Legendary Chicago hair salon owner who styled Michelle Obama retires after more than 40 years

'In his magic chair, he plays the role of stylist and therapist,' said Connie Lindsey, a client.

Samantha Chatman Image
Saturday, July 2, 2022
Legendary Chicago hairstylist retires after more than 40 years
The owner of Van Cleef Hair Studio in Little Italy, Chicago retired after 40 years in business. He styled Michelle Obama and ABC7's Samantha Chatman.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A local hairstylist who's retiring after 44 years in the business is making Chicago proud.

Rahni Flowers, the owner of Van Cleef Hair Studio, is packing up his curling irons and hair spray and preparing for a new chapter of life.

He's styled hair for Grammy award winners, actresses, and for years, former First Lady Michelle Obama and her mother, Marian Robinson. His mission was to provide a safe haven for Black women to truly let their hair down. It's a gift his clients said they'll never forget.

He's touched the lives of hundreds of women in the Chicago area, blessing them with not only his gifted hands, but his words of wisdom, kindness and friendship. After more than four decades, Flowers reflected on his illustrious career as he said goodbye to his clients and salon.

"The world and America have not treated Black women very favorably over the years. And so this for me, specially, was a chance to make that happen in my own little way. So, they can come here and feel safe, they can feel loved, they can feel pampered and cared for, and that was special to me," Flowers said. "And these ladies started off in their younger years and grew up to be amazing people like brain surgeons, doctors, lawyers, newscasters, all sorts of amazing things."

One of his most famous clients was Obama, along with her daughters and mother. Robinson said she's been Flowers' client since the 1980s.

"My daughter was his client and I was, you know, one of the homemakers who thought I would take care of my own hair. It would be cheaper. My daughter walked up to me and said, 'Mom, your hair is green! Stop doing your hair!' And that's when she said, 'You should go to Rahni,'" Robinson said.

Robinson went on to spend eight years living at the White House. But the moment she moved back to Chicago, she went looking for Flowers.

"And the shop was gone. And I don't know how I found him because he had just moved the week before. And I just walked into his shop and Rahni was so shocked because I just walked up to him and stood there," Robinson said. "And I said, 'You do not know how glad I am to see you.'"

His dedication, humor and gentle spirit are things his clients said they'll miss the most.

"In his magic chair, he plays the role of stylist and therapist. He's a friend, he's all of those things," said Connie Lindsey, a client. "Whether it's a birthday, something challenging going on in my life, he will write a note. He'll send a card. That's part of the magic of Van Cleef and Rahni Flowers."

Flowers' partner, Daryl Wells, who's retiring with him, was emotional about the farewell.

"You reach the age when you think how fortunate I was to meet him," Wells said. "You have touched the lives of so many people along the way and empowered them and enriched them and I am amazingly proud of you."

Robinson didn't hold back about her feelings about Flowers leaving.

"Well, my farewell to Rahni is, 'dammit!' But seriously, I hope Rahni enjoys his retirement. I have so enjoyed going to the beauty shop not only for hair, but relaxation and good company - and he's very easy to love," Robinson said.

Flowers reflected on his 44 years in business.

"Mary J. Blidge. I'm not going to cry," Flowers said. "I feel like I can walk off feeling like, it's good."

And after 15 years of doing ABC7's Samantha Chatman's hair, she, too, will miss Flowers very much.

Flowers said his legacy continues at Van Cleef. He has trained the new owner, Antonia Turner, and has full confidence that she will keep the doors open for another 40 years.

As for what's next for Flowers, he and his partner are moving to Costa Rica to enjoy the fruits of their labor. His last day in the salon is Saturday.