The Beauty Of Simplicity

Chapter 3: The Razor

“Shaving is such a pain in the backside” I used to hear my Dad say as he stood in his familiar position hunched over the sink in the bathroom, his nose a foot from the mirror with his face covered in soap and that scraping sound his razor would make against his skin – taking off what must’ve been thousandth of an inch of hair from his face.

I couldn’t wait for facial hair to embrace the manly art of shaving. To have that daily time to myself to do something that only grown up men could do. After all, everyone who I held in the highest regard in my life was clean shaven: my Dad, my Grandad, my Uncle Dave, James Bond and Superman.

People with beards just looked far too old and stuffy and a million miles away from the young, fresh faces of my 6 year old self and my peers. Heaven forbid I should ever grow a beard or worse still lose my hair, men with beards and bald heads were something to be feared.

My opinion of beards changed slightly when I first watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones with stubble was so much cooler than Dr Jones clean shaven. I even took a black felt tip pen and dotted stubble on my 7 year old face after I watched it to replicate the look!

When Andre Agassi burst on the tennis scene in an explosion of neon and acid wash denim, punctuated with a silver-tipped mullet and stubble, I was fully converted and the stubbled face was for me! I just had to wait until I was grown up enough to adorn a real one. I predicted that as soon as I hit my teenage years I would be wearing the most magnificent stubble just like Harrison Ford’s circa 1981 (when he was 39!)

My Dad used a Bic razor. The disposable single bladed item that came in a large multi-pack plastic bag. A few uses and he would chuck it away, pull out a fresh one, and voila! a clean comfortable shave every time. 

I had a kids’ shaving set which contained all of the implements that would help me to hone my skills ready to make the effortless transition into adult shaving. Everything in the set was plastic, even the bristles in the brush, and the razor (fortunately) didn’t have a blade. Although it was uncannily like my Dad’s Bic – obviously modelled on it. 

I would use the mirror which had something resembling tin foil for the (supposedly) reflective surface, put soap on my face with the wiry brush, then scrape it off with the razor like a “man”. The beautifully soft skin on my face would go so red with the combined reaction to the brush, soap and the scraping action, but I thought it was great because it gave me a deep scarlet faux 5 o’clock shadow!

Some years later (I think I was about 13) the day eventually came when I felt I was ready to start shaving properly, I don’t think I had any hair to shave but I thought I was ready nonetheless if I was going to have the desired exquisite stubble I had yearned for.

I borrowed a Bic without telling anyone, feeling like quite an expert already because of my self-taught exemplary technique during all the practice in the pre-pubescent years. I shaved my top lip but it was a horrible feeling and not what I’d imagined it would be – the stinging was unbearable and my skin suddenly felt completely different, I regretted it and didn’t want to do it again. I was willing to forego the stubble if it meant I didn’t have to shave again.

Unfortunately, a few weeks later the hair started to grow back thicker so I had to shave it again – I’m sure every single person I knew made a comment. Feeling extremely self-conscious suddenly after the years of longing to shave I was now a reluctant shaver. I could now empathise with my Dad’s plight – I wasn’t wanting to shave anymore because I had to shave, the romance had gone! Although I was only shaving bumfluff off my top lip once a fortnight!

Attention at school became focused on who was shaving and who wasn’t. It was a very manly individual indeed who could grow sideburns in the late 90s, unfortunately I wasn’t one of those. By the time I’d left school I was only growing hair in the shape of a rather feeble goatee so I was keeping myself clean shaven so that I didn’t become a Gary Neville lookalike!

At College anyone who was anyone had a Gillette Mach 3 in their armoury and I was given one for my 17th birthday, this was something very different from the old disposable Bic that I had been using like a throw away family heirloom. The Mach 3 made me feel like I was becoming part of something bigger… There were fighter jets in the TV adverts and everything!

At 18 I was still only needing to shave probably once a week to keep the patch around my lips and chin at bay. By this time I had made the transition to a Wilkinson Sword “Protector” it had 3 blades (like the Mach 3) and 8 tiny wire bars at regular intervals covering the blades which made it difficult to cut yourself – a very good design for a young man who was prone to the odd razor slip. 

Because my facial hair was still very fine, I would rely on the customary new razor as a stocking filler for Christmas and that razor and blade cartridges would last me until my birthday in July when I would either get a new razor or sometimes a pack of new cartridges. 

By the time I started university at 19 my facial hair was beginning to get a bit thicker and took more effort to shave. I had a can of shaving gel, the contents of which I would smother into my face with my hand and go to work with my razor. I would then moisturise in an effort to make my skin feel normal again.

Being a student of limited funds, the last thing I would be willing to spend my hard borrowed cash on was razor blades. The cartridges for the types of razors that I was being bought would’ve cost me at least four pints at the Student Union bar so I made do with the same blade for months on end. No mean feat considering that after about 4 shaves all performance and integrity had absconded! 

I had to time my shaves to perfection, generally 3 days between shaves was the absolute limit for a blunt razor blade to be able to shave off the facial growth. I would try to extend the longevity of any edge that was left in the cartridge by shaving less.

The times when I left it any longer than 3 days between shaves made for a challenging event of a shave. I needed to give the facial hair multiple passes with the razor. The first drag over the hair would make no impact if I did it slowly so I would speed up – like vacuuming a carpet in a rush. This would cause the hairs to catch on the blunt blades and tug so hard that I imagined pulling the hairs out with tweezers would provoke a similar sensation in my face. When I had finished my “shave” I would cake on the moisturiser and try to recover from the ordeal.

When I eventually started to earn some money I wanted to have more pleasurable shaves so would try to buy replacement shaving cartridges fairly regularly. There was always the allure of a new razor which was generally cheaper than new blade cartridges – a conundrum to me every time.

I was bought an electric Philishave razor (the type with the 3 circular heads) by my wife (then girlfriend), she was probably sick of me moaning about having to always buy replacement razor cartridges. I thought it was a great idea. Unfortunately, that shaver has sat unused for over 10 years because the first time I used it I think I received at least a dozen ingrowing hairs for the privilege!

So for years I would continue with my wet shaves. I went through loads of different razors – I must’ve been through nearly every razor on the market. My family continued to buy them for me when they couldn’t think of anything else to get me. I would also buy them for myself when the deal for a new razor was far more economical than new cartridges. 

On my 31st birthday I received a present. It came in a standard cardboard box. When I opened it, I didn’t quite know what it was at first. It was three pieces of chromed metal and when I screwed them together it took the form of an old fashioned safety razor. It was a beautiful object and I thought, “wow this will make a great ornament” because it can’t be practical at all. Where were all of the angled extra blades? This thing just had a single proper razor blade, not too dissimilar to my Stanley knife, screwed in horizontally and there were no plastic edges to stop me inadvertently giving myself a Chelsea Smile!

I humoured my better half and tentatively took my new razor to the bathroom to test it out. I was so nervous, It felt like I was carrying a machete to the bathroom and I was sure to open up a main artery as soon as it touched my neck.

But my fears were not justified. What followed was a very pleasant wet shave, in-fact by far the best to that date. The razor had a substantial weight to it, it’s single sharp blade took care of every hair on my face, it got to the hard to reach ones just under my nose which I’d always struggled with. I was able to take care of my side burns (yes I could grow them by this point in my life ((but I kept them short!)) without having to guess by looking at the back of a big lump of plastic. I was careful to make sure that there were no sideways movements with the razor but apart from that it was amazing…. a revelation. 

I was in shock. It felt like a eureka moment, and personally it was. I went quiet contemplating life – a very deep reaction to a shave I know, but bear with me….

It had taken me 18 years of countless disposable razors, then different versions of the latest advances in razor blade technology (according to the adverts) hundreds of pounds spent on razors and replacement cartridges. I’ve thrown away more disposable razors and other razors than I care to even think about, not to mention all of the packaging for the cartridges and razors. Whilst the safety razor which predates all of them provided the best shave!

I felt a bit cheated that I was only being introduced to this marvellous product in my 30s after so many sub-standard shaving experiences. The thing that baffled me the most was, why did I know hardly anything about this product before? 

Then it dawned on me…. If I’d had my safety razor when I was a teenager I doubt I would’ve had any need for all of the other razors and replacement cartridges. Meaning less of my money being spent on shaving products. Forgive my scepticism but shaving is big business and it’s not in the big companies’ interests to sell one product to people when they start shaving that will last them for the rest of their lives.

The safety razor was introduced by Gillette in the early 1900s and they had the contract to supply them to US troops during WW1. Since then the safety razor gradually evolved to the more convenient throw away item with a limited shelf life that we see everywhere today. Gradually increasing the number of blades in a disposable cartridge from 1 to 5. It’s a great piece of marketing that says more than one blade will give a better shave, and in theory it makes perfect sense. However in my experience this simply isn’t the case and has had a hand in influencing the throw away society that we live in today. 

Once I’d experienced a shave with the safety razor, I was all-in. I invested in a proper shaving brush and sandalwood soap that I could work into a lather before brushing it into my face. I found the whole shaving experience really enjoyable and it was all thanks to that simple razor. It’s even inspired a product that I’ve even designed for use with it – watch this space!

Gone were the days of spending nearly a tenner on a handful of replacement cartridges or a new plastic razor, I bought 100 double edge razor blades for my safety razor for just over a fiver! If I was feeling really extravagant I could change the blade after every shave with far less impact on the environment than those lumps of plastic.

Another advantage of the safety razor over the cartridge or disposable razor is how easy it is to clean. The hairs would get embedded in between all of the multiple blades of the cartridges, which even after the first shave were very difficult to clean out. A tremendous amount of shaking under water would go on, after the 3rd or 4th shave the blades would be akin to the head of a Dyson! In contrast, the safety razor can just be unscrewed and all parts can be fully cleaned individually banishing all sign of the hair particles until the next shave.

I really cannot recommend the good old safety razor enough. You do have to be careful with it, despite the name it can be dangerous if handled wrongly but once you’ve used to it, felt the weight in your hand and learnt to apply the correct pressure, you’ll never look back. 

From a design perspective, the three separate parts of chrome plated metal contain a collection of straight lines, grooves, ridges, chamfers and radii. When screwed together they become an object that has a real classic look. This product is not only beautiful but completely functional and aesthetically pleasing. The product is striking and will elevate anywhere that it sits whilst being simple and usable… that is great design. If you look at it in comparison to the latest cartridge razor, there really is no comparison because of the simplicity of the design. It doesn’t need a pivoting head or a battery to make it vibrate, it just needs that clean chrome body and a single razor blade.

Now I must make a confession…

I don’t actually have many wet shaves these days. I’ve been sporting a beard for some time. Now, pushing 40 and being follically challenged, I’ve turned into one of those grown ups that I found so scary when I was a kid!

I can definitely see an argument for using an electric shaver if you can find one that works for you. I’ve been using a rechargeable, self-sharpening electric trimmer for all the hair on my head for some time now and it it very convenient and easy. But….

Writing this has made me reconnect with the art and occasion of a good quality wet shave… I will be re-entering that world at some point in the not too distant future. And there is only one type of razor I will be using.

I was in the supermarket the other day and was browsing the men’s shaving products, tutting to myself at all of the “soon-to-be-landfill” products on the shelves, when I noticed that Gillette have released a new safety razor based on their original one from over 100 years ago. It’s called the “King C. Gillette” after the inventor of this unsurpassed (in my opinion) product, and it is very reasonably priced. 

There are also a number of companies out there that specialise in the manufacture of products for a more traditional wet shave. It’s definitely worth taking a look.

Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel and maybe the shaving industry could come full circle. I really hope so.

APT 2021