Badger and Blade had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Ayars, President of Vintage Blades in April of 2009. Here is the interview.....
B&B: What did you first think when approached by a moderator of a large wetshaving forum to answer questions regarding wetshaving?
Vintage Blades: I was both flattered and excited at the opportunity of being able to present myself and my company to the membership of Badger and Blade. Many of the members may know the name “Vintage Blades” but may not know about me or are not aware of the history of the company.
B&B: Could you provide a brief history of Vintage Blades? What inspired you to get into the shaving arena?
Vintage Blades: Vintage Blades was “born” in 2003 when I was forced into early retirement as a result of one of the many acquisitions and mergers in the pharmaceutical industry. I had a 30+ year career in sales and marketing that, while enjoyable and professionally rewarding, still left me with an unfulfilled desire to have my own business.
The idea of Vintage Blades started with, of all things, my working for a friend who owned a gun shop at the monthly shows in the area where he would have 40 to 50 tables. In the past, I was really into fine shotguns. So, I would work the shotgun tables at the shows. Tough duty…get paid to hangout for the weekend and handle Parkers, Purdeys, and the like, and talk to guys about them. Of course, I usually just ended up handing over my paycheck as a deposit on one of the shotguns that I hadn’t seen before. I think that was the plan all along.
Anyway, the guy who owned the shop knew that I collected vintage straight razors and folding knives and that I was selling a few on eBay. He offered to let me have a table for free next to the shotguns to sell them at the shows while we were there. One Sunday, a customer who had bought several razors from me asked why I didn’t sell razor strops, shaving brushes, and other shaving supplies. I looked at him like he was crazy. “Why?” I asked naively. (This is what you call “the watershed moment”.) “Because I restore those razors I bought from you and shave with them.” He replied. That show was in October of 2003. Over the next few weeks, I started to do research and saw the business opportunity I had been searching for those many years.
At first, I just started selling at gun shows in the MD/VA/PA area, some 20 shows a year. When it became obvious that the inventory was just sitting in storage most of the time, someone mentioned that Al Gore had invented something called the Internet. J So, I launched the Vintage Blades website in 2005. Soon, the website sales kept me so busy that I could no longer manage doing the gun shows. So, in February 2006 I stopped doing those completely.
I came into this totally from a business perspective. Before starting the company, I had never used a DE or a shaving brush, yet alone a straight razor. I was a typical disposable twin blade razor and “foam in the can” guy. I’ll never forget receiving that first shipment of Merkur razors and saying to myself, “Do I really have to shave with this stuff?” Ha! Was I ever in for a surprise. Talk about an awakening.
That first shave (it was a Merkur Futur) was simply amazing. Using a basic Vulfix brush, which was all I had in those days, and some Col. Conk soap I went at it with shaking hands…seriously. When I was done, I just couldn’t believe the shave. I went down to my wife with such a silly grin that the first thing she said was “What did you do now?” I just stuck my face out and said “Feel this.” I remember being so proud. Like I had just scored the winning TD in the Super Bowl or something.
B&B: Who is on your team at Vintage Blades?
Vintage Blades: Besides myself, there is currently only one full time employee. Erin Childs joined us in 2008. In addition to working with us, Erin is completing her degree in Nursing.
B&B: Do the wet shaving forums get mentioned in your shop? If so, how often?
Vintage Blades: Yes, we are constantly referring to the shaving forums as the place where the customer should turn for the latest news and information relevant to the shaving community. While we are careful not to say that this or that forum says a product is good or bad, we will refer the customer to the forum if we know that the product has been reviewed.
B&B: How much business do you receive from the forums?
Vintage Blades: Roughly 29% according to the most recent data from Google Analytics. This number is probably on the low side.
B&B: What is your preferred shave setup?
Vintage Blades: Personally, I use a Merkur 38C with a Feather blade most days. However, when I have time, I also use a straight razor. I have a wonderful assortment of Dovos, TI’s, vintage straights, and now some beautiful customs from Livi and Zowada to choose from.
I use a variety of shaving creams, but they are always followed by the unscented balm from The Gentlemen’s Refinery. I use a different cologne every day, usually one from either Penhaligon’s or Castle Forbes.
As you would image, my shaving brush is usually one made by R.A. Rooney. However, in addition to a Shavemac, I also have a Plisson HMW, two “vintage” Simpsons, and a wonderful ivory handled custom brush in my rotation.
B&B: What are some common mistakes made by the new wetshaver? And suggestions you have to relieve those mistakes?
Vintage Blades: I cannot imagine that I could add anything new here. The forums, and Badger and Blade in particular, with the Wiki, the FAQ section, in addition to the regular forums section for “Newbie’s” has dissected, sliced, and diced just about every aspect of this. The wealth of knowledge and level of detail you provide to anyone interested in wetshaving is simply incredible. I look to B&B as a resource for information like this.
B&B: How has wet shaving’s popularity grown since you have been in business?
Vintage Blades: This has just been an amazing thing to watch. You can see the membership on the forum growing. You can see new shaving shops opening, new barber shops offering straight razor shaves. We get calls all the time from younger and younger individuals. What was considered by many to be a fad, even an aberration, is now looked upon more as a true market...something not just to watch, but to engage.
The only disturbing thing is that some of the manufacturers, particularly the European manufacturers, still have been unable to keep up with the increased worldwide demand for their products. This has led to dramatically increased order lead times and periodic shortages in the marketplace. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, in their current form, these manufacturers are unlikely to be able do much about it.
B&B: What do you foresee in the future of this renaissance in men's grooming?
Vintage Blades: Now I get to play like I really know what is going on. However, this is pure speculation on my part. So, this is what my crystal ball tells me.
In razor manufacturing, I feel that it is inevitable that as demand increases one of two things will happen. Either the dominant European companies will be taken over by one of the large players like Gillette or Schick or a US manufacture will arise and provide a viable domestic alternative. Right now the domestic volume is still too small. However, the global volume may soon reach the point where “a Gillette” may see an opportunity that merits an offer. Such a change would not necessarily be all bad, but we have seen before that “big” does not necessarily mean “better”.
I don’t see a lot changing in the manufacturing of shaving brushes, except perhaps some more consolidation in the years ahead like we saw with Progress Vulfix purchasing Simpsons last year. This still remains pretty much a “cottage industry” for the higher end brushes.
In consumables, I think you will see an increasing number of lines of men’s grooming products. I have attended a number of trade shows in the Health and Beauty industry in the last few years and they are just beginning to respond to this growing trend. Those of us in this market sometimes have a tendency to think that there are a lot of vendors focused on men’s grooming and wet shaving (sometimes I think there are too many J), but compared to the women’s market it is minuscule. Expect to see more specialty companies like eShave and The Gentlemen's Refinery, as well more shaving lines being offered by other established “traditional” grooming products companies.
Here are some perhaps unrated facts that I will cite. The “Baby Boomers” are reaching retirement age and will have more time on their hands. We are all becoming more health conscious. In spite of the recent economic decline, many of us are spending more on personal care items than ever before.
If I were to guess, I would say that all these factors will cause the focus and the spending on men’s grooming to increase. I am a firm believer that this trend will spawn investment. You are seeing it now from Schick and Gillette, but you will also see it from companies whose name that we have yet to hear.
B&B: Do you believe/like that English suppliers like Truefitt and Hill and Geo Trumper’s are changing their formulations?
Vintage Blades: I honestly cannot speak to the specifics of what is going on at either of those companies, since I do not carry either of their lines. However, it is fair to say that change is happening across the industry due to EU regulation, the need to reduce costs, and the necessity to remain competitive. Of course most of the T&H and GFT line is made for them by Creightons Plc. The exception being the T&H Ultimate Comfort line, which is made in Canada. Most companies, if they do make a change, do not do so lightly. They fully understand the potential impact it can have on their customer base. I went through this with the D.R. Harris Creams, who to this day are adamant that they did not reformulate their creams. Customers have been asking about this so we try to respond. The new Taylor line for sensitive skins is first of their line of paraben free products. There will probably be others. I don’t have any info about exactly when new stock will arrive. Could be any week.
B&B: Do the manufacturers hear us - the wetshaving community - when we speak?
Vintage Blades: Yes, most manufactures hear you. Some do not. What I think those vendors that participate in the forums provide is a conduit to these manufacturers. This is particularly true when there may be only a few outlets here for a product. As for a few specifics, I have regular dialog with Merkur at trade shows and they visit Vintage Blades once a year. Castle Forbes comes to visit us as does Rooney. I will routinely pass along a post that I find of interest directly to the manufacturers I do business with. Believe me when I say that I don’t just pass along the favorable ones.
B&B: There are rumors among shavegeek circles that high quality badger hair is in short supply. Any news of this from brush makers you deal with?
Vintage Blades: There is no problem that I am aware of with sourcing the quality of hair that 99% of the shaving community purchases on a regular basis. I am speaking of the grades up to what I would describe as “Super Silvertip”. What has been and continues to be in short supply is the absolute finest grade of hair that is used by the top makers in their highest quality brushes. The supply of this hair, used in the Rooney Finest grade of brushes for example, has been decreasing for some time. It is now getting extremely difficult, if not impossible at times, to source.
B&B: Beside wetshaving products what are some other hot items available from Vintage Blades?
Vintage Blades: Our focus is now exclusively on men’s grooming and shaving. In the past, we did have a broad range of folding knives, including collectible vintage knives and Scout knives. However, those are gone now. Our most recent product additions are a line of shaving mirrors for use both in and out of the shower.
B&B: I didn’t realize you made the switch. Vintage is such a great name it still feels right for a shaving-only outfit.
Vintage Blades: Yes, the Vintage Blades name was serendipitous.
B&B: Any clues on new products that might be available from Vintage Blades this year?
Vintage Blades: The only thing that I can disclose is that we are close to finalizing the deal to have our own Vintage Blades Brand Shaving Cream. However, there are several other new product offerings that are very close to fruition, but I am not at liberty to comment at this time.
B&B: Here is some late breaking news: At the end of April Vintage will be carrying special versions of the 34C & 38C, a few 37C Slants and 34G, 37G Merkur razors. These special versions will be available with handles in exotic wood (Amboyna) and a natural stone material (white quartz with gold veins). These will be a Vintage Blades exclusive and available in limited quantities.
B&B: Can you take special orders for item that you do not stock?
Vintage Blades: For some items, yes. For example, if the company has a US distributor (like Penhaligon’s) it is a simple matter. However, for some of our overseas suppliers, we may only order once a quarter. To order a single item it may just be too costly due to the shipping charges. If it’s a Dovo or Merkur item and we do not stock it, it could take 6 to 9 months before the item is received, and that is a conservative estimate.
B&B: Can you comment about dropping Floris and picking up Penhaligons?
Vintage Blades: Floris. Ah yes, the “Floris fiasco”…..a major disappointment for me. Let me be clear. I love the Floris brand. They make wonderful products, which I continue to use personally. I would love to still have the line. I did not drop Floris. I got dropped.
The owners of the Floris brand in the UK made a decision to exit the US from an equity perspective in 2007. They closed their retail store in NYC and then in 2008 closed their wholesale distribution operation. Again, Floris owned these operations and owned the inventory.
An individual who was directly involved with the Floris owned operation brokered a deal between Floris and London's, Inc. of Charlottesville, VA to establish a new distributorship in the US for Floris products. This distributorship is owned by London's, Inc. who purchases the product from Floris.
Unfortunately, the owner of Londons, Inc. established criteria that excluded Vintage Blades from being a retail partner in this new venture. The fact that I had an existing relationship with Floris and currently had on hand several thousand dollars of Floris inventory made no difference to them. The bottom line, London's Inc. decided they would no longer supply me.
Penhaligons: Basically, when we lost the Floris line, I was actively searching for something of similar or better quality to replace it. I wanted another “full range” shaving products line that had creams, soaps, aftershaves, and colognes. The great thing about the forums is the wealth of information there. When I was in marketing, I had a team of market research analysts to call on. Now, I have the search function of the forums. J It was immediately clear that there was significant interest in Penhaligon’s and that their products were well perceived. I was fortunate that they agreed to give us the line.
Obviously, the Penhaligon’s line has been a great addition to the store. I do have to say that even I have been amazed at the both the quality of the products and the wonderful range of fragrances. I just wish they would make more full lines within each of the fragrances.
Personally, my favorites are Endymion, Racquets, Castile, and Quercus. Of course, their US sales figures show Blenheim Bouquet as No.1. I like it as well, and do wear it a lot, but I like the others better. So much for my taste.
B&B: There have been a few posts on B&B mentioning that the Rooney's you carry have modified loft dimensions. Can you clarify this?
Vintage Blades: Early on, when I was fortunate to have been given the Rooney line, I felt that the loft on the Size 2 (Medium) and the Size 3 (Large) brushes were too tall for the US market. I discussed this with Lee Sabini, the owner of Rooney, and he did agree to alter the loft on the brushes that he made for me. However, shortly thereafter, the decision was made by Lee to standardize production and make all Rooney brushes to these new loft specifications.
The confusion arose from two things. One was reports on the forums of early conversations that I had with customers concerning my “special brushes” from Rooney. (I probably made a bit too much of it.) The second was due to the fact that I had updated my site immediately to reflect the new brush specifications that Rooney was using to make the brushes.
Recently I posted in jest how the Rooney brushes that Classic Shaving receives are the same as those I receive except that their brushes “lean slightly to the left and mine lean slightly to the right”. I’m not sure that my so-called humor translates well into this medium.
B&B: What are the most popular products by category? (I.e. Aftershave Pen’s: English Fern, Cream: Vintage Unscented, etc.)
Dovo Straight Razors - Dovo Ebony "Silver Steel", 5/8" Carbon Steel
Straight Razor Sets - "Black Best Quality" Straight Razor Set
Adjustable Safety Razors - Merkur Futur in the Satin Chrome (700)
Standard (Non-Adjustable) Safety Razors - Merkur "Heavy Classic" (34C)
Safety Razor Sets - Merkur Futur Set
Shaving Brushes (In General) - Vulfix No. 1000A Pure Badger
Shaving Brushes (Rooney) - Rooney Style 3 Size 1 (Small) Ivory, Super Silvertip
Shaving Brushes (Rooney Heritage) - Rooney Heritage "Stubby" Size 2 (Medium)
Shaving Brushes (Shavemac) - Shavemac 177, Ivory, Silvertip
Shaving Cream – TOBS Eton College
Shaving Soap – Col. Conk Amber
B&B: What are the best products for value/price?
Best Entry Level Brush = The Rooney “Special” Style 3, Size 1 Pure Badger brush for $39.99. These brushes have the same lathe turned handles as the more expensive Rooney brushes. Most entry level brushes use injection molded handles. The badger hair fill is an excellent grade of pure badger. It is very dense per mm of knot, and is scrubby but not overly so. It’s not too stiff. It is a superb starter brush and a Vintage Blades exclusive.
Best Milled Shaving Soap = Our Vintage Blades Brand Triple-Milled Shaving Soap is a high quality shaving soap made for us in the UK. While not tallow based, it produces a rich lubricating lather that rivals many competitive brands costing twice as much. It has a pleasant light lavender scent.
Best Hanging Razor Strop = We have worked with some veterans in the straight razor community to develop our own line of Latigo leather strops. The Vintage Blades Latigo Hanging Razor Strops are hand crafted by highly skilled Amish craftsmen, using only premium hides. They are available in a 2” and an extra wide 3" that allows stropping without the traditional “X” pattern. These strops are included in all our straight razor sets.
B&B: What is your most sold item related to wet shaving?
Vintage Blades: Our shopping cart software produces a “Bestsellers” list for all to see. This is visible on each page of the site, for each category and subcategory. For overall sales, since the site opened the Bestsellers are (in order):
1. Merkur DE blades
2. Shaving Cream Bowls, Taylor of Old Bond Street (Aggregate)
3. Col. Styptic Pencil
4. Feather DE Blades
5. Razor Blade Safe
6. Norton 4000/8000 Waterstone
B&B: I’m surprised to see the Merkur blades in the top 6.
Vintage Blades: It’s still the go to, mainstream blade for a lot of people purchasing blades. Many folks aren’t in the know about all the blades available. I like the Swedish Gillettes, Red Packs and Feathers.
B&B: What are some of the products that are “under the radar” in your business? I.e. great products that haven't been discovered yet.
Vintage Blades: In addition to those that I have listed under “Best products for value/price”, I think our line of inexpensive shaving mirrors that are designed for use in the shower has great potential. For those who prefer to shave outside the shower, and would like the benefit of a lighted and even magnified mirror image, we are now stocking a high end line of those mirrors in both wall mount and pedestal versions.
B&B: Jim, Thanks so much for your time!