Can’t clip her wings
Lilly Benitez remembers her father shaving and combing his hair each morning, taking time to look and smell his best. Though she was just a little girl, shaving intrigued her. The scents of shaving cream and the feel of the rich lather were intoxicating.
But traditionally, being a barber is a man’s game. When Benitez, who lives in Junius Heights, went to barber school, there were only three women out of 100 students. But growing up with two brothers while working construction in the summers prepared Benitez to thrive in a male-dominated profession.
She worked in a variety of roles, including The Gent’s Place in Frisco, where she cut hair and provided shaves for clients. She quickly became popular, often booking six months out.
As a lifelong learner, she wanted to improve the educational experience for future barbers like herself. She felt that barber education was lacking, and barber schools were not welcoming places.
She set out to open a barber school, but didn’t have any formal business training. Leaning on friends and former clients, including now co-owner Thomas Shaw, she put together a business plan and searched for a location. “You feel like you are running a marathon blindfolded,” she says.
Eventually, a Deep Ellum locale materialized, and Benitez got to work planning the space. It included several chairs, a classroom, private rooms for clients and even a shower. She says she needs to keep seeing clients or she will go crazy, and she only half-jokes that the shower is there in case everything goes wrong and she loses her home.
She did the general contracting on the space, checking in after seeing clients. She and her brother buffed the concrete floors themselves. Stash Design balances strong metal and wood finishes with quirky circular submarine windows and natural light. This year, the academy expanded from 10 chairs to 25.
Benitez fought to have the academy accept the G.I. Bill, where veterans could be educated as barbers when they leave the service. She wrote letters to congressmen without much success, but eventually the academy became eligible to take the G.I. Bill, and several veterans are in training and have graduated. She noticed how they thrived in the structured environment of her school, and it helped them adjust to life as both barbers and clients.
“I have really close friendships with veterans and police, and the PTSD they deal with causes struggle with adjusting to civilian life,” Benitez says. “We really help with that.”
Nicole McCarter is an instructor at Blade Craft and met Benitez while working at The Gents Place. “I enjoy watching and helping others grow in a lot of different areas of life, not just barbering,” she says. “I see a difference work ethic wise. They want to know exactly what to do and they will deliver it.”
Blade Craft hosts field trips for high school students, as they offer an alternative path to college for those who want to go into the field. Students from Arlington, Duncanville and McKinney have all made trips to the school since they opened.
Benitez sees the barbershop as a third place for many, where they can relax and be themselves away from home and work. The academy offers haircuts, straight razor shaves and beard shaping for $30 each by the students, with guidance from their instructors.
The standards, culture and pride established at Blade Craft will head into the world as graduates open their own shops. “I love knowing that when people graduate they can fend for themselves,” she says. “That positivity and that standard is going into their neighborhood and community.”
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