Founded in 1904, Antica Barbieria Colla has been a Milanese institution for over 100 years, since Dino Colla first opened its doors on via Manzoni. It would stay there for almost 20 years, before moving to the Piazza della Scala before World War 2 callously interrupted things, in its usual way, that of a bomb destroying the building. One last move would see the Barbieria relocate to Via Gerolamo Morone, where it has stayed for the last 72 years.
At its core, Antica Barbieria Colla is a simple barbers shop, but its history, patronage and ownership have combined to make it much more. Franco Bompieri began working at the Barbieria in the 1960’s and, when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased the business and continued to grow its clientele, which has, for many years, included politicians and celebrities who visit whenever possible. Their photos adorn the higher walls and form somewhat of a timeline of the decades. It reminded me of Katz Deli in NY and adds a certain charm to what is a quiet and informal atmosphere.
The Barbieria has two distinct offerings. Firstly, the Barbieria itself, an essential place to visit in Milan. And secondly, the newer part of the business, its skin and hair care products. As with a selection of other privately owned heritage and luxury brands, it has taken the younger generation to breathe new life into the business and in regards to Antica Barbieria Colla we can thank Francesca Bompieri, Franco’s daughter, for the new lease on life and the growth experienced in recent years.
Francesca, other than being a a lovely person and hell of a lot of fun (if you ever need a bar recommendation in Milan, she’s your girl), came from a graphic design background and had worked in London, before returning home to Milan and family, where she took the reigns of the business, creating and the managing their presence on social media, in addition to selling the Barbieria’s products (including design, packaging, establishing retail relationships and their e-shop etc), which had never occurred before.
Brands will often look to create secondary lines to their main offering (in this case skincare products) to cash in on overall brand loyalty and skincare is an easy target for this. Think of every fashion brand or celebrity bringing out a perfume which has nothing to do with what they’re known for. It’s tasteless and a blatant cash grab, but it’s sadly all too common. Where Antica Barbieria Colla differs is that the products which are now available to the public have already existed, unchanged, for generations. Made in small batches in the north of Italy, they’re used in-house for clients before, during and after each treatment and it was Francesca who had the foresight to suggest they actually make them available to the public.
With the company now continuing to increase sales, her focus for the future is on steady growth and remaining completely authentic, something which most of you will know that I admire greatly.
Products cover everything from the neck up; meaning a comprehensive range for shaving and related skin care, as well as hair care. Made locally, they have a significant percentage of natural (including apricot hull, almond oil and sandalwood) and more recently 4 colognes have been added, each with a distinct character, from light through to heavier scents and I had the chance to try them all over a couple of weeks. The colognes are named after the Barbieria’s first year of trading; numbers “1”, “9”, “0” and “4” (“0” and “9” are my personal favourites) and compliment the rest of the range very well. It would take a great deal to get me to use anything other than products from Santa Maria Novella but several of the Antica Barbieria Colla products will have permanent homes in my shaving cabinet from now on, to use in conjunction with my products from SMN.
As Franco was in Florence on the day I visited, I had the pleasure of being shaved by Beppe, a native Sicilian who has been working in Barbieria’s since he was a little boy and has been at Antica Barbieria Colla for the last 10 years. He spoke almost no English, but with my school boy Italian and mutual hand gesturing, we managed to understand each other just fine.
Interestingly Beppe uses a pig bristle brush (which is much more coarse than most badger brushes and even moreso than my silvertip from Marco Finardi) as pig bristle lasts a lifetime (which I find appealing). Pig bristle also requires 24 hours in water, to soften, before its first use.
The creme was the softest shaving creme I’ve ever felt (there’s nothing I’ve used which even came close to it), producing a incredibly dense lather, thanks in part to the extensive work Beppe put into thickening it over several minutes of hard work.
Overall it’s a significant sensory experienced, the scraping sound of the cut-throat blade removing hair is unnerving but pleasing, the steaming hot towel encasing my face almost put me to sleep, which was welcome after the awakening intensity of the apricot hull aftershave. Beppe certainly adds to the experience, he is more artist than barber and the experience more closely resembles a theatrical performance, one he takes very seriously. It’s passion in motion. After each few strikes of the blade, he steps back, casts a critical eye over his work, lets a small smile escape, before furrowing his brow once more to focus on the next few movements. He cares a great deal for his work.
I was surprised to find myself being shaved twice. The first shave cuts the hair to a very short length, before the process is repeated all over again, for the final very close pass. Any small nicks are treated with a styptic strip (if you weren’t fully awake by this point, you will be after!) before an aftershave milk (one of 3 types – almond oil, green tobacco or red sandalwood) is used to calm the skin.
The experience at Antica Barbieria Colla is much more than it appears to be on face value (no pun intended) of a practical treatment. It’s an offering of a brief respite in daily life and a reminder of the pleasing traditions that were common place for our grandfathers and the generations before them. It’s a 30-60 minute window to enjoy the quiet company of other men, to relax, and sort out the worlds problems, either on your own or collectively with others present.
What Franco, Francesca and Antica Barbieria Colla Represent is an authentic family business who have dedicated themselves, for many decades, to excellence in their craft, without fanfare or gimmicks and with Francesca now leading them into the 21st century, they’re in a good position to see well deserved continuity for decades to come.