Learn a thing or two about men’s grooming
Sweden’s celebrity barber Iman Khalaf is on a mission to help define a new version of manliness.
“Lover not a fighter” says the slogan on the back of Iman Khalaf’s sleeveless denim jacket. It’s 7:00 am on a cold Saturday – the city still snoring – yet Khalaf and his immaculate beard are looking fresh and Instagram-ready for a busy day promoting his cosmetics brand, Nõberu of Sweden.
The slogan on his back isn’t strictly accurate, because Khalaf is nothing if not a fighter. His family arrived in Sweden from Iran nearly 30 years ago with exactly 20 euros in their pocket – less than the price of a Nõberu product.
“When we arrived, my father said to me: ‘Son, in this country, you can be exactly who you want to be. Don’t blow it.’ His words have really stayed with me,” he recalls.
But Khalaf’s road to self-acceptance has been fraught with harsh lessons. “It was tough fitting in as an immigrant. The culture and religion were different, I couldn’t speak Swedish, I suffered from dyslexia, and I did poorly at school. I had a bad lisp, and I was bullied,” he says.
“I tried to be cool and play the tough guy. All my friends’ parents said ‘don’t hang out with Iman, he’s bad.’ It was a mistake trying to be someone I wasn’t. That’s why today I urge boys and men to be themselves and be proud of it.”
Bold and beardful
After his turbulent school years, Khalaf asked himself: What was he good at? The answer – “people and hair” – led him to enrol in barber school. Two weeks later, his teacher advised him to quit.
“I was devastated. Then I told myself, ‘C’mon Iman, you can’t let your family down like this’. I picked myself up, went back to my teacher, and said ‘I’m staying’. I wasn’t the best in my class, but I opened my first barber shop at the age of 24,” he says.
Today Khalaf owns an international chain of salons and travels the world training barbers and promoting Nõberu, which is currently sold in 22 countries.
He founded the cosmetics brand after placing second in “Sweden’s best beard” contest, an experience that opened his eyes to the huge demand for male beauty products. Nobody out there seemed to realise that having a gorgeous beard is a high-maintenance love affair.
“I want to change the way people think about masculinity.”
Khalaf’s foray into cosmetics turned out to be more than beard-deep. In addition to serving a once-neglected male market, Nõberu has become a platform for debunking macho stereotypes.
“I want to change the way people think about masculinity. Until recently, people assumed that if a guy cared about his looks, he must be gay. My message is that a man can look in the mirror and say ‘I love you,’ but it doesn’t make him gay. And if you’re gay, that’s fine, too.”
One of Khalaf’s key messages is that manliness is something that every man must define for himself.
“There’s no such thing as a right way to be a man. What is manly anyway? A Viking with bulging muscles and full-body tattoos? How many guys like that do you see in the room? Manly can also be laid-back and metrosexual.”
Nõberu’s brand slogan, “be exceptional among regular dudes,” urges men to confidently embrace their own definition of masculinity, no matter how “unmacho” it might be. “If you love football, go ahead and love football! But if you prefer ballet, don’t pretend to love football.”
Khalaf has noticed a gradual shift in attitudes over the past few years. Men are growing receptive to be idea that self-love is not emasculating.
“I’m always happy to receive feedback from women who complain that their boyfriend has more products in the bathroom than they do,” he says with a laugh.
Vocal on social media, Khalaf is an outspoken advocate of all forms of equality. “Nõberu is Japanese for ‘noble.’ It’s the choice of the gentleman who opens doors for everyone and treats everyone with respect, whether they’re heterosexual, gay, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.”
He vows that hate mail and death threats will never stop him from championing the cause of the underdog.
“If I let the haters stop me, they win. I want to set an example for immigrants like myself. I fight every day for the weakest members of society, because I have been that person myself.”
Text Silja Kudel
Photos Fabian Björk