Inner East Review
Wednesday, 6 December 2023

Richmond wigmaker Andrew Barnett still going strong in 122-year-old family business

Updated July 5 2022 - 11:59am, first published 5:00am
Andrew Barnett in the Lennox St premises of the family wig-making business, which was established by his grandfather in 1900. Photo: Morgan Hancock
Andrew Barnett in the Lennox St premises of the family wig-making business, which was established by his grandfather in 1900. Photo: Morgan Hancock

Just off Swan St in Lennox St, Andrew Barnett and his wife Rhonda run one of Melbourne's oldest businesses.

Established by Andrew's grandfather in 1900, Louis Barnett & Son & Son has been producing made-to-measure hand-knotted wigs of human hair ever since.

Andrew, who joined the family business 55 years ago, is one of the last local practitioners of the arcane art, and is proud of "carrying on with the quality".

"We're about the only ones left that do it," he says. "Everyone else just imports and sells them.

"This industry has got well out of whack."

From the turn of the 20th century, his grandfather blazed a trail in the business of beautification and camouflage in Melbourne society.

His business, at the top end of Bourke St, serviced theatrical costumers, detectives seeking disguises and clients with a keen interest in fashion.

As well as discreetly fitting "undetectable" wigs and pieces, Louis ran a busy hairdressing salon, counting among his customers Dame Nellie Melba and Squizzy Taylor.

But by the late 1960s the heyday was over.

Along with an abundance of new hairstyles, the '50s and '60s saw the arrival of mass-produced, one-size-fits-all synthetic and "human hair" wigs from Korea which sold at a fraction of the price of the hand-made versions.

Louis' elder son, Jo, who inherited the business with Andrew's father, Leopold, wanted to get out of it, and the brothers sold the five-storey glass-fronted Barnett building in Bourke St which their father had had built from scratch in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, unlike his three siblings, Andrew knew from an early age he would go into the trade.

It was "something different", he felt, and the family business still offered a good living as well as variety.

"I remember coming home from school one day and Dad had the ventriloquist doll Gerry Gee from The Tarax Show on his lap," Andrew says.

He recalls his father's mad dashes to the back door of Her Majesty's Theatre with the wigs for My Fair Lady, which had been left behind in the salon.

There were wigs for stage productions of Annie Get your Gun, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Oh! Calcutta, for Barry Humphries, Zig and Zag and Frank Thring.

After Leopold was gone, Andrew and Rhonda bought the property in Lennox St, and shifted the business there in 2000.

Despite the winds of change sweeping the industry, they have hardly ever needed to advertise, Andrew says.

Right back to Louis' days there was always a customer base prepared to pay for quality.

For decades people affected by medical conditions or from cancer treatment have been Barnett's biggest customers.

The business produces discounted charity wigs from donated hair for those who are in need of them.

In 2014, a fire ripped through neighbouring properties in Lennox St, burning the Barnetts' building to the ground.

After relocating to Bridge Rd for four years Andrew and Rhonda returned to rebuilt premises that have made their work there more comfortable.

Despite more than half a century in the job, Andrew's thoughts haven't turned to retirement.

With the couple's three children all in "their own good careers", he is the last in the line of the Barnett wig-makers. "Although we're taking it a bit easier, we're still going quite strong," he says.


Jenny Denton


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