HAIRPORT, A BARBER, could be anywhere in the world. A smart logo on its doors shows a pirate in a tricorn, flanked by scissors shaped like crossbones. Giant photos of tattooed and bearded hipsters cover its walls. Two stylists trim the beards of clients in jeans. Owner Ahmed Zia, 31, who founded the place in 2018, explains the logo he designed himself. “I was a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fan,” he says, “I like the idea of a pirate team.” Hence the crossbones style theme. He chose the name because it sounds like “airport,” a portal to the rest of the world.
What makes Hairport striking is its location: in Kabul, the besieged capital of Afghanistan. The city is no stranger to beards. A few decades ago, wearing them was compulsory, a rule imposed with blows by the Taliban. But in the past, few were so well-groomed and also didn’t come with tattoos or earrings.
Today, however, Hairport is one of several such hair salons to have opened in Kabul. Stroll through Shahr-e-Naw, a downtown neighborhood, and you come across half a dozen of them, with names like “New York Barber” or “Western-style Barber”. Some also offer tattoos. “The market has completely changed,” says Zia, who sports a carefully cut facial topiary. “Young people are now very interested in new styles. They get their ideas from Instagram and Pinterest, he says, and willingly pay 200 Afghans ($ 2.60) for a cut. As for the skin ink? “It’s forbidden in our religion,” he said, “but young people, they don’t care.”
Globalization in the traditional sense has slowed down over the past two decades. Even before covid-19 crushed it, global trade had been stagnant for a decade. Last year, foreign direct investment (IDE) as a percentage of GDP had fallen by two-thirds from its peak in 2007. Brand globalization, which once seemed unstoppable, has slowed. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, the number of countries you could get a McDonald’s in grew from just two to over 100. But no new country has hosted the business for more than four years. Indeed some places, like Bolivia and Iceland, have demolished their golden arches. Large expansions from other brands have failed. In January, Walmart, an American retailer, began laying off employees in India and shutting down operations there.
And yet, in recent years, another type of globalization has accelerated. A new aesthetic of design is invading the world, propagated not by brands or IDE, but via social networks and the Internet. Even though formal trade is slowing, the globalization of taste is rampant. Starbucks may not have reached much of the world, but there are very few major cities in the world now in which a visitor cannot order a latte surrounded by exposed woods and vintage light bulbs. Kabul doesn’t have a McDonald’s, but you can get a good burger and fries at Burger House, a restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco.
A global “hipster index” compiled by MoveHub, an international shipping company, in February did not include Kabul in its calculations of the 446 most latte-soaked metropolises in the world. The firm ranked cities based on the number of cafes, record stores, tattoo parlors, vegan restaurants, and vintage shops. At the top were predictable places such as Brighton, England, and Portland, Oregon, on America’s West Coast. But hipsters have spread much further.
At the Lion Café in western Kabul, hipsters sip coffee under paintings by local artists. “Sometimes you need to get away from your own culture,” says Karim Karimi, a 22-year-old law student, who takes his laptop there to work. “It’s happy when you can find this in your own country,” he said. Even Goma, a conflict-ridden city in eastern Congo, has Le Petit Chalet, which serves bowls of quinoa protein as well as “latte macchiatos”. In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, a place at least as war-torn as eastern Congo, Le Grand Café features exposed brickwork (coffee still relies on freeze-dried Nescafe; global gentrification has its limits) .
How did the hipster burn his tongue?
The style, all “rough wood tables, exposed brick and hanging Edison bulbs,” was called “AirSpace” by Kyle Chayka, an American writer. Sajith Pai, a venture capitalist in Delhi, describes him as “the bastard child of IKEA, Starbucks and Apple ”. Its purpose is to communicate to potential customers that there will be a certain level of quality; that the coffee or the haircut will meet a world standard. “You can call it a reinsurance design,” he says.
The wealthiest Indians decorate their own homes with “kinda old furniture, hand looms, that sort of thing,” not spartan bricks and stripped wood, says Pai. But they seek out hipster design in bars and cafes in places such as Delhi and Mumbai because it signals their membership in a global elite. Mr Pai believes that the biggest consumers of this style are not the super-rich but the class just below them – the upper middle class, which cannot extend to Bentleys or private jets, but can afford plane tickets and fancy cafes.
The rich and middle classes are more and more numerous. According to the World Bank, the share of the world’s population living on more than $ 10 a day (at 2011 purchasing power parity) – enough money to buy things other than food and shelter – has increased from less than a quarter twenty years ago to almost two-fifths in 2017. Most of the growth has occurred in East Asia, but the figure has increased in all regions (see chart). The Brookings Institution, a think tank, estimated in 2018 that the number of wealthy people (those living on more than $ 110 a day) will increase by 50%, or 100 million people, by 2030. The global middle class (which she also defines as those over $ 10 a day) will grow to nearly two-thirds of the world’s population.
These people are more likely than they were to be city dwellers. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, according to the World Bank. Not everyone in poor cities (or even wealthy cities) will be able to afford regular white dishes or visits to craft beer bars. But cities create well-paying, skilled jobs, so some will. This allows specialized tastes to flourish. In Kenya, Eoin Flinn, the Irishman CEO of 254 Brewing, a craft beer company (named after the Kenyan telephone code), says its company has experimented with beers ranging from a “Mexican pineapple sour” to a “Nitro Stout”. The buyers are middle class Kenyans who miss the standard swamp lagers which until recently were the only option.
This class of people is literally more global too. There are 272 million migrants in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration (IMO), a UN body. This figure represents only 3.5% of the world’s population. But it is at an all time high. And it is already higher than the IMOthe 2050 forecast made in 2003. Some are refugees. Many more, almost two-thirds, are economic migrants.
Both groups contribute to the globalization of hipsterism. Abroad, they acquire new tastes and money which they then bring home. In Afghanistan, many of the hottest new businesses, like Lion Café, are founded by Afghans who had previously fled their country. The same is true in Somalia, a country with a population of 15 million, but a diaspora of 2 million. Mogadishu isn’t an easy place to grab a fancy coffee, but it is now possible, thanks to Somali returnees.
With travel comes education and therefore exposure to a trendy global culture. Between 1975 and 2017, the number of students studying outside their home country increased from 800,000 to nearly 5 million. Their ranks have grown even faster this millennium – the number increased by a fifth between 2012 and 2016 alone.
But it is not only travel abroad for education that has increased. Comprehensive home education options have it too. The American University of Afghanistan, modeled after the American University of Beirut, was established in Kabul in 2004. Its professors include foreigners and foreign-trained Afghans. Classes are taught in English, not Dari or Pushtu, the two predominant languages in Afghanistan.
Yet surely the biggest driver of recent times has been the Internet. It gives future trendsetters free access to information on the latest fashions, at least those who can read English and afford data from a cell phone. Globally, the proportion of people with a broadband subscription has almost doubled since 2010. In only a few countries, such as Eritrea and North Korea, fast mobile internet is not widely available in major cities. cities. Restaurants and hairdressers from Kabul to Bangui can take inspiration from Instagram; their consumers too. In Afghanistan, a fast-growing sector is e-commerce, mainly Chinese “direct-delivered” products, which retailers order directly from the factory and sell through Facebook. Where trade spreads, so does culture.
What does the rise of this class mean? A class of people who adhere to a common cult of Mid-Century furniture and mundane contemporary art do not always like each other among their fellow citizens. Even in rich countries, they are concentrated in cities which tend to vote for left-wing or liberal-leaning parties. And even in those places – where they’re accused of “gentrification” or worse – they’re not always welcome. The rise of such a style portends an urban-rural divide that is developing all over the world.
He drank his cortado before it got cold
Yet in rich countries these days being a hipster is hardly a rebellion – the culture has spread so relentlessly in the big cities that it is practically conformist. A somewhat ironic mathematical study published last year by Brandeis University found that even “a pure maverick[s] systematically making their decisions with a tendency to oppose the majority ”can end up making the same decisions as everyone else. Nowadays, it would be much braver for an entrepreneur in New York or Copenhagen to start a business with plastic tables and employees wearing chinos and polo shirts.
This is not true in many poor countries, and especially not in Kabul, where universities and schools are frequently the target of attacks, most recently on November 2. At Hairport, Kabul’s hair salon, Zia says the Taliban’s return to power is his biggest fear. Before starting his own business, he studied English in Pakistan and then worked with the US military. He likes the idea of the rest of the world. But he says: “I love my country” and does not want to leave. The future of Afghanistan is uncertain. If the Taliban return, “I plan to run away.” Not everyone with a beard is a good omen. ■
This article appeared in the international section of the print edition under the title “Flat-white world”