It is only recently that I have come to accept that, despite my deepest wishes, I will never be able to grow a dope lumberjack beard. Whenever I try--and I have tried!--my facial hairs sprout in an asymmetrical patchwork, my left jawline as bare and innocent as one of Michelangelo's cherubs. It's as if puberty forgot about 25% of my face.
On the bright side, though, a lack of facial hair means my shaving needs have always been pretty low maintenance. In the drugstore aisle, my razor-buying process (like many men, I suspect) involves just two questions: 1. Is it cheap? and 2. Will it keep the inevitable bloodshed this side of Dexter levels?
Of course, I'm hardly the male grooming industry's ideal customer. I shave maybe once every two weeks, and I expect to get carded at liquor stores well past my 63rd birthday. Nevertheless, the decades-long marketing war between razor giants Gillette and Schick for a spot near bathroom sinks everywhere has been well documented, sparking an absurd arms race to jam as many extra blades into the things as possible. As The Onion wrote in a headline when the original Mach3 Turbo launched in 2004: "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades."
The story proved prescient. On Tuesday, after five years of research and development that purportedly costs parent company Procter & Gamble millions of bucks, Gillette fired its latest salvo into the grooming-war airspace: a multi-bladed, swivel-headed, scruff-leveling Avenging Angel Of Follicles called the Gillette Fusion ProGlide with FlexBall™ Technology. (A mouthful one shouldn't repeat while shaving.) Its defining feature is a round fulcrum, which allows the bladed cartridge to pivot in three dimensions. On paper, it is supposed to better navigate your face's contours, and purportedly cuts hair one-fortieth of a millimeter shorter than other razor blades. Or something.
"This is going to be an entirely new era in shaving," Stew Taub, director of Gillette's Shave Care R&D, tells me. "1977 was when we first introduced the pivot, and today, you practically can't buy a razor without one. I think we'll look back on today, and say, 'This is when shaving changed again.'"
I was skeptical. At a 10:00 a.m. launch event in Manhattan yesterday, Gillette pulled the curtains away from the FlexBall. A rock band played. Graphs demonstrating the product's superiority were projected on the stage. Banners with the FlexBall's image hung on every wall, underscored by a hashtag: #ShavingRebuilt. At one point the actor and musician Omar Epps took the stage wearing a fedora. Then Gillette concluded the event by announcing it was giving away FlexBall razors to everyone in attendance. Score!
But with startups like Harry's banking on consumers who are wary of tired, over-the-top razor-marketing jargon, the strategic decision to unleash the grooming equivalent of a NASA rover on men's faces struck many as a tad... excessive?
It may simply be par for the course. According to The Wall Street Journal, P&G is dumping "$200 million in marketing muscle behind the product," and is targeting $188 million in sales this year. Gillette's new FlexBall will start at a suggested retail price of $11.49 or $12.59, and the company is launching a new subscription service that will cost $1 per week for a replacement ProGlide cartridge. It's a model ripped from the Harry's or Dollar Shave Club playbook.
At one point in the middle of the presentation, one thing became abundantly clear: Gillette's fondness for capital letters in the middle of made-up words is only rivaled by its love for crazy, superfluous features. It doesn't mind if critics think its strategy is insane, and its executives seem to genuinely believe that its innovations are serving the greater good. Gillette wants to rid of the world of unwanted facial hair, and it just declared thermonuclear war on your face.
In a way, Gillette is to shaving as Samsung is smartphones; it's go big or go the F home. Suddenly I was excited to try the thing.
Back at the office, with roughly a millimeter of patchy stubble on my face, I dashed for the men's room, the Future of Shaving pulsing in my hand like Thor's Hammer. The FlexBall was less a ball in person, more like a disk, a tiny tortilla. The handle had a good heft to it. The rubber grips? Very grippy. This was happening.
My hands were tingling, ready to unleash the FlexBall's turbocharged fury on whatever semblance of scruff there may have been. There was just one small problem: no shaving cream. I looked in Gillette's swag bag. No luck. I'd have to use hand soap. Surely the mighty FlexBall could handle it, right?
And so: I shaved. I lathered up as best I could, and pulled the five blades against my skin, slowly and deliberately. The swivel swiveled, the razor effortlessly mowing down unsuspecting hairs before they knew what sliced them. And it felt... totally fine. Like a razor.
Halfway through, I rinsed the FlexBall and set it down. Then I saw it: a tiny red nick above my lip. Blood. Maybe it was inevitable, I thought. I don't do this very frequently. Otherwise--thank the Shaving Gods--casualties were kept to a minimum. Perhaps today's grooming conditions weren't prime, and using pink hand soap instead of a thick foamy lather of Barbasol was akin to pumping 87 unleaded gasoline into a brand-new Ferrari. You have to feed the beast to make it roar.
But I'm happy to report that the Gillette Fusion ProGlide with FlexBall™ Technology does indeed cut hair. It was a good shave. I had less hair than I did when I began. And with Gillette's new cartridge subscriptions it might not even be a bad initial $12 investment.
And yet--the Heavens did not open up. Angels did not sing. There was nothing Earth-shattering about the experience, even as there was nothing at all terrible about it. I'll have to try it again at home. Maybe the week after next. When my facial hair grows back.