Spotlight: Filthy Rich Barber Shop

In Part One of our day at the barbershop, we sit down with the great one, Filthy Rich the Barber as he talks about his journey as one of the country's most sought after hair stylists.

  "Give me about 10 minutes, I'll be right with you guys." A client just took a seat on Rich's chair, ready for a shape-up. It's a point of pride -- a virtue, really. For Richard Franco Mendoza, it has to be an in-and-out process. He provides the best and cleanest work in the quickest time possible, all without sacrificing the quality of the cut. I scanned the place, trying to absorb where I was. The movie Ali was playing, surround sound and a big screen. There was a huge snake in one of the display cases, right next to the waiting area. By the entrance was another display case, filled with shirts and baseball caps embroidered with FRBS and stickers with the shop logo. So, I thought to myself, this is Filthy Rich. Filthy Rich Barbershop, that is, which is located on 63-12 Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside. The shop has a very homey atmosphere, and everyone says that was deliberately done. You can understand why clients speak very highly of Rich and his team, and why people love coming back. It was quiet on this mid-Saturday afternoon, but it is usually much busier. (Later in the day, in fact, the place would get packed with customers.) The whole cast was in attendance, scattered around the place. Jigga, aka Jason "J-Nice" Bofill stood up from his chair, walked over to give us dap. Rhyan Woods, who also goes by the moniker "360" is by the mirror giving his beard a quick once-over. Rich's little sister, Cassandra "Kazztylez" Mendoza just finished up with a client, cleaning up her station, and was soon going over her next set of appointments. And in the back office is their big sis Vanessa Mendoza, who runs the spa and skin treatment center, and pretty much serves as an important counsel for her brother. Ten minutes in. Rich is combing and styling his client, adding the finishing touches to a masterful cut. He motions to me, "So, you ready?" Rich sits down next to friend and a shop regular, AJ Lavilla. "This is my boy AJ, by the way," he introduces us, as AJ reaches out from his laptop. He was showing us some designs and graphics he was working on. "AJ is actually one of the first Filipino entrepreneurs in this area, he owns a clothing line," Rich explains. "You gonna write everything down?" He smiles. I think he knew it would be a long transcript. So, I read this story about how when you were 16, you came home from a Russian barber disappointed with your haircut, and this kind of fueled your fire. But before that, did you have an inkling that you had a knack for cutting and styling hair? Rich: Yeah, I had an idea. (Rich motions to Kazz) We're like, what, fourth generation of hair stylists? Fifth? Kazz: Yeah, we're fifth. It started with our great-grandma. Back in Batac, Ilocos, our family had the only salon that had, like back in the days when they did perms, it was a machine that had rods connected in the inside - it was just our family salon that had that machinery where you had to hold it from the ceiling... That was an American-made machine, and that was how (hair-dressing) in our family started. (Rich nods.) "Right!" (The room laughs.) Kazz: So, technically, from hair-dressing, he (Rich) becomes the first barber.   Rich, you were born in Hawaii? Rich: Yes. Our father was a military man. Kazz: He was born in Hawaii, I was born in Queens, and our eldest sister Vanessa was born in (San Diego) California. Rich: Around here, it's a division of work.Vanessa, she does hair coloring here at the shop. Cassandra, she does the cutting with both women and men, and with me I do strictly men's styling and grooming -- I mix street cuts with high fashion hairstyles. So tell me what happened after you asked your mom for your first set of clippers. Rich: Yeah, I remember asking her for some money. I got these cheap Wahl clippers for 10 bucks, and they broke on me on the very first cut. I actually fixed it, I was messing with it and somehow I got them working. I started cutting my cousin's hair, I begged them mad times, like, "Listen, man, I wanna try something out, can you give me the chance to start cutting your hair," and he said alright. And then he didn't like it. (Laughs.) But I had to practice, and for the most part I was practicing on my own hair, and everyone started noticing - "Hey, who cut your hair, who did that fade?" And I said I did it. I was into hair because of the rapper Nas - I was into that street art, I was into hip-hop, and so that got me going. I had a number 2 at the top, I added a skin fade and then I added half-a-moon line. That was the type of hair I always wanted to cut. So I started repeating that same cut on the kids at school, telling them "Hey, come try me out," and then I started thinking, "I think I can make money." So I started charging these kids like $5, $10 for a cut. They would come into my house, in my kitchen. I'd tell my mom, "Can I bring these kids over?" She asked, "Who are they? Why are you bringing them here?" And I explained to her I just wanted to cut their hair. I surprised my mother, she said "I could see you can really cut good hair." I was slowly getting my hair game up, and my mom opened up a hair salon right here by 69th and Roosevelt. It was actually with my sister (Vanessa), who was working for Oscar Blandi, a top salon in the city. She actually worked with Jennifer Lopez at the time. When we opened up, on a far corner, I was in a chair slowly growing my first customers, and I realized my game was getting insane, it started building up. (But) then we lost our lease, and we lost the shop. I got sad, so my mother said, "You can go work at the salon down the block," and it was a gay salon. I said, "Alright, I'll work with it," and so I had my own chair, they let me rent it out for a really cheap price, and I started building up my haircuts. At the time I was only charging like $8, and with the money I saved, I got our shop back. How long did that take? Rich: About a year and a half. I was saving the money I was making, and then my mom was saving her money, too. She ended up becoming one of my main investors when I said, "You know what, let's open up my own barber shop - we'll call it Filthy Rich." How did the name Filthy Rich come about? I got the name off a friend of mine, we were sitting at my apartment and I was thinking, "We need to come up with a name for the barber shop. I want a crazy name to put out there, something that will stand out. It had to be something different - you can't just call it Rich's barbershop." And this guy from California, his name is Miguel, he be saying, "Yo dawg, that shit is filthy" with my art. I cut his hair, and so he would say that, and another friend was there, too and (he blurted out), "Yo! Filthy Rich!" A lightbulb went off, so that's what we called the shop. I always wanted to believe - I had a dream that we could all be rich one day. I wanted to have a shop that showed people, it is possible to have that fancy life, even young blue collars could have that fancy life. One of the things that attracts people to you is that very same drive you've been talking about. What is it about that hustle for you that keeps you going? Rich: I brought that hustle onto myself, that real street hustle. I imagined to myself, there's kids out there sitting on their couches doing nothing, and I want to be the one out there moving and using God's gift that he gave me. I wanted to make people look good, so I was all about cutting hair and improving the reputation I was building for my life. (Looking back), Myspace was the thing that really blew me up. I got into Asian Avenue, have you heard about that? I was there for a while, but I didn't like it. I got on Xanga, real quickly I didn't wanna deal with Xanga anymore. So when Myspace came out, it was so simple and direct. Twitter and hashtags weren't invented yet so I had to promote myself by posting pictures of the cuts I did. People had to search my name (on Google) and I was popping up everywhere. And they were spreading the word, "You gotta try getting a haircut with Rich, try him out," so then Filthy Rich started popping up. (Rich goes on to explain his first big break, which was a chance encounter.) ...And then one day, a Chinese friend of mine said, "I'm about to go see Jin," (the MC). I was like, "Yeah, I know Jin, I see him on 106 & Park." So I told my boy I'ma go with you. We meet Jin, we were chillin' and then I take my shot. "Yo Jin," I said to him, "I have my own (barber)shop, you should come through and show support. This was 2006. But he was like, "Nah, I got my own barber, I dunno..." So I say to him, "Well, if there's a chance he's not there (for you), if he doesn't do well, give me a shot." The day of his 25th birthday, he gave me a call and said, "I need you, ASAP!" And I was thinking to myself, "This is it, man, I need to make a video. This is my first superstar at the shop, I need to get him in here." He actually came through, I gave him a haircut, made his head super red (with all the intentions of) giving him the best fade ever. I have about 50,000 views off of the video. So, that was crazy. And then his fans started coming in. "Hey, we heard you cut Jin..." That whole thing started to blow me up, and soon I got radio DJs. I had this guy visit, DJ Yonny (still with Power 105.1 back then) who I met through a friend. (Yonny) started getting famous out of no where... and then my name started blowin' up again thanks to him shouting me out on the radio, plugging the barber shop to check me out. By 2010, I had some money saved again, and I wanted to open up another shop. Somehow, we found (the space right here) on 63rd and Roosevelt, and so here we are, chatting it up! (Laughs). Somehow, I've remained in this game, I've been blessed to meet all these different people, and that's how I built my fame  -- through word of mouth. Guys like D-Pryde, all these "YouTubers" -- I met this one guy, he called me, he said "my name is Timothy DeLa Ghetto, I need a hair cut." Then AJ Rafael came by, JR Aquino and Andrew Garcia, they came through before performing for a show in Baruch college... Before they came through though, I had people I've met through hip-hop magazines over the years such as Source and Vibe, and those introductions would get me gigs, leading to working with Travis McCoy, Freeway and Big Sean, for instance. (My experiences) brought me to meet people (i.e. DJs from Switzerland, face models for Gucci, etc.) I started gaining these model connections, and I would also meet these hairstylists who needed men's grooming, so I was coming in highly recommended. The other day, I just cut FloRida's hair, and that was actually through a barber referral (it's a small world for us barbers), and his team called me and said, "You're in New York, we need you to shape up FloRida, can you help us out?" In the barber world, it's (such a small fraternity), we basically throw clients at each other. I'm happy that the Filipino (barber) community in the West Coast is blowing up. Here in New York, I feel like there are only four decent Pinoy barbers that I know -- me and Jay at the top, Queens' Finest. Even in Jersey, there are like three shops blowing up, serving the huge Filipino community there. I'm pretty hyped and excited that us Filipinos are coming up now, and we're taking the barber game to a whole different level. What important lessons have you learned from your lengthy career? I've been in the game now for about 12 years. You learn to talk to and deal with people of all races; blacks, Asians, white, and the majority would be Latino. Actually, 80% of my clientele is Spanish, about 10% Filipino and the other 10% would be different types of Asians. We're very warm here at the shop, very friendly, we want to make sure our client is comfortable and he or she can relax here. You gain people's trust. I learned how to distinguish hair - we're all different people, and not all hair is the same. So I've adapted and learned how to style hair by first learning the characteristics... say, an Asian person's hair which is thinner and straight and a black person's hair or a Latino's hair would be different. When it comes to our culture, we're very meticulous when it comes to our hair, we're particular with our barbers, which no one outside of Pinoy culture really is aware of. Did you feel like you had to break down any stereotypes or preconceived notions as a Filipino barber? Oh, of course, I definitely did, man! I broke that shit up, man. They looked at me like, 'this Asian guy gonna cut my hair?' And I would tell them, if you trust me, I will hook you up. I'm gonna give you my best. If you don't like it, don't come back. But at least try me out. And guess what, 10 years in, here we are. (My clients) can say now, "I can't front, Rich did his thing, he's really good." *** At this point, Kazz was by the door. "THERE'S A FIGHT OUTSIDE!" We all look out to see two Mexican guys next door trade punches. And then one dude gets laid out. "That's the street, son." Rich heads back inside, while everyone was still laughing outside about the fight. "Does this happen a lot," I asked, still laughing. "Nah, man, never." *** So, going back, yeah, I broke that stereotype down, man. We Filipinos, we're in such a small community, I wanted to do my part. I wanted to help grow our community. (At the same time), I am American, and I would get my share of interactions with Filipinos who moved out here from (back home). I felt that I was a little too 'American,' maybe a little too strong, too straightforward for these guys, because there's a lack of communication. They don't understand my lingo, and so that translates to more of Filipino-Americans who would mostly support me, but I lost that other base, and it sucks, man. It was kinda sad for me. Back in the days, Filipinos out here, it was like gang culture. There was a group in that corner, this corner, another corner, and it was like the Fil-Ams versus the F.O.B.s (not to be disrespectful), and it was sad, you know? They were always fighting, and we didn't know then how to support each other. I almost joined up, but I didn't want to be a part of that. I gravitated more to the Chinese and Korean communities. They were just chill,  I hung out with them even though I was the outsider. I'd go to these Asian parties and meet all these Asian promoters. I was always trying to network, trying to get my name out there. How did you meet J-Nice and 360? Let's see... Jay, I met him through an old client who I used to cut hair for. Now, Jay cuts that guy's hair. He's happy that his boy is working. I told him, "Yo, Jay's killin' the game." I feel like he's beat me out on fades now, so we're trying to get back on our A-game. 360, we went to the same school, at Atlas Barber School. I had to get my license, it was a five month course. New York State requires you, so as a barber the most important thing is you have to complete those 500 hours. So I went and got my license, and later on I called them up and told them I was opening this shop and I needed a barber. So they sent me 360. I remember him walking in his first day. He was in a suit and tie, and I said, "Damn, this guy is serious." Over the years, we've taught each other well. He didn't know a lot about cutting Filipino hair, so I trained him. We all really helped train each other on how to cut good hair. I read in a past interview you would ideally go to 360 for your own hair. Is he still your go-to cut man for yourself?  (I trust) everybody, man. Everyone is. That was why I built this team, this four-person unit. Any of these three people, I wouldn't have a problem with. We've built ourselves to all be on the same level of expertise. My sister, for instance, she knew how to just work on women's hair, and I taught her how to cut guys' hair, and she taught us to cut straight hair. When I am gone on a trip or on business and my clients need me, they would be in good hands with these guys. I travel a lot these days, I'm always travelling for clients. With all the success you've all reaped from that hard work, can you talk a bit about how that impacts Filipinos around this community and with the notion of, we're now seeing Filipino culture blow up? Yeah, we're really on the rise now, I'm very happy. I'm proud about that, and I want more. I like us not having beef, being happy and successful. I don't consider myself as successful yet, I'm still on the bottom. I gotta make sure I build a strong team, maybe in the future open more shops and businesses, and even become a personal celebrity stylist and hair artist, with a good salary-base pay. Majority of the barbers that I know are celebrity barbers and they're killing the game, man, caking easy six figures doing what they do best. This isn't a game to get rich, it is a labor of passion, of doing what you love. It is a culture, a lifestyle, and it lets me be happy and talk to customers, interact with people. We're like priests, or like their therapists. We sit and talk and chill, and it's why I can't complain about my job while I hear others complain about theirs. I just like to make people happy. Was it always important for you to have the shop as warm as it is? We all laugh here. The shop laughs. We talk shit all the time, we all pick on each other. We're just family. Jay's the comedian, the youngest here. 360's the loudest - his laugh is ridiculously loud. Kazz is the smooth one, she likes knowing everything and how things work. For me, I'm just calm, modest, relaxed. I try to be Mr. Right sometimes, but (laughs and shakes his head) I tend to lose, they always get at me. What would be the principles you apply to your typical work day? I gotta make sure I'm booked. My clients are prepared to get in, get their hair done, all business. I am quick, I consider myself as a master of 10-minute haircuts. I can do a 40-minute job (for an average barber) really quickly and it comes out perfect. I'm on that New York hustle, on that New York time. Out here, it's in-and-out, but I make sure that everyone's happy. I've built a business that is not at all cold, we're home to people as much as possible. I want it to be relaxed and warm, because I've been to barber shops where it's cold and I worked at shops where I get into fights now with because their clients leave them for me. I wasn't even stealing them, they just left because those other barbers took so long. They sit for an hour and a half for a haircut, and I sit there knocking guys out, 10 minutes, 10 minutes, and the customers enjoy what I have to offer. So I make sure I go through my bookings. Then after that, happy hour. I'm 30 years old, you know, I like good times, having fun. When the day is done, we close the gates, sip on something nice, maybe smoke a cigar, living life. YOLO, man, right?! (Laughs) Around here, you see, we sell out hats and shirts, give out stickers, I always have to keep promoting myself, to stay relevant. Favorite tools? My favorite tool, my  T-liners, man. I just upgraded to a Wahl's Hero T-Blade. And then, my razor and my comb. (Rich shows me the razor and comb tattooed on his index fingers.) For the young kids out there who would want to follow your footsteps, what advice would you give them?  Follow a dream that you want. Follow a talent that you have. Work on it so see where it goes, and work yourself well with it. And, most importantly, network yourself real well. That's the most important thing in the game. Because if you don't talk, you get no where. [slideshow id = 66] [Click Here for Part 2]