Jurassic 5’s Concrete Schoolyard resonates around the room. Three stylish fellas are queuing on a bench facing the barber chairs. Stickers and posters bearing iconic lines like Mediocrity is a Sin and Brotherhood of Defiance playfully adorn the mirrors. This is King Koby’s Chop Shop: a barbershop recently opened in York which carries a mantra of family and excellence. I caught-up with one of King Koby’s founders Neil Smedley.
Hey Neil, so how long has King Koby been around and what brought you to York?
This is our sixth year and our third store, we started in Leeds with one shop and it was so successful we opened a second. We came to York for lots of reasons. We felt like there weren’t many places here carrying the concept that we have and we’re all Yorkshire boys who love the area.
I’ve noticed the taglines like ‘Mediocrity is a Sin’ around the shop. How would you sum up the store’s message and mantra?
It’s difficult to answer that without sounding cliché. We were founded on the principles of brotherhood and altruism. We’re a group of guys who all love each other’s company and love what we do. Once we came together and gained popularity in Leeds we saw it as an opportunity to bring a positive message. Money was never the focus. We spend time together outside of work, prioritise having fun and welcome our customers into the family. We’ve developed this very organically. These ‘taglines’ aren’t marketing tools, they represent who we are. Alongside this, we do lots of community work in the areas we’re based. That was always part of what we wanted to do. We’re not just a barbershop.
What kind of community projects do you get involved in?
In York we’ve just started working with Cafe Church. We will soon be hooking up with several Leeds-based charities to offer haircuts for the homeless and will be looking to do something similar in York. Say someone’s garden needs doing or a single mother needs her house painting; we’ll all go help out. That’s our bread and butter. We’ve been invited to co-host a huge community dinner in Leeds Corn Exchange before to encourage cohesion, inviting locals of all backgrounds and faiths in an effort to bring people together. This will hopefully become a monthly event.
The message came out of friendships, but where did the barbershop itself come from?
It’s a funny story. I was a youth councillor and I felt disillusioned with having to ‘sell-out’ ethically to get by. I wanted to work for myself. So me and a few guys opened a cosmetic store in Leeds seven years ago. We sold a moisturiser just for men called iMale. (sigh) It was a terrible name and a terrible idea. By the end of the year we only had three month’s worth of money left to run the store. We were preparing for bankruptcy and out of the blue this seventeen-year old kid walked into the store with a qualification in hairdressing and asked if we had any work. We took his CV to be polite and sent him on his way, not thinking much of it.
Having run out of ideas, we decided to give it a shot. We bought a chair, bought a sink and put the kid in the basement of our shop: only able to pay his bus fare from Halifax. Everything built from there. If he didn’t come in from the street that day, we wouldn’t be here. That same kid still works for us; he’s now a manager of a store.
Wow, lucky break! So you own the brand?
This is one of the cool things about the brand. I founded it with my brother but I’ll never refer to myself as an owner. There’s no hierarchy here. These guys aren’t staff, everyone who works here owns King Koby. We’re trying to grow the brand by letting each barber have the opportunity of owning and managing a store.
You’ve told us lots about the store’s concept and growth but what’s the story behind the name?
Well Koby is my boy and we wanted a name that was authentic and reflected the stores’ family values.
That’s sweet. You’ve already launched a clothing brand out of the shop. What’s coming up for King Koby?
Yeah so we sell clothing on our website which has been unbelievable. We’ve shipped stuff all over the world and we’re looking to sell our stuff with Topman soon. It seems that our messages have really struck a nerve with people. We’re also releasing our own hair products in December. Down the line we’re looking out for brand ambassadors: people who’s ethos matches ours. They could be anyone. Spoken-word artists, graffiti artists, skateboarders – local people with skills and talents. If you know of anyone who fits this bill, drop us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for meeting me Neil, hope the new store’s a great success.
To find out more about King Koby, visit their website here.