The thing women love about Oribe is that he does serious hair. He's Latin, he explains, so what he does is artifice. He does wigs, he does 'pieces', he does 'brush-ups' and he does 'flips', while his collaborator, Benjamin Forrest, does dyes - Madonna's included. What Oribe doesn't do is the straggly, greasy, waif look. He doesn't do natural.
His byword is glamour. 'Women need it,' he insists. 'Women over 21 need a bit of a 'drag' sometimes (he means a bit of a lift). Madonna, she needs it. Naomi (Campbell), she needs it.'
He lights up his umpteenth cigarette of the morning. 'I can do straight-forward. I can do sea hags straight from the ocean if that is what is right for the catwalk. But with plastic, with wigs, with artifice, I can make any woman look so beautiful.'
So what does he make of the latest through-a- hedge-backwards kind of hairstyling currently favoured by models and fashion magazines, the 'style' that was created on the catwalk by Oribe's fledgling competitor, Guido Palau? It was Palau and his straggly non-hair-dos that ousted Oribe from working on the recent Calvin Klein show in New York.
'It's good. . . ' Oribe says about the messy look, '. . . for young girls. And if a designer wants plain,
why pay money for me?' It was Klein, he confides, who also 'killed' star make-up artist Francois Nars - the man who painted Madonna's body for the infamous Sex book.
And what does he think about the layered hair-cuts that every model is having done? Will this filter down to real women?
'Hair happens slowly,' says Oribe. 'Most women aren't asking for Seventies cuts. And if they do, I think about what will suit them from the Seventies, like maybe the sophisticated Seventies of Catherine Deneuve. But,' he explains, 'I wouldn't shag a woman if it isn't going to work for her.' (Funny how this sexual slang - 'shag', 'blow-dry' permeates hairdressing: 'shag' is the American word for layering). He can't understand why the stylist and the model have started to giggle.
THE ORIBE headquarters in New York is 10 floors above Elizabeth Arden's famous red door on Fifth Avenue. Inside, the decor is as over-the-top as the maestro himself, with sconces, faux marble, muralled walls and over-padded barber's chairs upholstered in regal stripe. The refit allegedly cost more than dollars 2m - which is a lot to recoup on cut-and-blow-dries. But today, like any other, the salon is packed with well- known New York faces, and with some lesser-known ones who might have to wait for hours to be admitted to Oribe's personal workroom which has the Manhattan luxury of windows almost all the way round and Venetian glass chandeliers.
Oribe's family moved from Cuba to North Carolina while he was still a child. He started his working life as an exotic dancer in a nightclub, then got a job in a hair salon in San Francisco, where he set perms and swept floors. When he finally moved to New York, he set up a minimalist salon above a minimalist clothes shop called Parachute. He worked hard and his reputation grew. Eventually, Elizabeth Arden, a company anxious to revamp its Blue-Grass, blue-rinsed image, called him up. Oribe went wild. He'd had enough of the utilitarian steel of Parachute. He wanted a childhood dream of a beauty parlour in blush pink and eau de nil. And he got it . . .
Oribe attracted Arden particularly because he was the hairdresser whose credit frequently accompanied that of the American fashion photographer, Steven Meisel. Meisel, the man responsible for the fame of supermodels from Linda Evangelista to Kate Moss, is now so important he gets a front-row seat at every catwalk show, and so grand that he travels with his own chef in tow. He loved the fact that Oribe, too, thought big. Together they created larger-than-life beauty. Thanks to Meisel, models became super-models. Thanks mostly to Oribe, haircuts became hair-dos.
But have hair-dos now become hair-don'ts? Oribe thinks not. 'I can do centre-parted. I can do greasy. But real women don't want it.' Glamour will outlive grunge and so will he.
'Versace is smart,' he says confidently. 'He showed short skirts and people didn't like the collection. But long skirts make women look old. What is really modern is to wear whatever makes you look good, and I think the same about hair.'
The financial rewards for being the greatest, most glamorous, hairdresser on earth can be enormous. Already, Oribe is living way beyond his North Carolina dreams, but perhaps he can go further still. When the great coiffeur, Alexandre de Paris, was at his height, John F Kennedy gave him a commemorative pin for doing Jackie's hair. Then Elizabeth Taylor gave him a thankyou present of a villa on the Riviera.
Oribe's next step? He is opening a salon in October in Miami, home to his most celebrated fellow-Cuban customer, Gloria Estefan. Gianni Versace already has a villa on Miami beach. Maybe one day Oribe will have one too. But maybe not. Remember, Warren Beatty's George got nothing. Julie Christie's Jackie drove away in a big car for a wedding to a big guy in Rio. The day after this session, our model Emma Balfour got her hair tinted orange by Guido.
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