A few weeks ago, I had a great conversation with Bryan Fisher of Imperial Barber Grade Products at the Capsule trade show in Las Vegas that led to a phone interview for my day job at MR Magazine, a menswear trade journal. Imperial fit the new mold of new and reinvented men’s grooming brands that are aimed exclusively at men. They are effortlessly masculine and never twee; to them, “metrosexual” is a dirty word. Packaging ranges from old fashioned to clean and spare. Imperial’s, which was designed by Fisher, is the latter.
“Our mission was to create something that’s for guys—no European name, no cute name like Bumble & Bumble, not something you’d borrow from your girlfriend,” Fisher told me. And it was important that the products worked. We talked a lot about how he and his two business partners, the barbers Pedro Zermeno and Scott Serrata, have worked to make Imperial products more than just good packaging. With its origins in the world of barber shops, Imperial was able to grow organically and test its products slowly and naturally.
I also talked to Fisher about how guys typically use grooming products. As in men’s clothing, we’re in the middle of a renaissance in grooming. Many guys have forsaken the sleek four- and five-row razors and aerosol gel for a double-edged blade and a badger brush. Brands like Imperial and its counterparts have begun to make good grooming palatable for regular guys.
Here are some of the questions and answers from my interview with Fisher that didn’t make it into the MR Magazine story, along with a couple that did.
Who are you guys and how did you start Imperial?
Pedro Zermeno, our master barber, has been doing it for more than 20 years. Scott Serrata has about six years of barbering under his belt. My background is in graphic design. I worked as an art director for ad agencies and have my own small boutique design studio. I’ve done all the packaging design, the website design, branding and photoshoots. I’ve almost become a barber in the process!
We developed the Classic Pomade in 2009. It was called Parlor Classic then and the name Imperial didn’t even exist at the time. We sold that until we had enough money to pay for the next round. My CPA informed me before we left for Capsule Las Vegas that we’ve grown 1,100 percent in the last eight months! We’re getting help from everywhere we can but we’ve yet to pay ourselves. A lot of the attention we’ve been getting has come our way naturally and organically, so that’s been really nice.
You’ve said that you don’t use templates when creating new products. What’s your process?
We work backwards. We define the problem and then work with our chemists. We’ve got two or three of the top chemists in the business working on our project. They love what our brand is about because we give them the freedom to do what they’re good at. Our main chemist will devise a formula based on our discussions about ingredients and needs. Once we get a sample, Pedro Zermeno, our master barber, will field test it in the barber shop and get honest feedback from customers. Then we’ll go back to the chemist and talk about the performance, viscosity, fragrance and other points. We’ll develop another sample and test it again; this will go back and forth between ten and twelve times on average. We took three years to develop our hair care products. Being self-funded afforded us the luxury of time, without being pressured by investors who might rush us to market. But to do this properly is a tremendous amount of work.
What exactly is a pomade? How’s it different from other hair styling products?
Pomade is kind of a catch-all term. A pomade can be a grease or wax, or it can be water-based. Ultimately, it’s a higher-viscosity hair finishing products that doesn’t dry into the hair hard, so it stays a little pliable. It gives hair a shinier, slicker look, whereas a paste or clay give a dry, natural look and a gel dries in hard.
What’s the advantage of a water-based pomade?
The number one benefit is that it doesn’t harm your body—it doesn’t clog your hair follicles. Wax- and petroleum-based products will start to do that over time and promote hair loss—not to mention destroy a lot of pillow cases! The water base washes right out. We’re not the only water base out there, obviously, but finding a really good, strong-holding and pliable water-based product out there is hard. How it actually works is a lesson in chemistry and akin for us to the secret recipe of Coca-Cola.
Your pricing is remarkably good in the shaving products—all are $10-$12.
We’ve had a lot of discussions about that—we wanted to offer a competitive price for a premium product. There are so many boutique shaving brands coming out now, from Portland General Store to Ursa Major. It’s the old battle: we want to introduce people to the brand without selling ourselves short. Because of the rising costs of things (like freight), we are going to see a little price increase in our products by the first of the year.
What exactly is aftershave? A lot of guys are used to it as a department store gift-with-purchase that’s just weaker cologne.
The reason for an aftershave is to restore balance. You’ve just dragged a sharp object across your face for five to ten minutes—you owe your skin a repayment. It needs to be anti-bacterial, cooling and hydrating. And you need to condition any nicks and cuts. Ours is different because we put macadamia nut oil in there, which acts as a conditioner. We lowered the alcohol content so it doesn’t have as much of a stinging and drying effect. We wanted to keep some alcohol in there because it’s a very traditional barber shop thing—a tiny bit of a sting that dissipates quickly.
Any new products coming up?
We’re launching the three-in-one body wash/shampoo/conditioner next year. It’ll come in 16 and 32 oz sizes. It’s going to be sulphate-free, which is important: if your girlfriend decides to use it, it won’t strip the color out of her hair. It’s made with all natural bergamot and cedar essential oils. It’s really lively and woodsy with a giant lather. We’ve been designing it all year and just signed off on it. We’re hoping to get it into some boutique hotels.
And then we’re going to come out with the Classic Pomade Light, which is an iteration of the Classic Pomade that doesn’t sit as heavy in the hair. It’s for guys who have finer hair but really like that tight, slicked back look—this won’t rip the hair out.
And finally, we’re thinking holiday 2013 to introduce our two colognes. There might be a candle as well.
We’ve been asked about mustache wax and I think we’re just going to avoid that category. It’s a specialty item that has to be wax-based and the margins aren’t all that good so we don’t want to go there.
What are the biggest mistakes that guy make in their daily grooming regimens?
Guys wash their hair too often, and they don’t get haircuts often enough. Visit your barber often! Develop a good relationship with a barber. Drink plenty of water. A lot of guys don’t do that and they don’t wash their faces. We give guys our soap to sample, and it’ll be the first time in 10 or 15 years that they’ve washed their faces! They have this rebirth, where they say, Whoa! That’s what it’s like to have a clean face! We’re glad to introduce clean faces to a lot of guys. I’ll give the soap to friends who ride motorcycles and they’re very reluctant to try it, but once we break the walls down, they’re ordering three or four at a time.
Using dirty blades when shaving. Guys will use a blade too long before changing it. Everyone’s got a slightly different view on this but we say three to five shaves is safe for a double-edged razor.
The last thing I think a lot guys do wrong is using wax- or petroleum-based hair product. I keep harping on that but it’s an honest one.