Like Penélope, Salma, and JLo (sort of), Cuban-American hair superstar Oribe Canales is famous enough to go by his first name only. Indeed, those first-name-only types are all clients of the South Florida-based 57-year-old with the dazzling smile, infinite tattoos, tireless creativity, and drop-dead bombshell-gorgeous cover-girl hair results.
“Sexy hair works anytime,” says Oribe about his unapologetically glam philosophy. “Glossy hair with personality, exaggerated, luxurious, fastidious but a bit undone – that’s what’s modern, beautiful, and feminine to me.”
In other words, Latina hair. Indeed, Oribe’s personal inspirations include salsa and mambo, Miami’s decadent heat, and Latina sexiness.
“Out-there glitzy with brillo, that’s Oribe,” said New York City stylist Yves Durif of the Carlyle Hotel salon. “He’s a sophisticated, image-making rock star who won’t settle for average. You want to be him – he has that Cuban flair – and you want him to be your friend and your lover because you trust his world.”
That world began in Castro’s Cuba, where the Canales family lived until Oribe was 6. After the Revolution, they emigrated to Charlotte, N.C., where dad Oribe Sr. worked as a sign painter and mom Gladys was a seamstress. After high school, Oribe followed some friends to Manhattan, and began cutting hair at a pal’s salon. He’d originally considered becoming an actor but the stylist bug bit hard.
Oribe’s break came in the mid-80s, when legendary editorial hairdresser Garren became his mentor. That opened major magazine doors, and before long Oribe was styling men and women for GQ, Vogue, Elle, and every cover girl you’ve ever heard of – Linda, Cindy, Christy.
Oribe established his first Manhattan salon in 1987, a minimalist affair called Oribe at Parachute. Just four years later, he opened his ultra-maximalist Fifth Avenue salon at Elizabeth Arden, replete with Venetian-inspired candelabras, heavy red drapes and frescoes.
Oribe had arrived. He was famous, rich, and powerful.
Then he crashed.
A sketchy business manager, drugs, and changing styles – i.e., grunge – took their toll. Oribe left New York City, got sober, and moved to Miami, where he’s lived ever since. It’s the next best place to the Havana of his imagination, he said.
“Growing up in Cuba in the 50s,” he said, “I saw ultra-glamorous, gorgeous Latinas who took time for hair, makeup, and fashion. That’s always in style, always womanly and sexy.”
Those women were the inspiration for his South Beach salon, which opened in 2004, and the creation of an eponymous line of frankly fabulous hair care products in 2008. Expensive (from $19.50 for a purse-sized bottle of the iconic Dry Texturizing Spray to $59 for the sumptuous Masque for Beautiful Color), beautifully packaged, delicious-smelling workhorses – the secret scent is a subtle blend of Cuba’s national flower, white butterfly jasmine, and citrus notes. They were an instant hit, and have remained that way.
“Oribe’s products are the very best,” says Jack Paníco, owner of Paníco salons in Northern New Jersey. His were among the first American salons to feature the line, with some $30,000 invested for the launch. The entire inventory sold out in one day.
“The packaging, look, feel, smell, performance, delivery – there’s nothing like it,” Jack Paníco says. “They’re super clean, meaning pure. Once clients try it, they’re hooked.”
Maggie Mulhern, beauty and fashion director of Modern Salon Media, says that from a stylist’s perspective, Oribe’s a true beauty and hair industry icon who combines talent with good taste.
“Every product he touches has his voice,” Mulhern says. “Oribe creates luxury tools salon hairdressers can use and make money from, allow stylists to achieve the looks and styles she wants to achieve, and make life easier for the client with minimal effort.”
For a relatively tiny, privately held company – Oribe has only two partners, hair care industry veterans Daniel Kaner and Tevya Finger – the last five years have been rewarding, with annual sales somewhere between $3 and $5 million, according to www.findthecompany.com and Cortera Business Directory. With seven new product launches in 2013, the most since 2009, business is booming. And those products go straight to top professionals.
Salons like The Doves Studio in Santa Monica, where British-born hairstylist partners Christopher and Sonya Dove, who’ve carried the line for 18 months, work their magic on models in print and at hair shows, on celebs backstage, and on longtime regulars in the salon – all with Oribe products.
“The words I’d choose to describe the products,” Sonya adds, “are the words I’d choose to describe the man: Classy, chic, and elegant.”
Gigi Anders is the author of "Jubana!" (HarperCollins, 2005) and "Little Pink Raincoat" (HarperCollins, 2007). She's working on her third book.