By Narelle Coulter
Berwick barber and businessman Mario Fallace steps jauntily through the front door of his hairdressing salon in Gloucester Avenue, Fallachi Hair.
It is a Wednesday morning and the salon is preparing for another busy day. The boss casts a quick eye around the tidy salon before cheerily introducing me to his staff.
“And don’t forget your client,“ sings out a Berwick regular having her hair washed and trimmed.
“Sorry beautiful,“ calls out Mario in reply.
“Rowena has been coming here close to 18 years if not more,“ he tells me.
“I have to tolerate Mario but the staff here are fantastic. I have no reason to change,“ says Rowena, with a grin.
“I love you too,“ retorts Mario.
“Quick give her a free treatment at the basin. We didn’t plant her at all.“
Mario is one of the most recognisable and arguably flamboyant, figures in the Berwick business community.
On the day of our interview he is dressed in a blue waistcoat, dark denim jeans and micro diamond patterned red jacket. When he rolls up his cuffs, sleeves of tattoos show on both arms.
Mario dresses with the same flair and attention to detail every day of the week, a sartorial signal to staff and clients that he takes pride in what he does.
“We are asking customers to invest their hard earned money into their personal vanity so I should look like I’ve invested in my own. It’s important with fashion that it is top to toe, that you’re consistent,“ he explains.
A barber by trade, Mario opened Tomars Hairdressing (now Fallachi Hair) 23 years ago. He is also the owner of the award-winning New York Barbers, which was named last year’s Casey Cardinia Retail Business of the year.
After a troubled start in life, Mario is incredibly proud of the businesses he has built and their longevity on the Berwick business scene.
From Fallachi Hair we walk back to New York Barbers the business Mario established in 2014. Its popularity necessitated a move to larger premises in Adams Lane in 2018.
The barbershop, which services more than 600 clients each week, pays homage to the history, energy and creativity of the Big Apple. Striking photographs of New York adorn the front and interior. A image of a yellow cab bursts from the back wall and black and white subway tiles are laid on the walls. The floor imitates the pebble sidewalks of New York. An antique barber’s chair sits in one corner and old cut throat razors and other tools of the trade are displayed on the walls.
“I’ve been collecting these things for 36 years. My wife would say to me ’Will you stop bringing these things home.’ Now I have somewhere they belong but I’ve still got a garage full,“ Mario said, smiling.
He talks nostalgically of the heyday of barbering especially in New York mid last century when there was a “barber on every corner“.
“I always wanted to create the traditional barbershop, to reflect the specialist skill set of old school barbering.“
Mario says he “fell in barbering“.
As a teenager he was inspired and mentored by old school barbers Gino Vercillo and Tony Savino who took young Mario under their wings giving him a trade and a path out of trouble.
Mario grew up in Springvale in the 1980s, the son of Italian immigrants. Springvale “was pretty rough“ in those days and Mario fell in with the wrong crowd.
“At 15 I was a silly boy and I was kicked out of school. I don’t have a year 9 pass and I can’t read and write that well. I’m certainly not proud of it, but I have spoken about it publicly. Standing in front of a judge at 17 about to go to jail for a very long time I was very fortunate at that time that I had fallen into barbering.“
Gino and Tony are still important influences in Mario’s life. They help with skills training and were guests at the firm’s awards night in December.
Just as barbering saved him, Mario in turn estimates that he has helped close to 100 apprentices become qualified barbers and hairdressers.
“If I can leave something with someone that will help them make better choices in life then that is a good thing. This (barbering) has given me a better choice in life. If I can give others that then I’ve done a pretty good job.“
Mario loves referring to his “team“ and he tells me several time how awesome his staff are and how proud his is of them. The team includes wife Christina and son Dion.
“I am very proud because this business is not just me. To do this every day in a consistent nature it’s not just Mario. One of my biggest philosophies about being a leader is that you should try to make people greater than you.“
He has been told many times that a salon like New York Barbers should be in the heart of the city, but in Mario’s mind the core of a community isn’t found in the Melbourne CBD.
“Berwick is real people, even though it has changed over 23 years, it has always stayed a family area hence why we expanded.
“I have seen generations come through my business. That is what happens in the suburbs.“
He sees the future in the children who accompany their fathers to New York Barbers or the young girls who who follow their mother’s lead and get their hair styled at Fallachi Hair.
“I am a great lover of children. If you come here ( New York Barbers) on a Saturday morning the most pleasing thing is to see a father and a young boy walking hand in hand checking in for a haircut.“
To illustrate his point Mario sits down on a seat in the waiting area of New York Barbers and swings his feet back and forward in delight like a child.
“That young boy will come here for the next 20 years. You tell me a client in any business that can give that. I love that. To see a little kid get his lollipop and walk out hand in hand with his father, that’s what it’s about for me.“
Mario spent time in New York last year on a quest to track down the city’s best hot dogs so he could add the quintessential American sandwich to the barbershop’s cafe menu.
Despite his lack of formal qualifications, Mario has spent a lifetime learning from the people sitting in his chair.
“The world can sit in your (barber’s) chair. I’ve had brain surgeons, ants pants barristers, even gangsters. I’ve been able to ask questions of people. I listen and I learn from them.
“Even in the case of the gangster I learned something – how not to be a bad person,“ he says with a chuckle.
Mario is confident the relationship between hairdresser and client will survive automation.
“I’ve always said that we will very soon fly to moon for a weekend jaunt. But guess what? You will want your hair done to do that.
“A mechanical device can’t pick up on vanity. A robot can’t change half way through a haircut, two human beings can agree to do that.“
Mario still picks up his scissors and works on the floor of both salons “every single day, six days a week“. He also uses his position as an industry leader to teach and speak at conferences and industry events around Australia.
He says it’s important his staff still see him active, motivated and wanting to be there.
“I enjoy cutting hair. I wake up at 5am every morning and I am the first person in Berwick virtually.
“I love what I do. I love it every day.“