Barber's Gym: London's Chicest Place to Work Out?

Pin It
Photography by Tess Hurrell

The brilliant London gym celebrating functional fitness

Sometimes it's good to strip it back. Certainly, in our chaotic, modern lives, it's refreshing to be clean, clear and honest. Barber's Gym is the antithesis to the commercial, glossy gym. Instead of rows of running machines, pulsating music and lines of plasma TV screens displaying pop star bodies, think about a stripped back space which celebrates the brilliant basics of a real workout. Bars and dumb bells, skipping ropes, a climbing wall, a boxing bag, a chalkboard. And some plants. 

Barber's Gym, founded in 2012 by Darren Barber, occupies two spaces in Hackney Downs Studios, which has quickly become a vibrant community of creative workspaces including a florist, a restaurant and carpenter's workshop. The philosophy? "Functional fitness and not just the appearance of it," says Barber, who sports various tattoos including a vintage strongman. "Real work capacity, strength and power, cardiovascular endurance and stamina, flexibility, speed and agility, coordination, balance and accuracy. General physical skills, that improve your performance as an individual."

"Essentially, it’s a place to get work done," says Barber. "It’s raw with an industrial look – it's not pretty nor glamorous. There are no mirrors or TVs. It’s a bit rough around the edges, giving you the feeling that blood, sweat and tears are sometimes shed. I wanted it to be an open and welcoming gym, unique and practical with a community feel." Due to increasing demand, Barber's second space opened in the past year in a railway arch (two minutes walk away) and is shared with bespoke bicycle company Kennedy City Cycles, as well as the owner's handsome Great Dane, Huxley. (Barber's dog, a fawn pug cross called Reggie is often found snoozing in the corner). 

There are echoes of Muscle Beach in Barber's set-up, the Venice Beach location that was the birthplace of the physical fitness boom in the US during the 20th century. There are also likenesses to the lesser-known gym, in the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. A secret only known to a small community, the gym discretely lies behind "Room No. 74" on the seventh floor. It's the exact opposite of a traditional hotel gym – with a handful of cardio and weight machines – and is perfectly in-keeping with the Chateau Marmont. It's authentic and it's honest.

For another cultural reference in the same vein, think of Karl Lagerfeld's bedroom-cum-gym, profiled in the 1972 book Underground Interiors. "The room is a superslick gym with the bed resting on a platform of stainless steel. Bookshelves are balanced on one wall by the exercising bar. Together they form a continuous motif taking up one entire wall. Scattered about the room are all sorts of exercise equipment, a stationary bicycle, barbells, et al. The designer also throws in examples of Art Deco (the darling of underground collectors) into the scheme: the beige rug, bed pillows, and bed trow. Lamps are hidden by a free-form white plastic screen in the corner, casting shadows on the ceiling."

"It was always an ambition of mine to open a gym," says Barber, who was raised under active parents who were both in the armed forces. "But in the end it was quite an organic process of my training styles evolving over time and business progression that led to Barber’s Gym opening. People seem to be turning their backs on the bigger clubs and opting for a more results driven, personalised feel to their training. All of our sessions are coached so there is motivation to train and the programming we offer gets results. You can’t duck out of things you don’t like if its written on the chalkboard. We offer committed training plans and drop-in sessions so people feel they get true value for money and are making that choice for themselves."

Barber's Gym's clients range from all types of skills from professional athletes to gym virgins. "Basically, anyone willing to embrace effort in order to create change," he says.  The gym offers personal training and group sessions alongside a weekly Ballet Barre class run by Sophie Ritchie. "I’m driven by my clients, and their comments mean a lot to me," says Barber. "I’m most satisfied with the mental change that happens as a result of shifting self confidence and getting people stronger and more physical. Its great to see people set out with a goal and help them achieve it. I’ve coached a 70-year-old lady to hike the mountains of Uganda to see gorillas in the wild and helped athletes compete in ironman events."

For those interested in improving their personal fitness? "Firstly get a plan and stick to it, consistency will deliver results. Work hard for your results, commit your mind and your body to the plan. Lastly whatever you do make sure you do it well – I mean safely and thoroughly, quality is important so if you need advice on this get it from professionals."

For further information visit


Run it Out

Strongwoman Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton