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Upper East Side Stylist Saves Hair and the Rainforest

By Amy Zimmer | October 7, 2011 6:31am
Fabian Lliguin, who runs Cocoon salon on the Upper East Side, started a line of products using oil harvested from the Amazon rainforest where he's been working for many years with tribes.
Fabian Lliguin, who runs Cocoon salon on the Upper East Side, started a line of products using oil harvested from the Amazon rainforest where he's been working for many years with tribes.
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MANHATTAN — At the tiny Upper East Side hair salon Cocoon, it can take three weeks to score an appointment with proprietor Fabian Lliguin.

Lliguin only sees clients there on Saturday. The rest of the time, he’s busy saving the rainforest. His 12-year-old nonprofit, called Ecoagents, helps indigenous tribes in the Amazon protect their land while brokering agreements with corporations. 

Lliguin also been creating an organic line of hair care products called Rahua, made with oil from rahua or ungurahua nuts harvested from the Amazon rainforest that he says works wonders on damaged hair.

Lliguin — who is from Ecuador and is of Incan descent — has deep roots in the rainforest as well as in the world of hair styling, and he’s found a way to blend them together.

Through the haircare products, Lliguin has been working on creating sustainable businesses for Amazon families who source and process the oils used in shampoos now stocked on the shelves of Barneys and Henri Bendel, among other high-end shops.

“I wanted to do something that had more to it," he said of his work with the rainforest. "I wanted to do something to make the world a better place, something for the environment.”

Growing up in Ecuador, his parents ran a hair salon and taught him how to cut hair at a young age. Though Lliguin enjoyed cutting the hair of the girls in the village prepping for high school dances, he wanted to get out and see the world, so he joined Ecuador’s merchant marines before settling in New York City.

“I came to New York and I started working in construction,” Lliguin, 48, said. “It was similar to the merchant marines. It was hard work and I was used to hard work.”

But he missed doing hair, so while he worked construction during the day — sometimes cutting workers’ hair on-site — he went to beauty school at night.

He eventually found a job as an assistant in a Jackson Heights salon before moving to Vidal Sassoon for more training and later opening up his own space in the Diamond District. He moved to his current location at 318 E. 70th St.

But running his own salon wasn't enough. On a trip back to the Amazon, he saw how an oil company had destroyed a beautiful spot that he had visited as a child. He decided to make it his mission to help the people defend their land.

“I found a cause,” Lliguin said.

On one of his trips to a tiny village, he noticed the women on the runway as his plane was landing had “beautiful long hair blowing in the wind."

From them, he learned about the rahua or ungurahua oil and bought some that he used sparingly in his salon. After seeing how well it worked on brittle hair he thought was beyond repair — and learning it wasn’t the type of crop that could be grown in a field and threaten further destruction of the ecosystem — he decided to use it to create a line of products.

“I pay [the Amazon families] lots of money for the oil for them to be self-sustaining,” Lliguin said. “I have to do a luxury brand. Part of the profit goes to Ecoagents, part to the families.”

He started marketing Rahua in 2007, but it took him years of tinkering. In September, he launched his second Rahua line — voluminous shampoo and hairspray, which has lavender and eucalyptus and is actually edible.

The shampoo, which costs $32 for 9.3 ounces, has been getting buzz on beauty blogs for its lustrous capabilities.

Lliguin travels to the Amazon four times a year.

“I still need to do hair,” he said. “But my heart is with the rainforest, with nature. … I go and listen to what [the tribes] say… and they are becoming stronger.”