Leave the M4 at Junction 11, follow signs to the Madejski Stadium and a mile down the road you'll come to the Reading Innovation Centre: 8,500sq m of red-brick industrial space, it was established in 1959 by Gillette to better understand the way men shave. Go through swishy double-doors and past reception and inside you'll find a maze of strip-lit corridors and individually numbered laboratories all populated by men and women in white coats studying computers, collating data and scientifically analysing the results.
Around 120 chemists, biologists, pharmacists and aeronautical engineers work here, employees of Gillette's huge multinational parent company, Procter & Gamble, in the research and development of safety razors.
Every morning at 7.45am, up to 80 volunteers pass through these doors, members of the public who swap their individual Pin code for a red plastic tray containing a new prototype razor and some shaving cream. Then they go through a white curtain, line up in cubicles in front of two-way mirrors and shave. From this point, every one of their actions – from the time spent prepping their faces to the angle and the frequency of each razor stroke and even their grip on the handle – are recorded by banks of monitors and cameras, some that track the shave at up to quarter of a million frames per second. Sometimes more cameras, really tiny ones, are mounted in the backs of the razor cartridges.
Afterwards, these Daily Test Shavers are asked to rate their experience, ticking off 70 different attributes (amount of razor drag, ease of rinsing and so on) and record their findings on a diagrammatical "face map". Then they're interviewed about the results. After that there might be another round of tests to assess the impact on their skin, using powerful microscopes. The results allow Gillette's engineers to go back and tweak whatever conceptual drawings they're working on and render new razors using rapid polymer prototyping — 3D printers – that the company had to design and build itself.
"People say shaving isn't rocket science, but it is," Dr Kristina Vanoosthuyze, one of Gillette's principal scientists, tells me. "We had a rocket scientist who came to us from British Aerospace." Gillette has introduced just two new razor lines in the last 14 years: Mach 3 (1998) and Fusion (2006). On each they spent around $750m in research and development costs.
The Gillette Fusion, introduced in 2006: five blades on the front, one on the back for sideburn trimming.
When you think about it (although there's no particular reason why you should have thought about it), the safety-razor business is pretty weird. Indeed, the safety razor itself is pretty weird. There's nothing else in the consumer goods sector like it. On the one hand, it's a prosaic piece of plastic designed to be thrown in the bin as soon as its short life is over. On the other, it represents the very apex of precision engineering and medical know-how, literally cutting-edge science. Take Gillette's Fusion ProGlide Power Razor. It contains more than 60 different parts. It's so complicated there's only two factories in the world that can make it. Each of its six blades are spot-welded 13 times – that's 78 welds per cartridge. (Gillette does more welding than many car manufacturers.) Those six blades are now so thin – far thinner than, say, a surgeon's scalpel – that scientists have to examine them using atomic microscopes, the same ones Nasa uses.
At their tips, they measure 25 nanometers, a figure that's smaller than the wave of visible light. Then there's all the other add-on tricks that come with today's safety razors. The battery-powered ProGlide Power Razor contains a voltage controller to regulate its vibration and a microchip that knows when it's being used. Accidentally leave it switched on in your wash bag and after eight minutes it will silently turn itself off.
Little wonder Gillette's Innovation Centre is something to behold. At least, I'm sure it would be if I was allowed to see it. The truth is that outsiders, let alone journalists, are seldom allowed in. Dr Vanoosthuyze, an enthusiastic and entertaining speaker with Belgian roots, talked me through all the above in a hotel bar recently, using photos and videos she'd bought along with her on her laptop. "It's not easy to get in," she explained. "There's a lot of intellectual property there, we are quite protective of that."
Indeed, the shaving industry is unlike any other consumer goods sector in other ways, too. The level of secrecy easily outstrips anything I've come across reporting on the car industry, the space industry, the movie business or Google. Presumably that's because there's even more money at stake. Procter & Gamble, who own 300 consumer brands including Crest toothpaste, Duracell batteries and Head & Shoulders shampoo, say their products are used by 4.2bn of the 6.5bn people alive today. They also control 60 per cent of the planet's $34bn shaving market, having acquired Gillette nine years ago in a blockbuster deal worth $57bn in cash and shares.
This explains why for the first hour of our conversation, Vanoosthuyze is open and animated before suddenly becoming rather agitated, dropping her voice to a whisper and tilting her laptop screen shut. Eventually, I twig why: two men have joined us on the other side of the bar. They're certainly doing a good impression of colleagues who'd knocked off work early on a Friday for a quick drink before home. But who knows? They could work for Wilkinson Sword. The two companies have been at each other's throats for years, locked in a long-running series of disputes over razor patents and advertising claims. Gillette's nearest rivals claim 18 per cent of the shaving market, with brands like Bic and newcomers such as King of Shaves owning the rest.
I had hoped to speak to Wilkinson Sword for this story. At first they agreed: saying that though a visit to their High Wycombe HQ or an interview with one of their scientists wouldn't be possible, I could speak with its product manager, Hayley Napier. Then I was told Napier would only respond to questions by email. Then that her answers needed to be approved by Wilkinson Sword's lawyers. Then that there were delays with the answers. And finally, that the lawyers' approval wouldn't be ready by the time Esquire went to press. So instead I asked the softest question I could think of: What makes Wilkinson Sword razors so great?
"The Wilkinson Sword product range meets the needs of the everyday man," they eventually wrote back. "Wilkinson Sword is confident it has something for all types of facial hair."
An attack of nerves and shaving should never go together. But the shaving industry is currently having an attack of nerves like never before. For the first time since 1901 when the disposable blade was invented by King C Gillette – a travelling salesman with a Philadelphia bottling company who figured there might be money made elsewhere from a business where people kept hold of his bottles but had to replace the corks with every few uses – its sales are in decline. For the reasons why, we must look to hipsters and their beards. Despite sounding like something that's come straight off the pages of satirical news website The Onion, "the rise of the hipster beard" has genuinely been acknowledged as one reason why razor companies are having a tough time of it. (Last year, Gillette took the unprecedented step of launching a moustache and beard trimmer, the ProGlide Styler. And it's presumably what Wilkinson Sword are addressing with their comment that "it has something for all types of facial hair" – razors for men who don't like to shave.)
Other factors include a more relaxed dress code in the office and high unemployment in Southern Europe, which has left jobless men with less reason to shave. Then there's George Clooney, Brad Pitt, David Beckham and all the other celebrities who have at some point recently abandoned the clean-shaven look.
"If you look at magazines in Western Europe, all the male models have beards or stubble," Nicole Tyrimou says, an analyst at the market intelligence firm Euromonitor, who forecast the UK shaving market will shrink by 0.8 per cent this year.
"What would have been described as 'the yuppie look', very smooth-skinned, is so unfashionable now," says Mark Tungate, author of Branded Male: Marketing To Men and other books on the business of grooming and fashion. "It's cooler now to be creative than it is to be wealthy. Nobody wants to look like a banker anymore."
And if the razor companies might be tempted to brush off the European hipster beard as a fad, in the US they're facing irritations that could be harder to ignore long-term. There, razor subscription services like Dollar Shave Club, a company who manufacture basic but functional razors in Asia and sell them directly through their online site at a significant discount, are on the rise. Sign up and a year's supply of 60 twin-blade cartridges is yours for $1 a month. Dollar Shave Club say they had 12,000 customers within 48 hours of launch. By the end of their first year, they'd made $10m. It's something that's brought genuine disruption to the market, to use the marketing parlance.
Dollar Shave Club is the idea of a journalist and advertising video producer called Michael Dubin and his mate's fiancée's retail-savvy dad. What the pair lacked in Gillette or Wilkinson Sword's multi-billion dollar marketing budgets and endorsements from Roger Federer, Thierry Henry or Tiger Woods they made up for with clever use of social media. A YouTube video in which Dubin, who also happens to be an improv comic, variously rides a forklift, plays tennis and dances with a bear, proclaiming 'Our blades are fucking great!', became a viral hit. At the time of writing, it's been watched 15 million times. Another American start-up, Harry's, entered the market last March, and by January had raised enough money to buy a razor factory in Eisfeld, Germany. In the US, it sells its preppily named, retro-branded traditional razor kits The Truman Set and The Winston Set, through J Crew and The Standard boutique hotels.
"Men tend to buy stuff that looks good on the shelf, so when it came to the design of razors it used to be 'How can we make a razor that looks like a Porsche?'" Mark Tungate says. "Now we're in the middle of a retro trend so there's a whole demographic that doesn't want a razor that looks like a Porsche, they want a razor that looks like a vintage Morgan. There's also a vogue for straight and cut-throat razors and old-fashioned safety razors, like your granddad used. But razor companies have always been in the business of selling you the future, so where does that leave them? Because they can't go back. They can't say, 'Actually, you don't need five blades, you just need one really sharp one.'"
"Never buy overpriced razors again," advises Harry's website. Or as Michael Dubin says in the Dollar Shave Club video: "Do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a back-scratcher and 10 blades? Do you like spending $20 a month on brand-name razors?"
Ah yes, the price. The fact that the big razor companies make their money from selling you a relatively cheap handle that only fits one kind of expensive blade, isn't news. It's the same business model that's since been adopted by makers of pens and their refills, inkjet printers and their cartridges and coffee machines and their pods. No man likes walking into Boots to buy new razor cartridges because – not only is there the faff of getting the staff to unlock those security protected perspex boxes, which automatically makes you feel like a criminal – it's difficult to shake the idea you're being ripped off. (One of the weird stipulations of Wilkinson Sword agreeing to be in this article at all was that I didn't mention the price of any of their products. Most brands get upset if you don't mention the price of their products, magazines like this one being at least partly a glossy advert for new things.)
In fact, let's be honest, no man really likes walking into Boots, full stop.
"If men can avoid shopping for intimate personal items, they will do so," Tungate says. "Going into Boots is not an ideal fun thing for them. So if they can get a cheap razor online then they will. All the research shows that men buying grooming products online is on the up, and there's good reason for that."
Obviously, the razor blade companies, like any company, have to keep persuading you to buy new products or else they haven't got a business. And where the beauty industry, particularly the female beauty industry, traditionally market their latest wares on science – telling customers that a new tub of white cream is better than their current tub of white cream because they've enriched it with peptides, marine extracts and coenzymes and given it a sciencey sounding French name – razor blades are marketed to men on performance. The closest, most comfortable shave – the best a man can get. Traditionally, that's meant adding another blade. You'll recall the slogan that most famously trumpeted the advantages of multiple blades: the first blade lifts the hair, the second cuts it and the third cuts it even closer…
It was Gillette that first added a second blade in 1971 with its Trac II. Then in 1998, it introduced the three-blade Mach3, accompanied by a $300m marketing campaign and adverts that showed a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier. (As the jet broke through Mach 3, the pilot morphed into a man in the bathroom, where a razor flew into his hand.) Wilkinson Sword fought back with the Quattro – four blades – in 2003. Then the injunctions started flying: within hours of the Quattro's announcement, Gillette filed a €20m patent infringement claiming they'd illegally incorporated elements of Mach3 blade technology. Though Gillette's patent referred to three blades, their lawyer said it applied to any three blades similarly aligned, regardless of whether they were part of a four-, five- or 20-blade razor. (The court dismissed Gillette's claim.)
The following year, it was Wilkinson Sword's turn to attack Gillette. A new battery-powered version of Mach3, the M3 Power, was marketed as shaving closer than any other blade on the market. Wilkinson Sword disagreed. In court, Gillette's claim was proven to be technically right – tests showed an advantage of 0.0143mm. Though since that measurement was "neither visible" nor "noticeable to the consumer" it was deemed misleading: Gillette were served with a cease-and-desist claim and made to pay $1.85m in fees.
Then in 2006, the first five-blade razor, the Gillette Fusion, arrived. It's actually a six-blade razor if you include the one on the back designed for tricky places like under the nose and sideburns. Wilkinson Sword launched their own five-blade razor, the Hydro 5 Power Select – "the only powered razor with three vibration settings giving you the ultimate shave comfort" – in 2012.
Along the way, both companies have added any number of lubricating strips, micro-fins, "anti-friction" blades, spring-loaded blades, low-resistance titanium coatings, pivoting heads, ergonomic rubberised grips, streamlined comfort guards, micro-combs, flip trimmers, hydrating gel reservoirs and vibrating handles. The newest version of Gillette's Fusion operates by sending out something called "soothing micro-pulses" designed to improve razor glide. "It turns shaving into gliding," claim the adverts.
Naturally, all this has been ripe for parody: Will Ferrell has a skit about a Platinum Mach14, while Australian TV viewers are familiar with a joke advert for a razor featuring 16 blades and 75 lubricating strips: "The first blade distracts the hair, while the second and third blades sneak up behind it…" "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" was a headline that actually did run in The Onion – less than two years before five blades became a reality. In 2011, Gillette even spoofed itself, producing a clip for the 80-blade MagmaCore Extreme that featured a lot of fire and a shirtless man impressing a lady by forging a piece of steel on an anvil. ("To find out more about our actual new razor, visit facebook.com/gillette…") Sadly, none of these observations were particularly original. The very first episode of the American TV institution Saturday Night Live featured a spoof advert for "the Triple Trac Razor". And that was shortly after a two-blade cartridge had first appeared, in the Seventies.
Now it's unlikely we will ever see a seven or eight-blade razor. The limitations of space have started to kick in. The science behind adding blades is based on something called progressive geometry or what Gillette has trademarked the "hysteresis effect", where the blades work in concert to pull whiskers out from the skin as they slice into them. Second and subsequent blades engage hair further down the hair shaft, so that each passing blade cuts closer than the one before. ("The first blade lifts the hair…" etc) By the time a fifth blade comes along, the hair is actually cut a little below the skin's surface. Shaving with a five-blade razor is equivalent to shaving five times with a single blade, but only if you get the spacing just right between the blades (we're talking microns).
"If you add blades but keep them at the same distance, you cause too much friction," Dr Vanoosthuyze says. "It's a bit like the principal of the fakir who lies on a bed of nails. If he lays down and there are many nails close together, then he's alright. But if there's a couple of nails here and there so the weight is not evenly distributed, there's discomfort. So you probably won't see a seventh or an eighth blade because there's a limit to how big you can make that razor. You still have to get it under your nose. But, of course, we have tried a sixth and a seventh. Of course we tried that."
For the foreseeable future, Gillette plans to stick with the five-blade (plus the one on the back) Fusion cartridge system it introduced in 2006. That doesn't mean it's run out of new things to sell us. Instead of bringing a new cartridge to market, it is about to do something that upends the business model based on cheap handles and expensive blades. It's launching an expensive handle. The ProGlide FlexBall was developed in Reading and came out in the US in April. It is expected to go on sale here this autumn (Gillette won't comment on launch dates).
Retailing in the US for a record $11.49 ($12.59 for the battery-powered version), the FlexBall is reminiscent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner in that it features a "swivelling ball-hinge" so that the cartridge pivots, allowing it to move forward and back, and left and right but in a controlled manner. Gillette say that means the blades miss 20 per cent fewer hairs with each pass, and cut each whisker 23 microns shorter – about the quarter of the width of a human hair. They plan to sell $188m worth of them in the first year, and are deploying a $200m marketing budget to help do so. By this point, you might reasonably ask how close a shave you actually need. Twenty-three more microns. I mean, could you, let alone anybody you're actually bothering to shave for, really tell? Aren't we back to measurements that are "neither visible" nor "noticeable to the consumer"?
Indeed, the ProGlide FlexBall has already been met with what might politely be called a mixed reaction. There's been a fair amount of piss-taking. Others are actually angry. One magazine went as far as to call it "everything that's wrong with American innovation" suggesting that "market-driven myopia" is being put before investment in other areas of engineering, and pointing out that while Procter & Gamble was engaged in its "latest absurdity", China was busy 3D-printing houses. Of course, the suggestion that the razor companies are spending a hair-raising amount of money on first developing and then selling us something we don't really need is one they've heard before.
"Before we launch something, our research and development department have to prove to the company that something like [the ProGlide FlexBall] outperforms the previous generation in a way that is significant, measurable and meaningful," Dr Vanoosthuyze says. "Usually by 2:1. Everything [on the razor] is there for a reason and everything is there because guys have told us that it brings a significant benefit to the quality of the shave. Only then will the company sign something off and invest in the machines to produce the razors, which again can take years and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment."
Vanoosthuyze points out that they'd actually developed the hysteresis effect and multiple-blade spacing in the Seventies. It took them until the Nineties to work out how to make the cartridges.
Shaving is more complicated than you might think. When you imagine hair growing out of skin, you perhaps imagine a biology-textbook diagram of a follicle shooting out of a solid cube, like a sapling rising out of the ground. That's quite an oversimplification. Hair is embedded in the skin, and skin isn't flat like a sheet of paper. It's a soft matrix that has a texture to it, and undulates. Beard hairs are incredibly tough. They have the same strength as copper wire. For a razor to work effectively, it has to cut as easily as possible through hair with minimum force and as close as is achievable to the skin without catching the skin. What's more, everyone's face is different; everyone's hair growth patterns are different.
Even if you think you're shaving with the grain of the hair, the reality is a razor blade needs to tackle hairs from all different angles. Also, skin is irregular. Cheek skin tends to be a lot flatter than neck skin, for example, so neck hairs tend to grow at a lower angle, with many of the hairs not fully protruded and trapped under the skin. That's why the neck tends to be a bit of a torture area for redness and irritation. You can significantly improve matters by having a shower before you shave, rather than the other way round. That's because hair is made out of the protein keratin, and proteins have a high affinity with water. Once the hair takes on water, it becomes much easier to cut. The next problem for the razor companies is that no two people shave in the same way. The pressure we put on razors can typically vary from 50 grams all the way up to two kilograms. Some people take 30 strokes to shave, some take 700. Dr Vanoosthuyz showed me footage – speeded up footage – of one of Gillette's Daily Test Shavers who took 24 minutes to complete his shave. He stopped to lather up four separate times. It was like he was performing a ritual. Very slowly.
"It's not like he looked better groomed afterwards," Dr Vanoosthuyz said. "It's just that for some guys shaving is key. It's the main thing in their grooming."
To design one product that deals with all of that is pretty hard. Which is partly why Gillette, with all their millions of dollars of investment and top-level scientists and engineers and their fancy research centre have such a hold on the market. But that hasn't stopped other people trying.
The offices of King of Shaves are in the market town of Beaconsfield, 25 miles outside London. They sit above a Waitrose, next to the police station. It was a particularly nice morning when I visited recently and the local library had left its doors open. You could hear schoolchildren inside singing nursery rhymes. I waited for the company's founder, Will King, in a meeting room adjacent to their offices. Inside, there was a trophy cabinet displaying a number of awards including one for Entrepreneur of the Year and an outsized white throne, a promotional King of Shaves gimmick. Including their founder, the company employs a total of 17 people.
King, who hails from Lowestoft, is one of the original dot-com entrepreneurs, buying the url shave.com for £35 in 1995 and setting up business shortly afterwards. Initially, he sold shaving oil, after he realised his girlfriend's bath oil stopped him getting razor burn. In 2008, he launched his first razor, the Azor. It featured four blades and a flexible hinge and, together with the Azor 5 launched in 2011, eventually sold well enough for King of Shaves to claim three per cent of the market.
Earlier this year, he launched a new razor. The Hyperglide took four years and £5m worth of development and its USP is to do away with as many fancy extras as possible, including the need for shaving gel or oil. Instead, the whole cartridge is coated in a water-activated lubricant.
King turned out to be a British entrepreneur in the classic eccentric mould. Manic, chatty and with a penchant for Richard Branson-style stunts – he once promoted his products using a megaphone at Speaker's Corner – he bounded in wearing his trademark black drainpipe jeans, leather coat and Converse boots. The way King sees it, the shaving market has been ripe for disruption for some time.
"We're a challenger brand, and part of what people like us and Dollar Shave Club are trying to do is to get the big guys to behave more, I don't know… honestly," he said. "They've accepted that the blade-count arms race is pointless, because now everyone can deride it on Twitter. It's all about the customer now. The world has shifted from brand broadcast, 'Here's our ad, it's on the TV, consume it and buy it,' to a transparent world of social media and customer care and everybody sharing their opinion. Those big brands need to try and become loved again. At the moment, they aren't." (King is big on Twitter. He handles his company's account himself, and enjoys responding to comments both positive and negative about his products.)
King's number one business inspiration is Apple. His packaging looks more like an iPhone's than a razor's and he likes to place adverts in Wired magazine – not necessarily the first place you'd expect to find grooming products. "That's the sort of guy I want to engage with the product," he says. "The one per cent who are future tech innovators."
He points out that before the iPhone launched in 2007, Nokia owned 60 per cent of the mobile phone market. Within five years, Apple had taken out not just Nokia but BlackBerry, and opened the door for Samsung. They did that, King says, by simplifying the experience – which is what he's trying to do.
The Wilkinson Sword Quattro, inroduced 2003. The first four blade razor.
King is a keen sailor and the idea for Hyperglide came to him after he happened across some sprays used to make boats go faster. "You can get superhydrophobic and superhydrophilic sprays," he explained. "Superhydrophobic means super-water-hating. Nissan have just used superhydrophobic paint. You can drive a car through any amount of mud and shit and it's clean because it's pushing away the water. There's also a start-up out of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] who are trying to coat the inside of ketchup bottles, so it repels the ketchup. That's something Heinz may or may not have a vested interest in backing, but the consumer will. Superhydrophilic means super-water-loving. As soon as water goes anywhere near, it will flatten the contact angle to absorb it. It absolutely loves it."
The science had already been successfully used in medicine to coat stents and catheters, so that there's minimal invasive friction going into arteries. "My guys found this tech and surmised, if you can coat a straw, could you coat a razor cartridge?" The Hyperglide had been on sale for three months when we met. "It's 12 weeks out of the blocks," King said. "My sales are lower than I would have liked, but given the competition, I'm relaxed about that. We're in 500 Tescos, 500 Boots, 100 Asdas and 300 Sainsbury's. And we've launched in America, both in-store and online."
I wondered if he knew what his competitors thought of King of Shaves. "They dismiss us," he said. "We did attract a letter from the P&G legal department within two weeks of our first launch. They were concerned with some of the things we were claiming. We wrote back on 14 February and said, 'Happy Valentine's Day'."
King estimates there are 20,000 patents active in the razor market. King of Shaves has eight. Last year, he spent over £1m on legal fees to patent his new product and protect his existing razors.
"There are patents around the inter-blade spacing, around the beard bumper, around the ejection of the cartridge mechanism, the trimming blade on the back…" he sighed. "It's an absolute patent minefield."
The Hyperglide has a bendy hinge; it's how you eject the razor. One of his competitors – he's not allowed to say who – made six attempts to block the patent to allow them to use it. "They went back to court six times," he tuts. "They failed at their final appeal in February, in Frankfurt."
A few years ago, King says he spotted "a particularly nasty patent filing" from Gillette. "They were trying to patent the inter-space gaps in the razor. Think of stubble washing out of the back. They were trying to patent this 'wash-through ability', which, had they succeeded, would have pretty much stopped anyone else doing a razor. At least, one you could rinse the stubble out of." (Kings says he "flashed it up to a few people around the world" and it got kicked out.)
I said something about all this hassle being avoidable if only someone would invent a razor that didn't need replacing. I was joking, but King said he was already on the case.
"Over the last five years, we've looked at a lot of things to do with cartridge blade longevity," he said. "We spent two years looking at ceramic, trying to perfect a ceramic blade that would be sharp enough to slice a human hair. That was because I'd bought some ceramic kitchen knives from Tokyo. They looked really cool: white ceramic knife, chop your orange carrots… But you can't get the edge thin enough, at the tip, to slice a human hair. The olycrystalline matrix starts to break up."
Wouldn't such a blade put everyone out of business?
"If we could have got a single blade, ceramic razor in a cartridge with a Hyperglide surround that, for me, would be pretty nirvanic," King said.
He thought about it a bit more.
"Instead of it being £10, you might say it's £100."
In contrast with his competitors, King was only too happy to talk about ideas for where the company might go next. He had loads of them.
"We filed IP [intellectual property] patents in the area of hairbrushes, to do with detangling," he said. "I thought, 'This Hyperglide technology, this is all quite clever. I wonder what it would be like if you put it on a hairbrush, to detangle hair?' It will also work for pets – dog hair, cat hair."
Then there's his XM range: "Exotic Materials. Which is basically the Azor with a middle made out of carbon, titanium and platinum. We're going to 3D-print that and sell it. It will be a premium product. A bit [luxury mobile phone company] Vertu. Some crazy people will buy a platinum phone at $3,000 to $4,000. Who knows? Maybe sell a few in the Middle East or China."
As I got up to leave, King dithered. He seemed to be debating whether he should tell me something else. Then he disappeared and came back holding a brand new King of Shaves product, one that was due to be launched soon in the US. The Azor SD is a four-blade razor with at least one feature that was immediately familiar. At its centre was a hinge that allowed the cartridge to pivot in multiple directions. Like Gillette's FlexBall, in other words.
"It's all patented," King grinned. "Gillette think they've spent five years developing this technology! We're about to have this go onto the market as well."
A study recently published in the journal Biology Letters suggested that we may have reached "peak beard". That the overwhelming popularity of facial hair means that the beard is no longer unusual enough to be considered attractive (in other words, the beard has been subject to the same forces as any other trend). In June, the razor brand Schick – the name Wilkinson Sword trades under in the US, Australasia, Russia and Asia – ran a New Zealand advertising campaign featuring photos of men with particularly full and lustrous facial hair. On closer inspection, their beards turned out to be various types of rodent clinging to their faces. "Let's face it, this beard's gone feral" ran the strapline.
The King of Shaves Hyperglide: the first razor to enshew shaving foam with a sekf-lubriating cartridge
If "peak beard" spells good news for the razor companies, then happy days. But it's not like they've been sitting about idly waiting for the beard trend to peter out. Towards the end of my meeting with Dr Kristina Vanoosthuyze, she produced a piece of promotional material for a new line that Gillette has just launched in the US. With an advertising campaign fronted by Kate Upton, Gillette Body is a new razor "built for the terrain of a man's body".
"It's a big trend now, guys are shaving their body," Vanoosthuyze said. "It's evolved. Maybe it resided in the gay community but now it has gone completely mainstream. In Germany, half the guys shave their body, their underarms, their groin. It's mega-trendy." She cast around for another example to illustrate her point. "I mean, at the end of a football match when they take their shirt off, hardly anyone has a hairy chest anymore."
The Gillette Body razor comes with three lubricating strips, a front-loaded pivot and a rounded and convex cartridge design. "We know men do not want to use the same razor on the body as on their face," Dr Vanoosthuyze said. "If it has been in certain areas they don't want to put it back on their face. So this is a different tool with a roundness and an absence of any sharp corners."
It dawned on me what part of men's bodies Dr Vanoosthuyze and I were really talking about now.
"The skin is very thin there. It's not very taught, of course," she continued. "It's a sensitive area so guys like to see what they are doing."
Ha ha, I said, imagine that razor being tested by the Daily Test Shavers in Reading!
But once again my joke was misplaced. It had been.
"Absolutely," Dr Vanoosthuyze said. "Why not? I mean, there is a need. The many faces of shaving, eh?"
Not just faces, I said.
This article was originally published in November 2014.