Men are undergoing a grooming renaissance. They care about how they look, they are actively searching for the best products, and they are smart consumers, able to decipher marketing tricks from actual items made for men. Baxter of California is partly responsible for this recent phenomena and has become known as a men’s lifestyle brand that can take care of everything from the way a guy’s hair holds itself together to the way his home smells. With Baxter Finley, their flagship store and barber shop for the brand, Baxter was able to smartly fill the gap between what the man puts on himself and how he applies a product. Instead of buying products and not knowing how to use them, a visit to Baxter Finley lets a customer explore different options in appearance and allows them to be pampered.
Baxter of California has come a long way and wasn’t always the fashionable brand that it is now. The change began in 2000 when entrepreneurial tastemaker Jean-Pierre Mastey took over the company from Baxter Finley himself. After years of figuring out exactly what Baxter should be, Mastey was able to turn the image and concept of the heritage men’s product maker around. Baxter went from a graying grooming concept to a sleek, sexy, and new standby men’s product maker–and Mastey is the reason for it.
Jean-Pierre (or JP, casually) is a native Angeleno who has a long connection to grooming. “I come from a family that actually has a lot of roots in haircare. My grandfather had his own hair salon in Morocco,” he explains, taking a seat in a Baxter Finley barber chair. “He was the father of ten children, five boys and five girls: six out of the ten picked up the trade of styling hair, including my father. I was around haircare my entire life. I grew up in a hair salon and was asked quite often if I was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps, which I immediately said no to. I had absolutely no interest in cutting hair.”
He went to Beverly Hills High School and was searching for the right avenue for his interests. He went to junior college and was unsure of what he wanted to do. He tried pursuing graphic arts but eventually found himself in international trading. “I was the buying agent for several Japanese department stores and trading companies. I was in the men’s fashion business for four to five years before the opportunity for Baxter.”
“The opportunity came along because I wanted to get out of what I was doing: I was selling other people’s products, it was seasonal, it all depended on how the Japanese Yen was doing, and the demand was directly related to my income. I figured I would not be able to do this for the rest of my life. I wanted to buy a brand. I didn’t have the desire to start something from scratch and I was talking to my dad over dinner one night. He said, ‘Why don’t you contact Baxter Finley?’”
Baxter Finley owned Baxter of California. His office was two doors down from JP’s father’s salon and he knew him as a child. He even used Baxter products growing up! This relationship got the ball rolling for the brand’s regenesis and JP’s heading a successful business: a company in need of help and a person who wanted to make a change found each other.
“I went to go see Mr. Finley. When I walked into his office, he immediately recognized me and said, ‘You’re Mark’s son.’ And I told him, ‘You’re right, it’s been a long time.’ He said he had no idea what I came in for but he was glad that I showed up and, before I talked to him, he wanted to take me out to lunch to talk about a couple of things. He mentioned how he had a health scare a while back and that he was looking for someone to buy his company–somebody just like me. He wanted someone who knows the history of the company and who is young and capable. I told him, ‘Great. This is a conversation I’d like to have with you. Let’s go to lunch.’”
The lunch ended with an easy agreement for JP and Baxter. Within a few weeks, JP was in Baxter’s office and in charge of the brand–and he had a lot to do. “It was a long road to reinvention. The brand hadn’t been updated or anything new been done to it for a good fifteen to twenty years. It was founded in 1965 and I took over in 2000. It really is what I wanted. I wanted something I could completely makeover and put my thumbprint on.”
Through 2005, JP ran the brand and was trying to figure out what to do with it. He wasn’t very happy with its direction and, around 2005, he decided to do something drastic. “I realized I wasn’t really proud of what I was doing and I wasn’t even making a product that I would gravitate to myself. We weren’t even putting it in stores that I would personally shop at. I decided to make a Baxter 2.0. At that point, we threw away a lot of business I wasn’t happy with: gift shop business, beauty outlets, beauty supply–places I didn’t want the brand to be. We cut out about forty, fifty percent of our business. It was not a difficult thing to do because I didn’t have a large staff or a lot of overhead. It was a calculated risk.”
“We repackaged the line into blue bottles and we updated the logo. It was a big revolution. A lot of people told me, ‘Evolve the brand–don’t revolve,’ ‘No revolution–just evolution.’ But I knew I wanted something significant to happen. I wanted to be in Barney’s, I wanted to be in Fred Segal, I wanted to be in Collette, I wanted to be in Isetan: the path we were on was not going to lead me there. I made that sacrifice and cut out all the distribution, making a commitment to quality stores only.”
The risk ended up paying off as you can tell: taste, vision, and a drive led to a successful reenvisioning of Baxter of California. “We got into all the stores we wanted. That sort of parlayed into talks with Barneys and led to really good brand placement: we found our way to Collette in France and we found our way into Isetan in Japan–and all the duplicates and premium lifestyle stores gravitated to us.”
“We sort of trail blazed a new path of distribution for male grooming. Nobody’s really doing this yet. We specialize in selling traditional men’s grooming products that our competitors sell to Sephora or Nordstrom or other beauty chains you’d expect. When I thought about myself as a customer, I don’t go into those places. I avoid them at all costs. I don’t like going into these stores and dealing with people rushing at me, basically trying to sell me something. I like to go to lifestyle stores. If I’m going to buy men’s grooming products and accessories, I’m going to go to the same place I buy my shirts and where I buy my denim: there’s no reason why they can’t coexist and be under the same roof.”
Baxter became the company JP dreamed of. They’re selling at cool, hip stores like Blackbird in Seattle, Saturday Surf in New York, and Unionmade here in Los Angeles. The brand became exactly what he hoped it would be. “I think one of our great successes is the unique distribution we have and staying away from all of the pitfalls of the beauty industry, where you get locked into this category and you cannot succeed.”
At this level, where was the brand to go? “I had a lot of recommendations to open a Baxter store. But, a brand with 25 SKUs and a dozen accessories wouldn’t be much of a significant store: it would just be a billboard and lose money because of the overhead,” he says. “We thought if there was something we were going to do in retail, it should be service–and we should do barbering. It’s a category that is doing well with shaving products and hair care products, which we wanted to expand in. We figured what better venue than a barber shop to research and develop products?”
“We opened the shop in 2010 and it has been extremely successful since the doors opened. We had a line out front on our very first day without clientele! It seemed that LA really wanted something like this, a domain just for men that isn’t a chop shop where clients are treated like cattle. It is a salon quality haircut in a men’s barbershop atmosphere. It’s not strictly salon cuts either: we do classic barbering cuts, fades, shaves as well–everything you’d expect from a barber shop and more. It’s become the face for the brand, too. We’ve never employed models or had a face for the brand. That was something Finley did back in the sixties and seventies, when he was known for his male models in black and white holding bottles of the products. I don’t really want there to be a face for the brand. If there is, it’s this shop, this aesthetic, which rings true to the history of the brand and the heritage. It’s the quality ethos of the brand.”
The reason why Baxter is successful is because men wanted it. There was a silent demand that JP saw he wanted himself and he decided to do something about it. In doing so, he discovered a market that was ready to buy. “Men want to have their own domain. Men want to have their own products that were developed and formulated with them in mind. Men are smart. They know the difference between a beauty brand that makes pink bottles with flower scented formulations inside who, all of a sudden, are making black bottles with woodsy scents under the same name: they get that that is a gimmick. Men seek authenticity as well. I think that is something we’ve been able to tap into.”
Baxter is and always has been a a response to California, too. As a native, JP doesn’t see his brand as influenced by LA because it is LA. The city and the company go hand in hand. “It’s difficult for me to separate myself from [Los Angeles] because I am a California kid. I was born and raised here and what I know is Los Angeles. I have travelled quite a bit and I know other parts of the country and other parts of the world.”
He also finds that Los Angeles is inherently image conscious and it’s inhabitants are constantly seeking ways to look and be their best. “I think we’re a little jaded in Los Angeles as the bar has been raised. If you drive a nice car, you look to the right or the left and someone has a nicer car. If you have a nice home, the same thing: there’s always someone who has more than you in this city. That raises the bar and always makes people try harder. That’s why there’s a lot of success in this city.”
“I think Los Angeles or California competes a lot with New York, too. It’s either one or the other: what coast is driving what? Where’s the fashion? Where’s the business? Where’s the industry? I think it’s important to know there are a lot of good, creative people in Los Angeles and California in general who are doing great things in mens’ grooming and mens’ style and fashion. There are a lot of great brands out here and, collectively, we are highlighting the fact that Los Angeles can produce cool, niche products. Good brands with legs can come out of California. It’s not something that has to happen in New York.”
“I think that’s what we’re pushing for and the whole California thing means more outside of California than within. A lot of people aspire to have a California lifestyle whether you are in Sweden or from the South. People have always wanted to be Californians. That’s why it is so important for the brand. It’s always been a part of our name (‘Baxter of California’), which is not even something I thought about changing or reworking. The brand’s heritage is California–and that’s something we wanted to give you without putting sunshine and a wave from the beach in a box. Baxter of California says enough–and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
“It’s an old Hollywood feel, too,” he says. “There’s a new age of gentleman–and that’s who we’re attracting.”
The irony in this is that Baxter Finley as a store is distinctly not Los Angeles. It hints at how the image of Los Angeles is unable to be classified. There isn’t really anything that is Los Angeles. “There’s not a lot of character in Los Angeles. It’s a very new city. We had to build character in the shop with the way that we decorated it, which has a very East coast feel. It wasn’t done to replicate the East coast: we wanted to show heritage. That’s why the shop looks the way that it does. The shop looks older than the brand: the brand is from the sixties and the shop looks like its from the twenties or thirties. That was done because it is the best aesthetic age for barbering. It’s when chairs were manufactured and things were done very nicely. The most pleasing aesthetic is that of the 1920s and 1930s. It may not fit in perfectly with Los Angeles but I don’t think that really matters. I think guys just want to be in this atmosphere.”
JP and Baxter are not looking to change their formula at any point soon. They may add more products but their future isn’t anything entirely unpredictable. “Nothing radical at this point is in our future. Now I would adhere to the advice of, ‘Evolution not revolution.’ as we’ve revolutionized the brand so much,” he explains. “We’re going to continue on the same path and will make products that are very straightforward and easy to understand. We won’t launch twenty new shampoos next year. We’re not going to complicate the grooming regiment for men. We’ll continue to make good products that guys want.”