PRAGUE — Deep in the heart of Prague’s rebellious working-class district of Zizkov, among the graffitied architecture and grungy drinking dens, stands an unassuming three-story building. Its first-floor storefront is marked with a barber’s pole, the classic symbol of male grooming. But inside, one hairdresser is disrupting the conventions of cropped haircuts.
Klara Vanova opened Barberette, the city’s first gender-neutral salon, in October. Her philosophy is that regardless of the customer, the price is the same.
“I was feeling pissed off. Sometimes hairdressers say they will give me the men’s price, but I don’t want the men’s price,” said Ms. Vanova, who is 38 and learned her trade in London. “I want to have short hair, and I don’t want to be a man.”
Ms. Vanova’s shop is fixed with three red barber chairs, organic hair products and a massive framed work of fan art featuring the owner and the apprentices at her first barbershop in London. Her business philosophy takes aim at the boundaries of style reinforced by Prague’s more traditional hairstylists.
“Other stylists won’t do it the way you want, so you have to negotiate with them over what you can and can’t have,” Ms. Vanova said. “They create a list of services, and people can either get them or nothing at all.”
After years of training, Ms. Vanova started the Barberette concept in London in 2012 at a local salon before opening her own shop a year later. Her catalog of hairstyles, including Afros and undercuts along with more classically Western fades, lines and partings, was designed for a generation of expressive Britons who refuse to be groomed in a binary fashion.
“They said women don’t belong in the barbershop, but within three years it all changed and I was a part of that change because we were pushing the limits and people liked it,” Ms. Vanova said, adding that she would have up to 40 clients a week.
One of the most popular cuts is a pattern undercut, with designs shaved into a buzz cut at the back of the head.
“You have to read the texture of the hair, the shape and where they want it, and then you just draw. It’s like painting,” Ms. Vanova said, pointing to a poster of the various cuts in her repertoire as customers sat patiently waiting behind her.
Other popular short cuts include variations on the bowl cut, the pixie cut and the Eton crop — short at the back and topped with dyed waves. They are styles that read as neither masculine nor feminine, but simply different.
“No matter how you identify yourself, the way other people read you regarding your gender always comes with certain expectations about how you should style your looks to be considered good-looking, or at least acceptable,” said Aneta Fibingerova, a 28-year-old translator and a regular at Barberette’s Prague location. “When your personal style choices are at odds with these expectations, it may be hard to voice them.”
With more than a thousand clients served in London and two trained apprentices able to manage the shop, Ms. Vanova decided in 2017 that it was time to spread her philosophy to her native Czech Republic. In the five months since its opening, her message already seems to be resonating.
“I have been wearing short hair for a long time, and unfortunately the approach of barbershops in the Czech Republic is such that it is not available for us women,” said Zuzana Strakosova, a 28-year-old poker dealer. “That’s a big mistake Barberette has fixed and thus allowed us, short-haired women, to have what we really want — what we require.”
For Ms. Vanova, the move home was a deeply personal choice. Growing up gay in a provincial town in a country deeply repressed by Communism’s staunch conservatism, she said, meant that for much of her life she felt coerced to fit a certain mold, despite having the support of her family.
“Prague is my home, and it is an empty page,” she said. “It’s a little behind and I wanted to bring the experience from London and give people more choice.”
Prague is known to have a vibrant L.G.B.T. community, and more than 35,000 people take part in the annual pride parade. Still, while the Czech Republic recognizes same-sex partnerships and is considered one of the most liberal countries in Europe, it has stumbled on gay rights issues under the populist President Milos Zeman, who has been inconsistent on the issue — tolerant of gay and lesbian people but outspokenly against them becoming parents.
In a 2016 case that has since been dropped, the Prague Public Health Authority charged 30 gay men with the crime of intentionally spreading H.I.V. by having unprotected sex. The only evidence against the men was that they had tested positive for H.I.V. at a clinic.
With conservative political leadership, the country remains divided on the issue of same-sex marriage. Only half of Czechs say they would support liberal reforms, according to a government-funded Public Opinion Research Center poll last year.
Amid the continuing public debates about gay rights and gender neutrality, Ms. Vanova sees all the more reason to fight for free gender and sexual expression.
“It is an anarchic country,” she said. “If you want to do something, you can do it.”