'I was born in Cuba and moved to North Carolina in the 1960s. I had a really nice, happy Southern upbringing with wonderful parents. I was a big dreamer, attracted to the glamour of the movies. I thought I wanted to be an actor, so I moved to New York City and got a job working at a club called the Blue Angel. It was French and had dancers, but unless you were the star of the show, which I wasn't, you were a server. I served salad and dessert. Between courses, I would go upstairs and change into magician costumes and G-strings and pick up naked girls. You do crazy things when you’re young. It was just fantastic; I was no more than 18 and had no money, but somehow I made it work.
The Blue Angel burned down one night when I wasn’t there. After that, I took a receptionist job at a friend’s salon on Third Avenue. The hairdressers there seemed to do pretty well, so I decided to give beauty school a try. But I was too distracted by life in New York at the time to concentrate—we had Studio 54, 12 West—it was to die for. So, in the winter of ’77, I moved to Buffalo, New York, to finish school. I got great training from a guy who knew and introduced me to Garren.
Garren was opening his first salon at the Plaza Hotel in NYC and hired me as his assistant. He was in Vogue and I thought, ‘Why not?’ We had to dress in this crazy beige, it was really weird, but great, like a male bordello party. And from there, I got a position at a salon called Leslie Blanchard. He did color for everyone, like Meryl Streep when she had the long Kramer vs. Kramer hair and Cathy Moriarty during Raging Bull when they bleached her hair white. I really learned a lot about working with color-treated hair there. And since I was the young one, Leslie would always give me the cool movie stars.
Garren hired me back after a while, and the first day I go back to work, they asked me to stand in as a hairdresser for a shoot and pretend I was working. And then if someone would get sick or cancel for a shoot, they started to throw me a bone. I was on the B team for GQ. When you are an assistant, it either works out or it doesn’t. I wasn’t really especially good, but I was eager to please, and that worked in my favor.
On a trip for GQ in the early ‘80s, I met Carlyne Cerf from Elle. That’s when Carlyne was queen of fashion and Elle was the hottest thing going. She loved me because I just did exactly what she said. We did all these great covers shot by Bill King, who gave me a lot of work. For my first big, fabulous cover, we covered the model’s face with hair. You couldn’t see her face at all. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
From there, Richard Avedon was looking for someone new to make over Self. At the time, there were all of these manic covers with a girl pulling at her sweater. Mr. Avedon wanted someone new and young. So we started a fantastic run and I was really ambitious. And these photographers were very eccentric, very cool... Steven Meisel started calling. He was incredibly nice, just starting out, and was working with Mademoiselle. I stayed with Steven for six or seven years. We worked with François Nars, and it was a magical team. Steven has this power about him where you don't want to work with anybody else. If you saw the pictures from the time, you would die. They’re so iconic, with 14 year-old Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Steven having them all tap dance. It was just spectacular. We worked and played very well together—we were like family. And the work we made together set the pace for the next 10, 20 years. Steven said to me the other day, ‘We did it all.’ Everything was so impressive then.
There were two big hair dressers at the time: Garren and Suga. When Suga died in 1990, without having ever met me, he left me all of his haircutting clients, from Versace and Avedon. He had a huge business in New York and I had no idea why he did that. I guess he just saw something in my work. I got hooked up with Unilever through Elizabeth Arden, and they built me this unbelievable salon on Fifth Avenue. It was to die for. I got to pick out the floor, I got to design it, and I got to spend millions on it. It was the most extraordinary experience you can imagine. I tried my first product line then, but it wasn't the right time at all.
For haircuts, my aesthetic was, and is still, very classic. It’s about making someone beautiful through beautiful hair. 'Fantastic' means 'flawless.' I did Marc Jacob's show with Perry Ellis, and he wanted the hair to be the total opposite of what I was into. I mean, I was doing Versace couture, where the girls were to die for! But Marc wanted me to stick a barrette in the model’s hair without having it actually hold anything. He was very progressive, and I hated it. [Laughs]. But I let grunge do its thing. If you want to look awful, go for it. [Laughs]
I also think after a certain age you should stay kind of true to your character. It's very important to evolve and become the person you are going to be, and it’s ridiculous to try and have this young hair if it isn’t age-appropriate. I don't think a woman should cut her hair short when she is old because she will look even older. I think short hair looks better on young girls...It’s weird when women start to look like men and men start to look like women. But I think it's cool that young girls go for the trends. Look at me: I was one of the first ones to get tattooed before everyone got tattooed. At the time, Versace was doing so many prints and I thought, 'I know what I'm going to do—I'm going to get my own prints.' [Laughs]
Anyway, in 1999, the phone rings one day, and it’s to work with Jennifer Lopez on a shoot. I had just seen Out Of Sight and thought, if I could work with that girl, I would die. She was starting her music career and wanted to define her look. The first thing I ever did with her was style her hair for the cover of her first album [On the 6]. I put this huge ponytail on her. This girl has got guts. She wasn't afraid of anything, and we didn’t care what was going on in fashion. We flew all over the world together. For me, it was the greatest thing ever. It was so glamorous.
At the same time, I was thinking maybe I should try a product line again. I knew all of the elements of a good product line, and I knew what women wanted and needed—real women and movie stars—they all want to be attractive. I felt that I could bring something different. So I went to [makeup artist] Sonia Kashuk, who is a very good friend of mine, to ask her advice. She helped me find funding, and we put together a team. We had 22 products. The scent in all of them was inspired by Jennifer Lopez. She always smelled so spectacular, so we had Givaudan do the fragrance. The line was all done and gorgeous, and then that big stock market crash happened. We managed to survive by making everything so luxurious. Over-the-top quality is what saved us.
Right now, my focus is on reinventing the mousse. When I first started working, there was a mousse we would bring back from London called Program 2000. It was amazing. You could put it in hair and make it do anything. But then big companies watered it down and mousse became this '80s, crunchy, awful thing. So, we have three new mousses that make the hair fuller, shinier, and soft. For me, it’s constantly coming up with ways for women to get great texture. I always think, 'Someone is going to touch this woman later.' The last thing you want is some creepy product in your hair. That’s my main issue with dry shampoo—it’s like wearing a wig. I like clean, washed hair that smells good and has great texture.
My work is still very challenging and very interesting. I get to do amazing stuff—for example, right now I'm working with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana on their campaigns—and I don't think I'm all that, which makes it great. I fuck up all the time. That is what keeps me going, that is what keeps it exciting. I'm my harshest critic. My dad told me, “Never say you don't know how to do it—just try it.” And I always did. I push and work on something until I get it right. You can’t be afraid to go for it. And I certainly come prepared; that’s why I travel with twenty bags. I have an amazing assistant. [Laughs] Sure, I’ve made mistakes, like canceling on John Galliano the day of his show, but you can’t stop and freak out. I’m a positive guy, and a big believer that you can do anything you want as long as you can imagine it. If you won't dream, it won't come true.”
—as told to ITG
Oribe photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on July 29, 2013.