Leather Magnolias: In the Chair at Daddy's and Scruff's
How two gay-owned barbershops are changing the face and faces of East Austin
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A haircut is elemental to a person's look, so the business entrusted with creating that cut is incredibly important. For a queer person, the choice of where you go for a cut, color, or trim means not just finding skilled cosmetologists but also a space that welcomes and celebrates your identity. In East Austin, the owners of two barbershops are using their personal histories as gay men and hair care professionals to bring community to the forefront of the barbering experience.
On one hand, it's hard to say Daddy's Barbershop is new, since the brand owned by Arlen Lasater has been around for over 15 years in both San Francisco's Castro District and Palm Springs. Yet it's new to Austin, taking the space above Cisco's Restaurant Bakery & Bar to bring "the gay leather version of Steel Magnolias" to East Sixth, Lasater explained.
His niece, Terry, and nephew, Tim, are both Austinites and were involved in bringing Bat City's vibe to Daddy's. That includes a waiting room ceiling covered in beautiful wood reclaimed from two fires: the Texas Capitol fire of 1983 and the Texas French Bread building fire of 2022. Upcoming decor also includes murals from local trans artist Xavier Schipani, who has also done work for brands like Nike. "[Schipani's] work really signifies what we're looking to embrace in this town," Terry said. "That's really the heart of Daddy's ... giving back to the culture that we love and support."
Lasater's journey with Daddy's started with an intended ending: At age 46, after many years as an overseas driver for the Consulate of Singapore, he approached his employer about retiring from the business. To his shock, no retirement plan was available for overseas workers. "I had a friend [who was a sex worker] ... He, too, was thinking about his future and his retirement, all that shit," Lasater recalled. "He decided to go to barber school. So I supported him and watched him through barber school, and I'm thinking, 'Hm, I think I'd be really good at that.'"
Despite his aim being the high-paying world of hair color, Lasater eventually followed that same friend to a chair at a nearby barbershop called Joe's, where he worked for three years. After Joe's expanded to a new location, in 2007 Lasater returned to their then-empty former shop and signed the lease to make it the first brick-and-mortar Daddy's. The title speaks to the shop's connection to San Francisco's leather community as well as being Lasater's own nickname. Even before becoming a barber, Lasater was heavily involved in leather and served as head of security for Folsom Street Fair. Daddy's also sponsored several leather title holders – folks who, not unlike beauty pageant queens, competed on local, state, and international levels while representing the Daddy's brand.
All that growth made the COVID-caused closure of the original Daddy's in 2021 a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. A native Texan, Lasater began to look for his shop's future in the Lone Star State. Austin made the most sense, with Lasater considering San Francisco and Austin to be basically sister cities. "The whole tech industry decided to take up space in Austin," he added, "which meant so many of my clients moved to Austin ... it was a perfect opportunity for [growth] but I probably would have done it anyway." He praised the Eastside area Daddy's is settling in for the people it's attracted: a thriving community full of young hipsters ready to create change. "It's also going to be gay friendly," he said. "Because we're [a] gay driven barbershop, I didn't want a neighborhood that really wasn't. And the first thing I saw was the gay flag on the street."
Just around the corner from Daddy's is another barbershop that champions the Eastside's worth. Tucked away in Saltillo Lofts is the gay-owned Scruff's Barbershop, easy to find with its logo of a handsome ram etched into the storefront glass. Owner Tim Durant explained that their horned mascot represents perseverance. That ability to survive and thrive shows in his own 25-years-long dedication to the hair care industry. He started on the salon side before eventually trying his hand at a more high-level barbershop concept, which meant convincing a clientele more attuned to simple service to adopt a more pampered experience.
Similar to Lasater, Durant moved from his home state of Texas to California (specifically, Los Angeles) before settling in Austin. The elevated barbershop experience he strives for is a holdover from a more Cali state of mind, where he said most barbershops are considered hybrids with salons in terms of experience. "Whereas here in Texas, I believe the barbershop is a little bit more underrated," he said. "A lot of times, unfortunately, it's a walk-in, quick haircut, just get taken care of and you're out the door, vs. it being more of a full curated experience for them, personalized."
With Daddy's, Lasater mirrors Durant's desire to create a more fulfilling barbershop experience than just a trim. Especially for the queer community, he said, elevated grooming is a must. "The queer community loves to look good," Lasater stated. "The gay boys like to look good." His clients aren't those who flock to salons, fine with shelling out big bucks for a cut and color. They're folks who want a great haircut in a safe space.
Both Durant and Lasater speak to creating a queer-friendly and welcoming space as an intentional process. Lasater emphasized education as important to developing a safe space. Understanding the correct vocabulary to use with the trans & queer community helps to make the barbershop more comfortable for everyone. Ultimately, the only people who should feel unsafe in Daddy's, he said, are assholes. "If you're an asshole," he emphasized, "you're not going to come in here." Most of all, having the barbershop be a safe space allows everyone to let their hair down. "If you've ever watched Steel Magnolias, it's the gay version," Lasater reiterated, "and we have a really good time."
In Scruff's, Durant seeks to make the barbershop a community environment that can stand beside gay bars as a space where queer people happily congregate. Previously, he said, many in the LGBTQ community migrated to salons to avoid the not-so-welcoming, hypermasculine vibes of ye olde barbershops. However, that isn't the case in modern shops like Scruff's, Durant said. "The big bridge for the queer community [to barbershops] is that those barriers that we had before [are] broken down by people like me, shops like Daddy's," Durant said. "We're not accepting what was told to us before. We're creating something new."
Daddy’s Barbershop, 1511 E. Sixth, 512/300-0044. Tue.-Sat., 10am-6pm; Sun.-Mon., closed. daddysbarbershop.com.
Scruff’s Barbershop, 1601 E. Fifth #106, 512/334-9034. Tue.-Fri., 10am-7pm; Sat., 10am-5pm; Sun.-Mon., closed. scruffsbarbershop.com.