Elia’s Salon, which was named as top Dominican salon by LATINA Magazine, is celebrated for its customer service, as evidenced by relaxing shampoo and conditioner treatments.
Photos by Catherine Fonseca
Beauty is a beast.
Hair is a notoriously fickle, and important, part of one’s appearance. And given the preponderance of beauty salons and barbershops throughout northern Manhattan and the Bronx, the upkeep of hair is particularly important to the many men and women who are quick to schedule a shape-up, or a blow-dry.
“At least it is where I’m from,” agrees Elia Josefina DeLeon, who goes by “Josephine”. “Dominican women [simply] like looking and feeling good.”
DeLeon is the owner of Elia’s Hair Salon, located on Amsterdam Avenue, and on 101st Street, which was named in September 2006 as the top Dominican salon in the United States by LATINA Magazine. It is frequented by scores of women from throughout Washington Heights and the Bronx.
But in the 1960’s, such distinctions and titles were a far cry from her modest beginnings in her family kitchen, where DeLeon spent her time styling her mother’s and sister’s hair.
DeLeon, who arrived from the Dominican Republic at the age of 6, always had a fire burning, as she described it. No matter what she was doing, her mind was always on cosmetology.
“Back then, no one thought cosmetology was a profession,” said DeLeon, whose immigrant parents wanted more for their daughter. “They wanted me to work in corporate America.”
After a few college courses, DeLeon began working in the Financial District.
“I did it all: investment banking, commercial banking, mortgage companies, on Park Avenue, SoHo, everywhere,” said Deleon.
But, raised by a family of entrepreneurs, DeLeon soon felt it was time to branch out.
“My father was a salsa composer, self-employed. My mother was a seamstress. My grandmother used to sell ice cream in Santo Domingo, and she built a home around that small business,” said DeLeon. “I knew I wanted to be my own boss.”
And having worked in marketing for over 20 years, she had specific ideas on how to promote her venture.
“I knew to use social media, print ads, and on the Internet. Marketing taught me how to have a targeted audience, and how to address them,” said DeLeon, who opened Elia’s in 2005.
Her efforts have paid off, and DeLeon today boasts an extremely loyal clientele.
“A lot of people think [starting a business] is just opening the door. There is another side to running a business,” said DeLeon. “There is ad and service development. Customers come to Elia’s expecting better service.”
The storefront shop is staffed with expert stylists, such as Bronx resident Maria Ferreras, whom DeLeon calls “a well-rounded stylist.”
“She is an expert in blowouts, and her hair cutting is the best,” said DeLeon.
With an established clientele and thriving business in place, DeLeon has turned her prowess to philanthropy.
Budget cuts to public schools hit home for DeLeon when she realized her niece and nephew would possibly have to travel miles from home for school because the schools in their district were over-crowded, and there was no immediate remedy.
“Public schools are overcrowded already. As they start closing more and more schools where are these kids going to go? It affects everyone,” said DeLeon.
Working with The Fund for Public Schools program, which was founded in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-Chancellor Joel Klein to help establish public-private partnerships that would secure investments from private businesses, individuals and foundations for the city’s public schools, DeLeon is spearheading a new campaign to raise money for local schools.
“Basically, all you [as a client] have to do is let us know that you are in any way affiliated with a New York City public school, and 10% of the cost of your service goes to the program,” said DeLeon.
All clients can participate via any affiliation with a public school student, be they son or daughter, niece or neighbor, or if they work in a public school, or know someone who does.
DeLeon is hopeful that her fundraising efforts will be mimicked by other businesses and entrepreneurs, and that there will be a collective effort by local merchants.
“What I can give is small, [but] I can still make a difference, and so can other business owners like me,” said DeLeon
And currently, there is no limit as to how much DeLeon wants to donate.
“The program started eight days ago,” said DeLeon, and she says she is looking forward to being able to donate a solid sum total.
DeLeon’s passion for cultivating the aspirations of young people extends also to mentoring. She gave a seminar earlier this fall at the Fashion Industries High School, where, for two hours, she spoke about the billion-dollar hair care industry, what It means to be a cosmetologist, and how to use business as a background.
She also spoke on what was most important for the teens present: how to take care of your own hair.
“It was amazing! When you’re that young, you’re so open to all information,” gushed DeLeon. “I had all these kids sitting there, and they wanted to know everything.”
Moreover, DeLeon’s holistic approach at addressing the issues before her are evident also at Elia’s, where the policy is to have clients fill out a thorough questionnaire – long before hair is addressed.
“It’s not just about their hair, it’s about their lifestyle. It’s important to every human being on this earth to feel good,” said DeLeon.
DeLeon makes sure to focus on the whole picture: on the comfort of the client, the quality of service, the sense of well-being and health, and finally, the hair.
For those to whom it may seem as if DeLeon’s life revolves around seemingly superficial aspirations, she invites a closer look.
“It’s not just a good blowout, and adding conditioner to the hair,” noted DeLeon.
As she describes it, beauty is not something someone can possess; beauty is – and should be – something altogether encompassing, whether it be found in a great salon visit, or in the work supporting academic programs for children.
“Beauty is when a customer comes in, hugs me, and tells me, ‘My hair was beautiful for my birthday,’” explains DeLeon. “And beauty is about loving life.”