You may not know it, but Oribe is everywhere.
A behind-the-scenes hair genius, he amplifies the wattage of a heady constellation of stars: he crafted Rihanna’s glossy red waves for American Vogue, teased Cher’s tresses into a voluminous triangle for Vanity Fair, and dreamed up Scarlett’s loose platinum ringlets for those sexy Dolce & Gabbana ads. Currently at the top of his game, Oribe’s influence goes back decades. When Marc Jacobs showed his landmark grunge collection for Perry Ellis, it was Oribe who created the models’ hair: subdued centre-parted strands signifying 1990s ennui. But Oribe’s signature—and preference—is serious glamour. When Jennifer Lopez needed a makeover to accompany her debut album, he got the call.
One of the world’s most influential hair stylists, Oribe (pronounced OR-bay) has earned his single-name moniker. Oribe launched an eponymous line of products in 2008, intent on bringing his A-list allure to vanity tables worldwide. Other celebrity hair artists—Sally Hershberger, Orlando Pita, Serge Normant—have transformed their credibility into shampoos, conditioners, and sprays, but what sets Oribe apart is his commitment to what he calls the “total experience” of hair.
“Every two decades, a product line comes along that feels right for the time,” Oribe says in his instantly likeable rasp. “[When we launched], the brands that were big in the nineties felt done. Everything was so corporate—people were looking for something fresh. We want to give people products that have a wonderful scent, look great in the bathroom—and, of course, that really work.”
Oribe didn’t set out to be a hair pioneer. Born Oribe Canales in Cuba, he grew up dreaming of becoming a movie star. The “glamorous illusion” of the silver screen led him to New York, where he worked onstage in a dinner club. “I didn’t realize the tremendous amount of discipline that actors need,” he says. So Oribe left the stage and went to beauty school, but it wasn’t until around six years into practising his new craft at various salons—most famously with Garren at the Plaza—that he really fell in love with it. As he explains, “I took all my artistic abilities and put them into my hairdressing. I wanted to be the best that I could possibly be.” He then proceeded on his own with a single chair at an upscale clothing store on the Upper West Side as a concept salon called Oribe at Parachute. Word started to spread about the talented kid with the full tattoo sleeves and a handy way with scissors. That was in 1987. Four years later, Oribe opened his extravagant $3-million salon in the Elizabeth Arden building on Fifth Avenue.
Those were the early days of the supermodel and the so-called Trinity made up of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell. Oribe formed his own unofficial triumvirate with photographer Steven Meisel and makeup artist François Nars, and together the two groups made beautiful pictures together. Oribe was there for Evangelista’s first shoot for American Vogue. (“Steven and the fashion editor loved her gums,” he remembers. “Her gums and her knees.”) There were shoots for Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, runway gigs for Versace and Chanel. One weekend, Oribe and Turlington spontaneously decided that the model needed a chin-length bob. Calvin Klein, to whom Turlington was under contract, was not amused. “Oh, it all worked out,” says Oribe. “They released her, then wanted her back a couple years later. Christy wasn’t upset with me at all.” Oribe later did Turlington’s hair for her wedding.
Oribe’s understanding of hair—and of how deeply women care about it—inspired innovations like the Foundation Mist, a detangling conditioning spray that uses green tea extract to nourish, and provitamin B5 for maximum shine and strength. Like all of Oribe’s 34 (and counting) products, the mist is free of parabens and sodium chloride. “As a hairdresser, when you don’t have the products to achieve what you want, you just make your own concoctions,” Oribe explains, laughing. “That’s why this line is very well-rounded—I treat it like a chef treats a menu. I want women to be able to achieve whatever look they want.”
He singles out the Royal Blowout Heat Styling Spray as a current favourite. “For me, the most beautiful hair is hair that hasn’t been treated by chemicals—that innocent baby hair texture. Royal Blowout is all about creating lustre, while also repairing damage.”
For all of his recent commercial forays, Oribe remains an artist at heart. “I find inspiration everywhere,” he says. “I’ve been inspired by insects, by supernovas—the idea of 2012, planets aligning.” Oribe is always paying attention and fine-tuning his eye, open to being amazed. “You do become hair-obsessed,” he acknowledges with a grin. “I constantly notice people’s hair. Hair and shoes.”
These days, Oribe’s focus is threefold: on his Miami salon, on his editorial work, particularly with celebrities—whom he calls “the supermodels of today”—and, of course, on his product line. “Hair is so important,” he says, with the assurance of one who really knows. “It can make or ruin your day. I always tell my clients that they should have a Plan B for a bad hair day—a rubber band in their purse to sweep their hair up, or, ideally, a product that comes to their rescue. There are so many Plan Bs in my line. More than anything else, I want women to feel confident that they look amazing.”