Only a few years ago, a man wanting shaving products was limited to heavily marketed multi-blade razors, generic aerosol foam cans or musky Old Spice. Now men can seek out dozens of handmade artisanal goods, such as shaving soap you lather by hand (made of sustainably harvested palm and avocado oil) and beard oil (for moisturizing your beard) made of jojoba oil and rosemary leaf extract.
The newer products are pricier than drugstore fare and can only be found in boutique barbershops and online retailers. However, many men are seeking natural, small-batch alternatives instead of mainstream offerings for their fancier ingredients and greater variety of scents.
It's not just hipsters. Interest in beards, barbershop-style services and men's skincare have reignited a growing worldwide interest in shaving and grooming products specifically designed for men.
For many consumers who wanted these products from smaller brands not found at their local drugstore or grocery store, they had to import them from countries like Japan, England and Germany. But a new crop of producers and independent companies have sprung up across Canada.
"There are so many brands of Canadian soaps, creams, oils, pomades, those kinds of consumables," said Nicholas Burton-Vulovic, marketing manager for the online retailer Fendrihan, based in Ancaster, Ont., which specializes in men's shaving products from around the world. "There is definitely a strong demand on the vendor side to create these products and then on the consumer side to seek them out and support them as well."
Many of the Canadian men who have started businesses focused on this area have been prompted by the growing interest in beard maintenance and straight-razor shaves, as well as handcrafted goods.
"We saw a void in the marketplace," said Jason Ritchie, one of the two co-founders of the Edmonton-based Prairie Boys Supply Co. (PBSCo). "There was nothing of quality or cutting edge and current in the marketplace in Canada."
Prairie Boys offers hair-styling products, beard and shave oils, beard balms, razors, combs and clothing. Mr. Ritchie said he and co-founder Chris McPhee spent countless hours after their full-time jobs to develop their products. Mr. McPhee is a carpenter by trade, while Mr. Ritchie also owns Edmonton's The Refuge barbershop and Vanity Corner hair salon.
PBSCo's first big break was a partnership with Roots Canada to include 150 units of their beard oil and beard balm alongside a limited-edition custom leather bag. "It really helped us," Mr. Ritchie said. "It sold out and helped build the demand."
The company currently has about $40,000 in sales from direct sales on their online store, through retail outlets and more through a distribution agreement. Demand has grown to a point where Mr. Ritchie and Mr. McPhee have moved some of the manufacturing from a makeshift lab to a new 3,000-square-foot location in Calgary. Mr. Ritchie said he and Mr. McPhee still do a lot of the work in that original lab. "It's just our bare hands," he said.
Approximately 70 per cent of PBSC's sales are domestic, 20 per cent are American and the rest from countries like Japan and Australia.
For Tim Gutwald, the interest in his company, Midnight & Two, was strong enough he recently quit his day gig in Calgary to pursue it full-time. "It got to the point it was every evening, even waking up at 3:30 or 4 o'clock in the morning to make product before I went to my full-time corporate job," he said. "I was doing that for about three or four months just to meet demand."
Midnight & Two mostly focuses on shaving products like pre-shave oil and after-shave balm. The company's first big wholesale client was Kent of Inglewood, a "shave shop" with locations in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.
"A lot of it was me growing with them to meet demand for their additional stores," Mr. Gutwald said. "So it wasn't me growing through [sales to] the public, it was me growing through retailers, who were growing and capturing this new, unique market."
Mr. Burton-Vulovic points out that most of the Canadian men's grooming products currently available were consumables like soaps or balms rather than hardware items, such as razors. "Like Canadian clothing, most of the industrial base isn't there anymore," he said.
However, this also lowered the price of entry for many entrepreneurs who still wanted to participate in the industry. "A lot of the people who we deal with started in their homes, in their basements or garages with these kinds of products as they found more success," said Mr. Burton-Vulovic.
It's easy to think these products are only trendy, boutique items primarily marketed towards tattooed hipsters. While Mr. Ritchie said the 25-to-35-year-old consumer is the most popular demographic for his company, Mr. Burton-Vulovic said many customers are also baby boomers or retirees.
"They say, 'Hey, this is something I did 40 years ago and I haven't thought about it. Now I want to get back into it – can you tell me what's changed?'"
When it comes to the customer base for these items, these products aren't only for their dads, brothers, husbands or boyfriends either. "People think it's a real man's hobby," Mr. Burton-Vulovic said, noting the 100-year-old culture of the barbershop. "But there's also so many women getting into wet shaving. It's not just for men and it's not just for shaving your face."
And as for the future, Mr. Ritchie has only encouraging words for any entrepreneurs interested in entering the industry. "People really do appreciate what we do," he said. "It takes patience and it is big business, but the sky's the limit for small brands."