This is the third in an ongoing series of features about some of the top curl stylists. We take you behind the chair to experience a day in their life. This month, we get up close and personal with long-time curl expert Carlos Flores from New York's Mario Diab Salon. Flores has developed an international reputation for his knowledge and passion about curly hair techniques.
On this soggy Friday morning in springtime, New York's Mario Diab salon is a welcome haven for curlies. Stepping inside, the classic black-and-white decor is brightened by select pieces of stylish art. The look is minimalist, but not sterile. Soothing, soft music sets a peaceful ambience. Clients are greeted with freshly brewed cappuccinos, a myriad of herbal teas, sparkling water, and a square or two of rich, dark chocolate.
It's cozy. And that's exactly how curl-centric stylist Carlos Flores likes it.
A self-described "Jersey boy," Flores grew up in a close-knit Puerto Rican family. "It was almost like a village, we took care of each other," he recalls.
Flores sports a buzz cut, but his natural texture is curly. He donned his curls for several years in the past to experience firsthand the twists and turns of textured tresses.
"Curly hair is misunderstood. I remember my haircuts, when I felt tortured," Flores says.
And although being a stylist wasn't a childhood dream, his sisters were unwittingly prophetic when they pressed him into his passion. "You never shut up; you should be a stylist," they would say, with affection.
Throughout his 12 years as a stylist, his conversation skills have served him well. His chats are breezy, sprinkled with bouts of laughter and quick smiles. Often the topic turns to travel, which Flores relishes. He flies to London three times a year to cut hair and enjoy a mini-vacation. But in his view, a stylist should be less about ego and more about simply getting to know his clients.
"Life is a mirror," says Flores, dressed simply in Levi's jeans and a black t-shirt underneath a striped, button-down shirt (left open with the sleeves rolled up), with black-leather sneakers. "If you keep it real, you get back real."
"So, what's cookin'?" Flores asks Isabel McGurn, a client of six years with shoulder-length caramel curls.
As he begins the cut (always on dry hair), the chat revolves around McGurn's 10-year-old son, who has no idea how to manage his curly locks.
"First, get him off the shampoo, never use a brush and have him leave in tons of conditioner," says Flores, offering tips to minimize frizz. He also suggests a curl-rejuvenating spritz or a spray bottle filled with two parts water and one part conditioner, if the curls are "too puffed."
"Well, it's less puffy and more like it just goes in a weird curly direction," McGurn says.
She promises to bring him in for a cut, possibly the following month. "I think he'd be OK with the help. He's so into curls," McGurn says.
Flores's stealth assistant Mitzy steps quietly toward his chair, glancing at him with eyebrows gently raised.
"She's dry?" Flores asks, referring to an earlier client.
Mitzy, with short, mocha ringlets and a soothing presence, nods yes.
Throughout the day, there will be more nudging nods and gestures exchanged between stylist and assistant, but few words. There's a comforting familiarity that comes from knowing what each other is thinking, seamlessly guiding clients in and out of the chair.
An out-of-town client arrives with dark-chocolate curls resting just above the shoulders.
"Hi, how are you?" Flores says.
"Well, my daughter is here to visit and says she's going somewhere to get a blowout," says the curly client from Florida.
Meanwhile, the rain outside has shifted from a drizzle to a downpour.
"On a day like today?" he asks.
"Yes," she says, laughing and shrugging her shoulders.
Flores steps into the next open room to check on McGurn who sits quietly under a dryer next to a table decorated with fresh, lemon-yellow tulips and glossy green apples.
Convinced McGurn's style is on track, it's back to his curly client from Florida. She has been coming to him for more than two years. Their chat resumes and he mentions possibly taking regular, quick trips (once every five weeks) to Washington to cut hair as well.
"What about Florida? You know, where it's sunny and gorgeous. Hello!?" she exclaims. "Do you know how many curly clients in Florida would line up for you?"
He says he'll definitely consider it; they agree to work out the details.
Again, Mitzy subtly enters the room, gives Flores the eye and a smile.
"Ready?" he asks.
"Yes," she says.
"OK," he turns to his Florida client, "you're going to follow Mitzy."
Mitzy is beloved by Flores's clients, especially this one. "I love Mitzy because she takes care of Carlos," the radiant curly from the sunshine state tells me. "Anyone who takes care of him is in my circle of love."
Carlos makes a few final tweaks to McGurn's curly do and she's off. His next appointment is canceled, but the time is quickly filled. While his Florida client is in the back for a cleanse, her daughter arrives and introduces herself.
"My mom's a big fan, BIG fan!" says the 20-something, brunette curly just in from the rain — her hair pulled back in a short ponytail. Poking out the edges of a bag she's carrying are an umbrella and a newly purchased flat iron, still in its packaging. (She opted out of a salon blowout since it's raining, deciding to try straightening it later herself.)
"Be careful with that," Flores says, eyeing the flat iron.
"Oh, it's just for once in a while, for special occasions." she remarks, nonchalantly.
"Really? I see you have weak hair, and I say that with so much love," he says. "We need to talk, just to learn some dos and don'ts about it, to prevent your hair from breaking."
Flores always tells his clients there's no such thing as bad hair, just bad habits. In fact, almost all his clients are curlies, although he also sees "the occasional curly girl in denial."
The Florida mom strolls back in the room. "Your hair looks nice!" her daughter says.
"Well, duh," mom says with a smile.
"OK, Carlos, I'll work on strengthening my hair. Positive affirmations!" the daughter says, before heading out to shop while her mother finishes up at the salon.
The banter bounces back to convincing Flores to come to Florida. "What time of year do you want to come down?" she insists.
They vow to put something on the calendar soon.
Next in the chair, a cheery curly redhead.
"It's too long, I've had to use a lot of clips," she says.
Flores knows what to do and moves right in for the cut. The back-and-forth banter now ranges from TV shows (Dancing with the Stars) and musicals (West Side Story, Hair) to travels through Europe and President Obama. He rarely allows more than a hiccup of silence, yet the conversation never seems forced.
After they exchange rave reviews about Oscar-winning movies "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Milk", Mitzy whisks her away to cleanse her newly trimmed ringlets.
The redhead is back in Flores's chair.
"How was it?" he asks.
"It was wonderful," she says, with her fiery ringlets in perfect shape. "If I were a cat, I'd be purring. You know all the comments I get. People stop me on the street and say 'Oh your hair is so beautiful!''