Career change: from barber to representing France with luxury woodwork

Mark Collett, 56, explains how he swapped his converted bus hair salon to work with wood like his father and grandfather

‘As a barber, I spent my time chatting to people. Now I’m in a tool room listening to the radio with my cats’
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When my wife Isabelle and I decided to move to France in January 2005, our main objective was to give our two children, Georgia and Jacob, the chance to grow up in a rural environment and be bilingual.

Isabelle is French, so it was fairly straightforward for her to find a retail job when we first arrived to help support us as we settled in.

Although I was a barber in England, my first job on moving was to renovate our stone house, but our eventual plan was to set up a hair salon in our home. Isabelle retrained as a hairdresser and, once she qualified in 2010, we began to put our plans in place.

Mobile hairdresser with a difference

We knew that initially we would have to build clientele and could not necessarily expect people to come to our salon from the outset.

So we decided to buy a bus – kitted out with barbershop chairs, shelves and mirrors – to create a mobile hairdressing business.

After liaising with local authorities, in 2010 we managed to establish several spots from which to run our salon and developed a weekly timetable so that customers knew when we would be in situ.

Demand for barber bus was high

The business took off extremely quickly – we had more clients than we knew what to do with and for a while were working six days a week.

Eight years on, we had dropped to four days a week to make life a little more manageable.

Demand remained high and we ditched the idea of a home salon – our business worked very well just as it was.

Passion for woodwork ran in family

Sadly, in 2014 Isabelle had to stop due to health problems.

While I carried on for three more years on my own, I knew that, longer term, I wanted a role that enabled me to work from home and be around to help her when needed.

Although I loved my barbering, I also have a passion for woodwork – something I had put to good use during the house renovation.

I come from a family of woodworkers, so it is very much in the blood: my grandad was a woodturner and my dad was a carpenter.

Both taught me at one time or another, so I already had an extensive skill set.

I knew, however, that if I was going to run a business, I wanted to be creative and push the boundaries of the material.

Trained in steam-bending wood

In August 2017, I decided to do a week-long steam-bending course in Toulouse, run by Charlie Whinney Studio, a well-known bent-wood expert who does sculptures all over the world.

I really found my niche with steam-bending and quickly began to develop different designs for unique wood-based light fittings.

The following summer, I stopped the bus entirely so I could concentrate on my craft, and in May 2019 I started my business creating steam-bent light sculptures.

Light sculptures sold worldwide

In January 2020, with Isabelle’s help, I started selling and approaching retailers but our plans were soon put on hold due to Covid.

Despite that setback, we have managed to make a mark over the past two years.

Through online networking, we have developed a client base of interior designers and sent items to Puerto Rico, America, Germany and all over Europe.

Competitive luxury market

Just recently, I exhibited at London Craft Week as one of only 10 businesses selected to represent France for the luxury market.

There I was introduced to the highest-level interior design: the luxury yacht, hotel and private jet market.

Even though things are going well, it has been a steep learning curve.

We have spent hundreds of hours making phone calls, sending emails and marketing.

We are in a very competitive industry – Isabelle works two days a week helping with marketing and we have taken on outside help for our social media.

Barbers chat all day, now I work alone

My working life and routine have changed completely.

As a barber, 95% of my time was spent with other people, chatting away.

Now I spend all my time in a tool room listening to the radio, with only my cats to keep me company.

I loved working as a barber, getting out and about and meeting people. And I love what I do now.

From a personal perspective, it is great that I can be at home with Isabelle to support her, and that we are able to work together on the business too.

I was told it takes five years to establish yourself in this industry, so we are not where we want to be yet.

But we make extraordinary, tactile products and that belief in our range of light sculptures has helped push us through. We are well ahead of the game.

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