Health & Grooming: The Barber of Naples

<< Back to Robb Report, November 2003
  • William Kissel

Standing tall in his signature Panama straw hat and toting the tools of his trade—scissors, straight-edge razor, and almond soap—Antonio Boellis cut a dapper figure on the streets of early–20th century Naples. Boellis peddled the narrow cobblestoned streets of Italy’s famous seaport “becoming a friend, a confidant, and an adviser while giving a haircut and a shave,” recalls his grandson, Michele Boellis. Back then, says Michele, a street-corner cut and shave cost a prübbeca, or about 50 cents.

By 1924, Antonio had saved enough to open his own shop. In 1960, his son, Giuseppe (who goes by Peppino), relocated the business to the third floor of a historic building in downtown Naples and added spa facilities that made the family of stylists synonymous with, well, personal style. By locating the salon just a few doors down from master tailor Cesare Attolini’s signature clothing atelier, the younger Boellis was betting that the same men being fitted for custom suits at Attolini could comfortably afford a haircut, shave, and a bit of pampering at Boellis.

Today the full treatment—including pedicure and manicure, hair coloring, therapeutic massage, and even a tanning session—will set one back about $300, in addition to the $45 haircut and shave. Though the space has expanded from the original single black-and-white marble room to nine rooms, the bright and airy clublike environment that Peppino created more than 40 years ago and shares today with his own sons, Michele and Antonio, remains very much the same. Today, a formal reception area welcomes longtime customers, many of whom have introduced their sons and even grandsons to one of this city’s best-kept secrets.

While Peppino still practices at his private chair (third from the right in the main salon), he confesses that his son Michele exhibits the strongest passion for the business. Indeed, wearing his customary blue smock over a handmade dress shirt and loosely knotted necktie with classic Neapolitan style, Michele clips and combs at lightning speed, perfecting the family craft with his own panache. He is also the one who, four years ago, had a vision of creating a line of men’s grooming products to bring the Boellis experience to those who have never had the opportunity to visit the shop in person.

 

Called Panama, after the hat that made the Boellis patriarch a local legend, the collection includes talcum- and citrus-scented eau de toilette, shampoo, deodorant, aftershave, pure almond shave soap similar to that used by Antonio in the 1920s, and patchouli- and musk-scented bath oils to re-create the sweet smell of the quintessential Neapolitan barber shop. Prices range from $35 to $105. The fragrance is distributed in fine men’s stores throughout Europe, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, and early next year it will be available at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. The other products can be ordered through the salon by phone or e-mail.

“The barber shop is a lot like the tailor shops in Naples,” says Michele. “It’s a place for a man to relax, share stories, and get news of the city.” In between, he can receive an incomparable shave that includes an essence-soaked warm towel chin wrap and a 20-minute facial massage. The irony of the family’s success, adds Michele, is that the grandfather who perfected this talent actually hated to shave.

Boellis, +39.081.417231, www.boellis.com

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