Bully Fades Founder James Hov Talks How to Stand on Your Head as Underdog
November 03, 2022
There are a few things you are guaranteed to encounter upon a visit to Bully Fades Barbershop on Central’s Wellington Street.
First is a meticulously delivered haircut or beard trim that has seemingly revived the man it belongs to with new light, an assortment of eye-catching skateboard decks, and lastly, a lively conversation that’s rich with personable hospitality and peppered with raucous laughter.
Behind this den of wonders is James Hov, an individual of many persuasions. In part a symbol of the hard-knocks past he left behind, in part a sanctuary to bring his creative aspirations to life, James describes the venue as “literally [himself] in a shop form.”
It is from here where he adroitly administers fresh haircuts, records his tell-all hip-hop tracks, and stocks unique skating and collectibles paraphernalia that dazzle every incoming client.
Speaking to The Beat Asia in his newly revamped space, he chronicles the feats, setbacks, and mischiefs that culminated in the birth of Bully Fades.
Beginning with a short vacation that was only meant to last two weeks, the Toronto-native has since spent the last four years in Hong Kong. The moniker of “Bully Fades” is named in tribute to James’ friend Bvlly, who tragically passed away in 2019.
“My background is a story of an Asian kid growing up in an area where I had seen things that would traumatise most children but made me into the person I am today. It was a combination of gun violence, funerals, skateboarding, recording studios, racetracks, and a piece of parchment paper that made mom happy.”
Upon his return, young James decided that the best way to rekindle with the city of his roots was on wheels. Conquering the notorious urban obstacles that he had only encountered through watching skate videos, his skills quickly gained him attention from local street culture legend Brian Siswojo, helping him to score a place skating on the TV Show “I Love Hong Kong” and later joining an X-Venture Game of S.K.A.T.E. competition back in 2018, where he placed first.
“My skate shop was really, originally an experiment. Prior to opening Bully Fades, I already had a good amount of clients to cut, but I wanted newcomers to gain curiosity prior to meeting me or the team. I really just sell to the crew I skate with, and parents that want their kids to start skating... and sometimes people buy skate decks as decor for their home.”
Leading up to establishing the shop, let alone building the brand, James was met with an uphill path full of resistance. Having cut in eyebrow-raising places such as the MTR, or a cubbyhole sized micro-apartment where he would livestream his now-viral house calls, the experience of cutting hair in Hong Kong took much more than just clocking his hours in for James to earn his stripes.
“It takes a lot more for people to trust me when they have no idea how hard I work as an owner of a barbershop, cutting hair is just a small part of it.”
Back in Toronto while living in a residence with a predominantly Somalian and Jamaican population, James first brushed behind the scissors at age 16 tended towards cutting fades and lineups on Afro-hair textures. This translated into introducing a style of precise gradients and sharp stylings to the clientele he met with over here.
Despite speaking Cantonese and presenting as a local because of his looks, James experienced initial dissonance when he began his barbering journey, placing him sorely in the rankings of an underdog amongst the Hong Kong-based community.
Even as a newcomer to Hong Kong, James was stunned by the unsavory haircuts that much closer resembled a “mop, mushroom,...or Sydney Opera House” than quality styling, and the impersonal wordlessness of interaction between a customer and their barber.
As an amicable and chatty person, he quickly gained rapport amongst frequenters, gaining a strong following who remained with him even after his departure from the other studios.
“I am just happy to see people finally realising they were being served cup noodles at a fancy restaurant and wanted someone more. The citizens of Hong Kong finally woke up and found out there were more haircuts that fit their appearance more. Personally, I love that most of my new clients ask me to go Picasso on them after hearing about me.”
Leveraging his passion for producing videos and past know-how in marketing, he finally announced the opening of Bully Fades in 2020.
“It’s what gave me the drive and what made me want to stay in Hong Kong. I feel like I'm a nobody here that's trying to prove myself. Meanwhile back home, I feel like it's Hollywood for me, I feel like a superstar back home.”
“I feel like I took a lot of things for granted, but I built everything by myself over here. Opening Bully Fades has been like a safe haven for me. This is the happiest place for me.”
Flick through the quirky skits and sleek showreels highlighting his clients’ dashing hair and grooming makeovers, and James’ larger-than-life spirit is almost physically palpable. Yet when prompted to share his secrets to hitting all the marks on the algorithm, James raises the importance of maintaining an honest “one-on-one" connection with every single person, citing the key ingredient of keeping things authentic.
“I get this odd sense of satisfaction when people come in not knowing what to expect but leave with such elation. Brings me genuine happiness when people tell me they had wish they found me and my team earlier. I really am more one on one with the person, even if they've never been my client, you know, even a brief conversation, like one out of five people will become a client.”
“The Bully Fades community is definitely tight knit. Most clients are friends of friends of friends. The support and love [are] so genuine, I became a different person because of my barbershop. Every time we post a new video on our Instagram our insights explode with shares. It’s love, the people know it’s not corporate.”
Always set to full speed ahead, James recounted the milestone of Bully Fades’ cotton jubilee by mulling over the road still yet to forge.
“August 8th, 2022 was the second anniversary of Bully Fades Barbershop. We didn’t celebrate this one, we ended up strategising and repositioning ourselves on my white board. You got to put in the work to reap the benefits you can enjoy the fruits of your labor!”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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