For most barbers, their hands are their most fundamental tool, but when Nicky King was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome – a rare congenital disorder that happens when fibrous bands of the amniotic sac get tangled around a developing foetus – his right hand was severely constricted, meaning it never fully developed.
“Growing up, I was bullied horrifically at school,” Nicky recalls. “It taught me that if you’re slightly different, you get isolated and singled out.” Determined not to be overcome by his disability, Nicky cultivated a stubborn streak. When teachers tried to get him to write with his left hand, he determinedly learnt with his less-developed right hand. If he was told he’d never be good at a particular sport, he’d give it a go. “If anyone told me I couldn’t do something, I made it my mission to prove them wrong,” Nicky explains.
Eventually, sick of school, Nicky was encouraged by those around him to follow in his grandad’s footsteps and join the family building firm. But it wasn’t the career path for Nicky and after a short-lived spell at college studying bricklaying, he found a more natural home at his friend’s barbershop. “I enjoyed the vibe and caught the bug for hair,” Nicky says.
Thinking he had put the knock-backs and bullying of his school days behind him, Nicky was surprised when his friend’s first response to his barbering ambition was to laugh, leading to that stubborn streak kicking back in. “It ended up being a good trigger and I started saving up ready to enrol on an apprenticeship course,” he explains.
Not long after, Nicky decided to try his luck at the London School of Barbering, however he describes being all but “laughed out of the room”. This didn’t deter him and he was intent on working at the highest level – no matter what anyone tried to tell him. Rejected by most of the businesses he spoke to on account of his disability, Nicky finally found a route into the industry with Total Barbers in Shoreditch. Packing up his kitbag, he moved to London and began his barbering journey. Spells at Big Jim’s Trims and Johnny’s Chop Shop followed with Nicky training and mastering techniques he was told he’d never manage.
Ultimately, Nicky craved his hometown and started chatting with Bobby Gordon at Fella, who had shops in London and Kent. “We met up and I did a trial day and from that moment on, Bobby has been nothing but supportive,” Nicky says. Now working at the Canterbury shop, Nicky’s career is thriving. Fella’s association with American Crew has seen him take on a multitude of opportunities including representing them on stage at Salon International.
“The opportunities with American Crew have been amazing for me,” Nicky says. “I’ve been on loads of their courses and love how they do things differently – like mixing old-school traditions with new ways of thinking.” Nicky describes working with Ian Harrold, American Crew Allstar Educator, who has been an “absolute diamond” and a tremendous inspiration. And then, of course there’s his boss and mentor Bobby, who Nicky says “is a total champion, always pushing me on to the next level. He’s given me just what I need to help me grow.”
Nicky has proved all the doubters wrong, today cutting with the skill and confidence of any of his peers. “You learn to adapt,” he explains. “I’ve got a ‘cutters hand’ and a ‘workers hand’, I have to be ambidextrous most of the time and I’ve learnt how to hold my scissors and scoop my comb in a certain way. I’ve altered techniques to make them work for me – for texturing with razors or intricate cutting, I’ll use my smaller hand. Now it’s just natural.”
Thankfully, the deeper into his career Nicky has gone, the less significant his disability has become. “I’ve learnt how to mask it,” he explains. And today, he’s noticed for his skill rather than his limitations. In fact, he feels his challenges have made him a more intuitive barber. “Part of the job is about recognising when someone’s going through a moment and my experiences mean I can relate,” he reflects. “I feel like barbering has the potential to break down social norms and talk about things in an inclusive way.”
His advice to anyone starting out in a similar position? “The sky is the limit,” he says. “Don’t ever let anyone put you in a box or say you can’t do something. You should never be afraid of or hide who you are.”
There are so many different journeys into barbering. Here, Claire Chambers tells us how her relationship with her Grandad led to a passionate career as a barber…