Michelle Obama's former hairstylist sues over unfinished salon

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The former first lady's hairstylist turned to the I-Team, saying he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because a developer could not complete his new salon.

The man who styled Michelle Obama's hair for almost 30 years says he's filed a hair-raising lawsuit, saying he had to postpone his retirement after not being able to move into a new salon.

Rahni Flowers and Daryl Wells run the well-known Van Cleef Hair Studio. It's been in business for more than 30 years.

"Rahni has been regarded as one of the top African American stylists in the country for decades, really set the standards for African American hair care for women," Wells said.

Flowers was Michelle Obama's hair stylist for decades, and for the first inauguration.

"A real amazing young lady, and who would have thought that she would end up being the first lady? We had a great relationship," he said.

Now these business and life partners say they're heartbroken and hurting financially.

"We would have to close a business of 30 years that has been a pillar in the African American community," Flowers said through tears.

"I feel like we were ripped off," said Wells.

In their lawsuit they claim fraud, saying the developer, Windy City RE, was responsible for chronic delays and was unable to move them into a new space in the South Loop. They dumped $250,000 into construction and deposits for a March 1, 2016, move-in date. Sinks and mirrors are visibly ready to go, but Wells and Flowers said other areas of the building were unfinished.

"We had no electricity, we had no water, we had no sanitation, no services of any kind this building the entire time we were under construction, so our furniture was on the wall and it looked like this and we couldn't open," Wells said.

After four months of delays, they said, they were forced to break the lease.

"And we had nowhere to go. And we were really thinking we were going to be forced out of business after 30-some years," said Wells.

They said they had no choice but to spend thousands more to move into their current location on the 1200-block of South Halsted Street.

In its legal response to the complaint, Windy City RE denied any failure to deliver.

On the phone, partner Amy Rubenstein said that "there were things that happened with the building itself, beyond our control, that caused delays." But she also blamed many of the delays on the hairstylists, calling them "difficult" and saying they just wanted to get out of the deal.

"We put money into the business, so there was never any thought that we were not going to do what we said we were going to do. Everything that was our obligation to do, we did it," Flowers said.

Windy City RE is countersuing the salon, claiming breach of lease and demanding that Van Cleef pay $411,000.

Rubenstein also said she, her brother, and husband are helping to revive the neighborhood with several projects. In an email she said, "I am really proud of our work, both past and present, and feel very confident about the type of person I am and the company that I run. I am a good, honest and moral person."

More than a year after the Van Cleef lease was supposed to start the city says the salon space still does not have a certificate of occupancy. The Chicago Building Department told the I-Team that during a January inspection, the area "...was not complete enough to safely allow a retail space to operate in the building."

Wells and Flowers said they'll keep cutting to recoup losses and fulfill what they call a commitment to the community.

"Black women have not always had the treatment that they should have considering all they have done for our community, and I wanted to make that happen and I still do," Flowers said.

The I-Team did find a temporary certificate of occupancy issued in May, but the city said that is for two different retail sections of the building. The developers insist another business will eventually be moving into the salon space in question
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