up-and-coming artists and, once, for one of Kutzwell’s clients who needed hearing aids.“His insurance wouldn’t cover [the cost]. It was $400, so we raised the [funds] for him to get his hearing aids,” Kutzwell explains. “We made a direct impact on somebody, just like those people who I named the fund after. They made a direct impact [on me].”
About a year ago, Kutzwell dove into another philanthropic endeavor: teaching teenagers after school at the Complete Barber Academy, which she runs out of Camera Ready Kutz.Tuition and supplies are all free for the teens. Eventually, the students will be able to get their barber’s licenses. Kutzwell raises money for them through the Morris, Harris, Dacey, Coleman Fund, and eventu- ally, she plans to start teaching adults and charging them for classes.
During lockdown, the fund became a means to support the shop and its staff when they weren’t making any money. Like the rest of the world, Camera Ready Kutz shut down between March and June of 2020. In that time, their clients largely covered all of their bills, with over $10,000 in donations.
“Some people gave their whole stimulus check, so when we came back from COVID, there were no overdue bills, there was nothing outstanding,” Kutzwell tells GO.
Somehow, that June, the shop reopened with even more clientele than before.
“People started to really appreciate barbers in general and what we do. Especially with trying to cut their hair themselves,” says Kutzwell. She also thinks that during lockdown, people began to better appreciate the shop as an important LGBTQ+ community space.
Unfortunately, Camera Ready Kutz did lose a valuable opportunity during COVID. In October of 2019, Kutzwell and two of her barbers started working for the Broadway production of West Side Story.
“All of our tools were there at the theater for us, so it was like having a mini barber shop in the theater,” Valerie O’Brien, one of the barbers who worked on the production with Kutzwell, tells GO. Several days a week, the trio would head to Times Square to cut hair for the actors.
The show had just officially opened when COVID hit, and it never re- turned to Broadway. But although the gig lasted only a few months, it’s a highlight of O’Brien’s career.
“Moving to New York and being able to have that opportunity as a barber—as a Black woman even—and cutting for a major Broadway play was great. One of my greatest memories,” she says.
O’Brien moved to New York from Chicago in 2018, and started working at Camera Ready Kutz shortly after. As a licensed cosmetologist and a barber, she’s always wanted to bring her skillset to New York City.
“It’s been a dream, a 20-year dream, to live and work and do what I do in the Big Apple,” O’Brien says.
Before making the move, O’Brien knew only one person in the city, a longtime friend. Now she has found many, through Kutzwell and the shop.
“This is my community, one of the most welcoming communities ever. I get to be myself every single day: in my personality and character and style,” she adds. Not only has Camera Ready Kutz given her space to enhance her skills as a barber, it’s also “the first place where I have felt bolstered in my individuality.”
Kutzwell goes out of her way to hire people like O’Brien, who will embrace such an open and accepting environment.
“When I hire people, I let them know off the bat—straight or gay doesn’t matter—what kind of shop this is, and what the majority of the clientele are like. And if you can’t get with that, then don’t work here,” says Kutzwell, who doesn’t discriminate when it comes to staff or clientele. You don’t have to be queer to find a home at Camera Ready Kutz.
“Basically, it’s just about being open to everybody, right? It’s not specifically just open to LGBT [individuals]. It’s open to people. Period. But it appeals to LGBT [individuals] because they’re the ones that feel the most uncomfortable in the barber shops,” Kutzwell says.
One of Kutzwell’s newest barbers is a straight man named Ace Zanvers, who cuts at the front left station, right across from Kutzwell. Zanvers has been working there for about eight months, but he first heard about the shop from his brother.
“He was a client here and he always raved to me about how cool it was, and [how it was] a good environment, and how the owner and the staff were so cool,” Zanvers tells GO.
Zanvers has two daughters, both members of the LGBTQ+ community, and one of them is now a client of Camera Ready Kutz. Working at the shop has helped him to better understand their world.
“I learn every day,” Zanvers says of his experience there. “Being a straight man, there’s a lot for me to learn. There’s a lot for me to take in, pronouns and things of that nature, that I wasn’t privy to before.”
For staff and clients alike, Camera Ready Kutz is the first barber shop of its kind. For one thing, about 74% of barbers in the U.S. are male- identifying according to a 2020 poll.
“I could kind of tell that I wasn’t given the same care as other, male- identifying clients,” says Vielka Ebadan, a 21-year-old student at Columbia who uses they/them pronouns. Ebadan started making the commute to Camera Ready Kutz from Harlem—about one hour each way—back in 2020, but only after years of searching for a queer-af- firming barber shop.
Ebadan was born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in Alabama from the age of five. In 2019, they moved to the city for school.
“Coming to New York and finding a barber shop dedicated to LGBTQ clients was huge for me. Because it was like, back home, that didn’t exist,” Ebadan says. But it proved difficult to find a good barber around Harlem. At first, they sought out Dominican barber shops.
“It’d be nice to go to a barber shop where there’s a cultural and her- itage aspect that client and barber share,” Ebadan says. “But I feel like even navigating that space was difficult, because in my culture, and in a lot of Latino families, it’s very difficult for them to under- stand the concept of gender and pronouns. So even in that space, I kind of still felt disregarded.”
Discovering Camera Ready Kutz was life-changing for Ebadan. It’s well worth the commute.
“Personally, I feel more affirmed in my gender identity through my hair. I know a lot of people resonate with that feeling too, so barbers are really important.”
Kutzwell was born in Trinidad and often returns to visit. Though the Caribbean nation is beginning to come around to LGBTQ+ issues, Trinidad only decriminalized homosexuality back in 2018.
But Kutzwell still feels a deep connection with her home country. On a personal level, she has always been embraced by her Trinida- dian family.
“In Trinidad, you get nicknames that have to do with your personality, so my nickname was always ‘boy/girl.’ But it wasn’t teasing, it was just recognizing my personality.” This nickname was never a negative thing for Kutzwell. In fact, it felt affirming to her identity because her family never forced her into traditional female gender roles. It’s an experience which, she knows, is very different from that of most LGBTQ+ folks in Trinidad.
“My family has always been very open and inclusive, and I’ve never had any problems. I think I’m kind of blessed that way. Not everyone’s story is that.”
Eventually, she plans to open another barber shop, this one in Trinidad. “To help the LGBT community out there, and also because it’s where I’m from,” Kutzwell explains. “I love Trinidad and definitely want to let the LGBT folks out there know that something’s coming.”
Like all of Kutzwell’s business endeavors, the decision to expand to Trinidad is a spiritual one, filled with heart and gut-instinct.
“I always want to be happy with what I’m doing. I pretty much do what I want, not what everyone expects me to do,” she says. “That’s just how I live.”
For more info visit www.camerareadykutz.com