When you walk through the door of 91 Cornwall Street in Plymouth and into Luka’s Barbershop you immediately feel at ease. The staff are engaging and the atmosphere has a purity about it that is hard to achieve. There is a natural balance, one that you feel must have been curated over a number of years, by someone who holds that same serenity, balance and focus.
The truth is that it has, and his name is Luka Chitty. However, the road that has brought Luka to this place has been a torturous one that has challenged every part of his being along the way, and that serenity, balance and focus is so hard earned that finding inspiration in this man is incontrovertible.
Luka was born into a military family, spending the early part his life moving around between England, Germany and Cyprus. Born in Bath, a town set in the rolling countryside of Southwest England whilst the family were passing through, his Dad wasn’t with them as he was working in Salisbury, just getting to the hospital in time for his birth, arriving after a high speed journey in a Citroen 2CV.
The earliest memories for Luka were created in Cyprus, enjoying the life of “a military brat” embracing the sense of belonging that the extended family of the military can bring, and I sense that his formative years within that situation have formed a large part of his character. Family is extremely important to Luka.
It was his relationship with his brother, Aaron, he held in the highest regard, entirely inseparable from him, idolising every aspect of his elder brother. Whilst this isn’t uncommon, the unbreakable bond between them was deepened by the knowledge that they would not grow old together. Aaron was terminally ill and had been given a life expectancy no longer than his 10th birthday.
The heartbreaking fact that one day you will lose the person that is closest you is an incredibly grievous notion for anyone to carry, but having to do it from such an early age will invariably have an enduring impact, affecting so many aspects of your development and characteristics. Luka was more than aware that his childhood was not “normal” conceivably missing out on a large part of what being a young boy is, carefree, full of hope and endeavour. However, Luka embraced the lack of “normality” and engulfed himself in providing his brother with the best life and care he could.
“ I grew up very quickly in that environment, I knew I had to own my own feelings of personal grief, understand them and know why they were there. I don’t regret a single thing of my childhood, yes it wasn’t normal, but it made me who I am, and I had an amazing childhood. I looked after my brother, when all my other mates were out playing, I was sorting out my brothers oxygen and playing inside with him”
Aaron was born with his heart on the wrong side of his body and he had a hole in both his heart and in his lung. With no known cure to his condition he grew up knowing that the chance of finding one in time was incredibly unlikely, however he had the foresight to know that by entering into the various attempts at new procedures, trialing new medicine he may well be assisting in finding that cure for children born with the condition in the future.
The family moved back to England when Luka was 6 years old, Aarons health had deteriorated and his Dad had made the decision to leave the army. Settling back in his home town of Taunton, the family made many visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Luka vividly remembers the time when they were told Aaron had a matter of weeks to live.
“I’ll never forget it, the doctor had left the room and Aaron turned to us and said, I’m not going yet, I’m not ready yet. He had such a strong spirit”
That spirit the family held onto was to be further tested when Luka’s parents told them they were going to be getting a divorce. The mounting pressure had taken its toll on them as a couple and the decision had been made that they were to separate.
“That was really hard, and was the start of a lot of things. We all know what was going to happen to Aaron, we didn’t want to believe it, but we knew. My parents splitting up came out of the blue and tore everyone apart and I personally felt like that weakened Aaron, he had been so strong before that”
Luka didn’t spend anytime processing the split, that was to come later on in his life, he just further focused his attention on Aaron.
Aaron lost his battle just days before his 16th birthday.
The enormity of everything that Luka had gone through was now about to take its toll.
Luka attended the same secondary school that Aaron went to, describing himself as “never academic” he often found himself in trouble at school, finding it hard to engage in classroom structure, his dyslexia often a barrier and adding to the feeling he was constantly being judged against his elder brother, living in a shadow of someone who was very popular with students and teachers alike. This perpetuated his feeling of failure and heightened his sense of loss, Luka inevitably began to distance himself from formal education and his attendance at school was in steep decline, preferring to find solace in the freedom of riding his BMX.
Luka realised the path he was heading down was such a distractive one, very difficult to find a way out of, but he knew that he had to try, to find something that caught his attention and reignited the passion for life he held during the years he cared for Aaron.
Constantly searching for something to fill the void of loss is a futile task and Luka quickly came to the realisation he needed to learn to live with the empty space rather than fill it, and create new memories and find a focus he felt gave him a purpose.
The passion he held for riding anything with two wheels came from his Dad, constantly surrounded by motorcycles, Luka knew he wanted to involve himself in the freedom that those two wheels can give, and this was his driving force in finding a Saturday job.
Luka’s journey into cutting hair began with that Saturday job. Dispelling his early misgivings of working in a hairdressers, he very quickly became engrossed in the industry and thrived in the atmosphere created within the salon. The conceivably menial tasks of sweeping up and making the tea gave Luka the all important grounding and allowed himself to earn the respect of his co workers, and soon after starting he began his training to becoming a stylist. An unprecedented decision, at that time, was made by his school to allow him on day release to purse his passion for cutting hair in the form of an NVQ, 2 days a week. Looking back on that decision Luka realises that the teachers did have his best interests at heart, viewing him as an individual in his own right and values the support he was given.
It was during his time at Hair Associates that Luka began to feel part of a family again. For a long time feeling fearful of being alone, worrying what the impact of the feeling of isolation would have on him, everything began to feel like it was making more sense. The sense of belonging, being loved and needed gave him the platform to succeed within his NVQ and obtaining his full qualification at the age of 17 was the first time he felt he had a tangible achievement, something on paper that gave him self worth, Luka was in the most positive place he had been in a number of years. At 18 he was promoted to Creative Stylist, involved in editorial shoots for Vivienne Westwood, Armani and Greek Vogue, being flown around to various photoshoots and shows became a regular occurrence and looking back on this period in his life he realises that he never really appreciated the opportunity he had been given and at a relatively young age was unable to deal with the guilt he felt at feeling happy and content, the feeling he didn’t deserve to be happy was ever present.
Luka’s self destructive nature and the overwhelming feeling of guilt led to a mental breakdown. The feeling of belonging was quickly replaced with the more familiar feeling of isolation, it had all come too quickly and too soon for him and he made the decision to end his role of Creative Stylist, refusing to go onto any more shoots, returning to work in the salon and focus on his clients, the comfort he once felt in being considered part of a family again had gone. Luka puts his breakdown to having never fully dealt with his emotion over the loss of his brother and instead of facing the overwhelming wave of emotion in his current situation, he decided he needed to get away, to leave a job, the place and the people he had found comfort in, realising the support that was provided was cloaked in a vale of manipulation, and spend time on himself to re evaluate everything that had gone before.
This escapism came in the form of a short trip to Germany to ride in a BMX competition called BMX Masters for Motion BMX, Bristol, turning into a 6 month trip due to failure to book return flights, and was the catalyst in the decision not to return to the U.K, instead heading to Spain to visit friends.
“That period of time was so important to me. It gave me the space I needed to process the way that I was feeling. I got a job in a bar, my mate got a job in a restaurant, we stayed in the apartment that came with my job, it was the best summer of my life. I felt like I had a time to grieve, to concentrate on myself.”
Upon returning to England, Luka had conceivably got himself into a stronger position, with some balance and focus returning to his life. He began following his passion for music, having had turntables from an early age, and began producing with noted success, getting signed to a couple of dance labels and securing a tour to the US. Following the success of that initial tour he was re signed to return to the States. The whirlwind continued when he met a girl in the US and lived and worked out there for a year, however after a return trip the UK to play a few shows in London, Luka was arrested on his return to the US, and spent two days in a Downtown Los Angeles jail, as he had not secured the correct working Visa. He was deported back to the UK with a 10 year ban.
Coming back to the UK with the impending feeling a failure, Luka felt like he had returned under a cloud of a failing music career, without any money, his parents now living at opposite ends of the country, his pride prevented him from seeking solace from his much loved Grandparents, after working so hard to put himself into a position where he felt he had some balance, his recent actions had left him as low as he had previously been and the spiral into further depression began all too quickly.
The perpetual cycle of attempting to maintain some form of balance through drink and drugs was all to present at this time for Luka, creating further instability of his mental health, and a vicious cycle that was so hard to break, moving from sofa to sofa with little direction he found a helping hand in the form of a long term friend who offered to take him in, look after him, providing some stability, however the destructive path Luka found himself on continued.
“I felt like this was where I deserved to be, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but it was something I was perfectly happy to let happen, I felt like I deserved to feel the pain”
This was the moment Luka identifies as rock bottom, considering all that had gone before, this was it, this was the darkest place he had ever been with little hope of coming through the other side. He was loosing so much weight, his friends watching him disintegrate through constant partying into a complete mess.
“I had no money, no future, I ended up taking a job I hated at a fish market, I had been given the opportunity of work through a friend, I was there scrubbing out fishmongers boxes, scraping out all the shit, fish guts everywhere, it was fucking horrible. This is horrible, I am a fishmonger, well no, I was a fishmongers bitch”
In spite of his current position and turmoil of emotion Luka found the strength to recognise that he simply could not continue on this path. It is testament to his character that Luka once again found the strength and began to attempt to re build himself.
Lukas saving grace came when he walked through the door of Ashley's Barbershop in Taunton.
"I completely and utterly fell in love with barbering. I’d cut mens hair before, but not in a barbershop environment, and instantly it felt like this is what I had always been meant to do, it was a real lightbulb moment, a complete realisation, I had found a passion that hit me like a steam train"
Luka found great comfort in his new surrounds, the camaraderie found in a barbershop furthered his insight into the industry.
"I starting building up my confidence, just enjoying life again"
Life began to feel good again for Luka, having immersed himself in the barbering industry, he now felt like he had the platform he had been searching for to move forward and begin to truly heal the wounds of his past. This new found stability and positive, motivated outlook on life brought him to the stage where he felt the need to re-engage with his Dad. After an absence of 5 years Luka reached out to his Dad.
"I never really focused on the reasons why my Mum and Dad had split up, as I said at that time I was just focused on caring for Aaron, but there was so many things that had been said about him, him being the reason why the marriage had failed, and I believed everything that was said"
The re-connection with his Dad had given Luka a different perspective on the reasons why they had divorced, however Luka focused on that re-connection, and vividly remembers the first time he saw him in 5 years.
"We met in a pub, and I remember him walking in, and I was just like…..fuck, you have really aged, 5 years is a long time when your in your 50’s and he really had changed, I just cried. I felt a huge relief, I felt like I gained strength, my dad is such a strong person, it resonates from him"
With his relationship developing with his Dad, Luka finally felt like he was really feeling better about his situation, and himself as a person, and began to feel the need to understand his depression, to understand the reasons why he had been so destructive, and began reading around the subject of depression. He also thought back to when his parents split, the affect that the situation had on him, no longer harbouring any anger or confusion, he now understood how difficult it had been for them, for any parent to have to say goodbye to one of their children. Luka had looked after his Mum after they had split, always such a strong loving women, he had found himself in the position of the man of the house, he found it incredibly difficult to watch the demise of his Mum's health both physically and mentally. Throughout everything that had gone before, no matter what he had put his Mum through she has always been there for him, with unconditional love, something he will be forever grateful for.
"I knew all my actions had been because I was depressed, very, very depressed. The drugs didn’t help in any of that. I remember speaking to my Dad about it, open and honestly, I asked him what was wrong with me, and he just said, nothing is wrong with you, its just something that you have learn to deal with. I got a lot of strength from that understanding"
With the development of Luka's character, through all the work he had done on himself and the understanding of his mental health, gave him the ability to manage and for see situations that in previous years may have caused him to relapse. This ability was severely tested during his relationship with his then girlfriend. The relationship had been a very abusive, destructive one, with Luka often being the subject of violent outbursts.
"She just was not good for me. At all. She wasn’t supportive of me, she was just incredibly angry in her own mind, it turned into a very physical, abusive relationship, she used to hit me and stuff like that. It wasn’t nice"
"I found it really hard, I began to feel like I was regressing again, it was something I really struggled with"
The relationship ended, and during the period of time Luka afforded her to sort her stuff out and move from his house, he found out that she had slept with Ashley, the very person that had opened the barbering industry to him, the person who had been a major catalyst in the change Luka had made in his life.
"In a way it was the best thing that ever happened to me, it gave me full closure, I stayed at Ashley's Barbershop for a further 6 months, everyday in the knowledge of what he had done, letting him know that I knew without ever mentioning it. I was simply biding my time"
Sandymans Chopshop was the opportunity that Luka had been waiting for. Bones, the owner of Sandymans had seen Luka’s work on Instagram, and engaged with the talent he had, and was looking to open a shop in Exeter, Devon. For a long time Luka had been looking to make the move from Taunton to Exeter, and saw the opportunity of managing Sandymans as his way out, a fresh new start. Moving to Exeter knowing only one person, without a clientele was a massively brave decision. The development in Luka's character and his mental health had given him the strength to make that decision
"My mate James, the only person I knew in Exeter, introduced me to all his friends, help me build a clientele, he was a massive help, we all just got on and I found a whole new life"
"I felt like I could start that new life, I had no past, no one knew me, no one felt sorry for me, I had no memories. Anywhere I walk in Exeter, the only memories I have are really positive ones"
Creating and building a new life with that freedom almost came instantly to Luka and his life began to flourish, settling into a new life Luka began to follow his dream and began to make plans to establish his own business in his new found home. Always maintaining a huge respect for Bones and Sandymans and the opportunity he was given, it was his drive to create something of his own that became his new focus.
A chance meeting with his now business partner Toby Blatchford-Tagg on a night out, set in motion the start of a complete new chapter. An instant bond was created and the conversation quickly flowed onto the aspirations Luka held to start his own business.
"We just clicked, and very quickly became really good friends. Taggy hates the word entrepreneur, but thats what he is, he has an eye for business, but didn’t know anything about the barbering industry. He couldn’t see why I was working for someone else, creating their brand earning money for them. I explained I didn’t have the finances to open my own shop yet, and he was like, lets just do it. That was the start of it all for me"
During this period so many new things had started to happen in Luka’s life. Alongside the plans to start a new business, he met his now fiancé Nina.
"Nina is the best thing that has ever happen to me, she is my rock, my inspiration, she’s everything. She’s my best friend, we talk about everything, and she knows everything about me, what I’ve done, who I was, the dark places I’ve been in, and she loves me for that, and no one could ever ask for anymore than that"
With the full support of Nina, they found their shop in Exeter and began the journey.
Fast forward 2 years, with 3 successful barbershops, a brand behind him and with such a bright future ahead of him, the person that I have sat down with has come full circle. Listening to his story, and from my own person experience of loosing the person that is closest to you, I am in awe of his strength, honesty, determination and unequivocal drive and focus. Luka has truly been on a torturous journey and is an example that self acceptance and possessing the desire to grow, never giving up and to change any situation in front of you, you can achieve your dreams and ambitions.
"I now see myself as compassionate, caring, loving, driven, and it’s only because of the process of my life that has made me feel I know who I am, I never felt I knew who I was, now I do, I am happy with who I have become"
"If someone can say that they have been inspired by me, or something that I have done, a haircut, to my experience in America, to opening a shop, anything, just to inspire someone in some way is the best thing you can do. For someone to be inspired by a certain person, and that person just to be me………..it’s mental"
Having made so many changes in his life, changing who he is, where he lives, his perception of what he can be, the one consistent thing Luka has carried with him is the memory of his brother. He talks about him with such passion and love and it is clear that he has begun to learn to live with the hole left by the death of his brother instead of trying to cover it up, and the many years he was unable to process the grief he felt are now behind him. It takes incredible courage to open up and be completely honest about how you feel, but I feel that this is all part of the process of Luka’s healing, he has fully accepted his emotions and will continue to grow stronger each day knowing how to deal with the good and bad days.
Its this ability to process his feelings and channel them in a positive way that led him to take part in a charity ride called Barbersride, organised by his good friend Colin Petrie. The Barbersride was a four day, 900 mile fundraising ride from Dundee to London that raised in excess of £10,000 for great Ormond Street Hospital and The Lions Barber Collective, a group dedicated to raising the awareness for the prevention of suicide in young men. Riding a completely inappropriate hard tail Harley for that many miles is a gruelling task, but riding the wave of emotion and using it as the driving force behind why you are doing such a thing keeps you focused. There were many times during the trip where the emotion almost became too much, but none more so that when they pulled up to Great Ormond Street Hospital, the place where is brother had spent so much of his time, to be greeting by a strong crowd and presenting the cheque for the money they had raised.
"It was a very heavy, emotional experience. It was the first time I’d been back there since Aaron died, to be greeting by such a crowd, I was so tired physically but mainly mentally, I was drained and it opened up a lot of emotion on a large scale for me, but I really felt like it was some closure for my brother"
The ride back to Devon in a way was the real test for Luka. With all the riders going their separate ways, he was left to ride back to Devon alone, carrying the crash of that wave of emotion and with only a dark lonely road for comfort he was left feeling lonely, isolated, and after having many mechanical issues, fighting fatigue, the urge to drift off asleep and with a broken phone the anxiety of not being able to contact Nina to let her know he was ok almost became too much.
After 7 hours Luka arrived home.
"I just got off my bike, sat down on the floor and cried, I wondered if it was the right thing to have done, to open myself up to that emotion, the only thing that got me through it was him, the thought of my brother"
And that for me this is what Luka is about. He has learnt so much about himself, adapted, failed, kept going, never shying away from difficult emotionally draining situations, harbouring the pain of his loss and for many years unable to deal with that pain, now I can see how that serenity, balance and focus was earned.