The lost art of service can be found tucked away in a beautifully appointed barbershop in Ralph Lauren’s offices on Madison Avenue. The fact that its polished decor recalls a luxury ocean liner just serves to magnify its old-world charm. Appointments are by referral only, and clients come from far and wide—often for life.
Clemente DiMonda started learning his craft at twelve years old in a barbershop in Napoli, sweeping the floor and brushing hair from clients’ clothing. As a youngster working for tips, Clemente—whose clients all refer to him by his first name—recalls feeling for change in gentlemen’s pockets as he brushed (there were no big bills then). “The more I would feel,” he says with a laugh, “the more brushing I would do!” Descended from a long line of artisans—bespoke tailors, shoemakers—Clemente says one benefit of being a barber was having money in his pocket at the end of every day.
Clemente arrived in New York City in 1961, at the tail end of a mass migration from Southern Italy to Western Europe and the United States. He set up shop in Manhattan’s Garment District, where he met one of his all-time favorite designers, Ralph Lauren, and made a name for himself as a craftsman of hair, catering to top designers and high-profile CEOs in the fashion industry.
A little more than a decade ago, when the lease on Clemente’s shop was up, his friend and client made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a rent-free space in the Ralph Lauren corporate headquarters in Midtown. And while the shop is basically hidden away—no sign, no intercom—long-standing clients, including rival designers, still make the trek to indulge in an exceptional Clemente cut.
Lauren offered his design expertise to the shop—white-painted wood with polished silver accents and etched deco glass. Rich saddle-brown leather chairs and a black-and-white floor capture the classic, elevated style that both men are drawn to. Clemente requested only one change: “We had to fix the position of the sink to make it more comfortable for the clients.”
Photographs on the wall reflect the elegant glamour of old Hollywood. Here you’re given a glimpse into how Lauren—the son of immigrants as well as artists—achieved his own dream. In order to create a truly authentic lifestyle brand, every detail must summon the essence of the designer’s inspiration, whether cinema’s golden age or the richly crafted trappings of the upscale equestrian.
“There’s a whole spirit,” the designer says of his aesthetic. “It’s in the voice, the personality, the beauty of the hair…it’s all one package.” This shared passion for both the artisanal detail and the big picture remains a strong bond between the two men.
“I don’t believe in hairstyles. My clients are very classic, very high-class. They don’t want to look like someone else.”
– Clemente DiMonda
Clemente’s assistant, Marguerite, helps around the shop. Hers is the voice you hear when you call for an appointment. She will say, sweetly, “No appointments.” Not without a referral from Clemente’s small circle of patrons, some of who represent three generations of families. There are no set prices—everyone pays what they consider a fair price for the cut. “One customer I’ve had for fifty years,” Clemente says, “doesn’t pay more than he did back when he first came to me.”
Despite his exclusivity, Clemente is more than happy to share his approach to hair, which neatly resembles Lauren’s indifference to the latest trends. There is timelessness, longevity to his style of cutting—scissors and straight razor, no electric shears, no styling products. He takes his time, focusing on the path as much as the destination. “I don’t believe in hairstyles,” he says. “My clients are very classic, very high-class. They don’t want to look like someone else.”
Of his personal style, Clemente loves a nice vest and tie. His “uniform” on the day we met was a three-piece chalk-striped suit, dress shirt with contrasting dandy collar and necktie. “Ralphie has been my favorite designer since 1967,” Clemente says, noting that the legendary designer hasn’t changed a bit since they first met decades ago. He mixes his Ralph-wear with some custom-made Italian pieces of the kind he grew up around, and discloses that he doesn’t dress down even on weekends.
Undeniably charming, Clemente attributes much of his graciousness to his grandfather, who once said to his young grandson, “Clemente, how much does it cost you to say good morning?” Now a grandfather of six and father of three, Clemente’s chivalry—along with his unique expertise—seems to be what keeps his shop humming.
From a warm embrace at the door (Clemente might even call you “baby”) followed by a delicious espresso, a fresh hot towel, and meticulous attention to grooming—including a haircut, shave, shoeshine, and discreet appraisal of the ears and nose—it is no mystery, as Clemente says, that “no one ever leaves my shop with a long face.”
Marissa (Misa) Levey is Ralph Lauren Advertising’s Senior Director of Copy, as well as a poet and a mother—in no particular order.