Smokey Barbers is THE place for the contemporary player to catch a trim. Fading in a movement that brings the barber to the right hand side of many of the game's elite stars, the question is, how has this place come to be and what's the back story. Getting the deeper understanding, we drop in and get the full cut from the cloth.

There’s no sign of Smokey when I arrive at his shop, an unassuming south west London outpost set in the shadow of the A3. In many ways his absence tells you everything you need to know about the success of a business at the tipping point between cult craze and social movement: it’s bigger even than him now. The warmth that radiates from a late October sun is matched inside by the welcome I receive from Reuben Carter Kelly – senior barber and Smokey stalwart – clutching clippers and flashing a million-dollar smile. There’s undoubtedly a Friday feeling around the place, but you imagine the rest of the week is no different.

It’s midday and the long-term team are in action, jostling with each other verbally amongst the colours and combovers. New recruit, George, 20, cues up the music (Michael Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’) while lynchpin, Jazz Rose, is given the credit/blame for an attempt at Halloween cobwebs by Carter-Kelly, who in turn is mocked for his willingness to oblige photo requests. At the back, there’s rarely a seat free on the modest customer bench as a never-ending stream of young men enter before exiting shorn and sharper some time later. Elsewhere there are those who don’t seem to serve any particular role but are simply happy to be here, underlying its appeal as more social hub than hair club.

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This down-to-earth charm belies Smokey’s increasingly starry clientele. From humble roots, it’s found itself an unlikely focal point for a young generation of successful footballers and rappers for whom a certain style and, perhaps too, a place of refuge, has become essential. From Raheem Sterling to the Rhianna-inspired Yxng Bane, they’ve either swept into Surbiton to be cut (people travel from as far as Dubai) or opened up their own homes for a visit.

An impressive social media presence with a nifty hashtag (#justgotsmoked) may have helped spread the message, but it’s old fashioned word-of-mouth and customer service that have cemented a reputation allowing Smokey to dictate hair trends often on a global stage. “We’ve become a family and people have started to love what we do.” Smokey himself (aka Dominic Othol) has arrived and – sat anonymously at the back among his customers – explains the appeal. “You can have all the contacts in the world, but if you’re not a good barber, it’s not going to work.”

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His is both a fascinating and inspiring history. “It started with me going to jail to be honest. I was lucky to get a barbering job. I only took it to get out of my cell.” Cutting inmates’ hair allowed him vital practice time, but once he got out it was still hard to convince his friends to risk their hair with him. “Luckily enough I met the mother of my kid and she had a salon. I just started watching her and then by chance she had a place upstairs.” It was around the corner from where we are sat today where, wanting more experience, he would apply for his first job in the business, only to be knocked back.

“I asked at a barber and they said they only hire their own kind, which was Turkish people. I said fair enough, walked literally across the road and met someone that owned a laundrette. He had a premises, a square with two chairs. I thought – you know what? – I’ll take it. I called it D.O.’s, which is my initials, but everyone started coming in, and when their phone rang they’d say, ‘I’m at Smokey’s!’ (the name he used for artwork growing up). [So I thought], you know what? Go with what people say.”

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What people say is one thing, what the African Player of the Year says is quite another. The first footballer he cut was none other than George Weah, and it provides another pivotal moment in Othol’s story. “It was at the beginning. Just by chance. Nobody knew it was him. He came into the shop I had around the corner. We were talking, talking, talking and he just told me keep doing what you’re doing. And I thought, you know what, that’s someone I look up to. For a couple of years after that I really pushed it and then everyone just knew the name.”

He’s now in a positon where he has the ear of England internationals and worldwide superstars. Do they confide in him? “It’s a thing you build from when you first meet them. I think trust is quite important in the service that we do. Having to trust someone to come into your house, it’s a big, big thing.” Would he know about, say, a big transfer move before the rest of us, for instance? “You know what (laughs), I would say yes, but I tend not to talk about it. One thing I try and do is give them advice on stuff like that from my point of view, but wish them luck at the same time.” And how about their personal lives? “They will talk more about their personal lives to the barber than their missus, put it that way.”

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Is it a case of being reactive or proactive with a player’s style? Are there any hair trends he takes personal responsibility for? “We had a theme last year, which was dreads. We thought let’s see how that goes and it just blew up. Everyone started getting them. Even the little patterns. That’s why we try and stay at the top and be the ones people watch and say, right, this is what we’re going to do this season.” The possibilities are endless. “Colour, waves, fades. Mixing different haircuts that people think wouldn’t mix, but we do it. We’re the new generation, why not? Let’s get out the old skool way. Let’s bring the old skool haircuts but put our own little twist to it. Why not?”

His most memorable chance to stamp the Smokey style on a superstar came earlier this year. “The one that took me back was when I got a phone call from Nike about Ronaldinho. He wants his hair coloured. I was like, woah! You rang me. You could’ve rang Rush, Toni & Guy… I took that as a big compliment. I just went there and literally coloured his whole hair, then he asked me for a beard trim! They left me there for three hours with him, and that’s my idol. God sometimes works in mysterious ways to give you that stage at that time to do what you wanted to do.’”

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As we talk he breaks off. A member of the team needs some guidance on a bleach issue with one of their customers, and the kid in the chair’s future is briefly placed in Othol’s hands. It’s not a position he’s uncomfortable with, as he tells me. “We want to do a lot more for the community. Kids coming in here, getting the opportunity to talk to them… It’s a big thing for me right now, a big thing. Little kids coming in holding weapons and stuff like that. For me, I’ll talk to them. Just show them what can happen. There’s two paths you can take. Everyone here is either a criminal or from a broken home, we’re just trying to do something to change our life. You could do the same thing.”

One thing strikes me about today’s visit: there’s no pictures on the walls of big names, no one person seems elevated to a position above anyone else. That goes for the owner, too. For all the Instagram love and high-profile name-checks received, it’s a sense of community and social responsibility that drives Smokey. “Yeah 100%. It starts with a great team – the team I’ve got here now. I can go to Dubai tomorrow and I won’t have to worry because I know they’re going to promote it and welcome people the same way I welcome people. It helps as well with the locals knowing one another, coming in at the same time and feeling like they’re family. Even little things like carrying on the conversation from this week two weeks later. Things like that are important and bring us all together. If someone comes in and they’re down, we can make them happy and stuff. I think we do a lot for the community and we’re going to do a lot more.”

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Those plans extend beyond the London suburbs. “Reading, Newcastle... we just go where our fan base takes us. Manchester is a big one. We have a lot of people who buy into our brand and love us for what we do.” Why is it, does he think, people keep coming back? “Just knowing you’re welcome. From the minute you come through the door you feel like you’re at home. We want people to feel like they belong to somewhere… create something for kids, the generation of today.” His story is vital and words powerful. I think I just got smoked.

Words by Dan Tickner

Photography by Henry Kamara