By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
Rubie Williams and hair stylist Lycia Conner see about eight clients every Thursday at Williams’ small, chic salon located on the west end of Duke Street.
Outfitted in purples and grays, the salon has two of everything – two styling stations, two hair-washing sinks, two hair dryers – along with its two front and two rear tires.
Williams’ salon, called Hair Nirvana, is the first mobile salon in Alexandria.
Housed in a renovated 1992 Ford Rockwood recreational vehicle, Hair Nirvana recently celebrated its second anniversary on wheels.
A longtime Alexandria resident, Williams mulled the concept for years but kept pushing it to the back burner.
It reemerged three years ago when she traveled to a client’s home to do her hair. After her back started to ache while working without a salon chair, Williams thought about how nice it would be to do house calls using her own setup.
“I said ‘you know what, Stace, I should do a mobile hair salon,’” Williams said. “She said ‘that would be awesome.’”
After seeing someone with a similar concept in Maryland, Williams decided to take the first step: finding an RV.
She called and emailed a number of potential sellers on Craigslist. Weeks later, she purchased the Ford Rockwood for $6,000 cash.
Finding a home for the salon was just the first step of many for Williams. Her journey next took her to City Hall, where she worked with the Department of Planning & Zoning to figure out a code that would give her the ability to operate and the Health Department to get the necessary clearance to operate the salon. Once she got the green light from both city agencies, she worked to get her business license through, first, the commonwealth and then the city.
Williams found a number of advocates in city government, including the city’s former Zoning Administrator Peter Leiberg, who worked with Williams through the process. Her concept, however, didn’t fit neatly into any box city and commonwealth officials were used to dealing with.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘We’ve never heard of something like this. We don’t know about this,’” Williams said.
After getting the necessary approvals, Williams and a contractor, Edalmo Cogo, who had been recommended by a client, transformed the
RV from a camper that had a bathroom, a bed and a kitchen to a full-service salon, complete with a sound system and comfortable couches. In the process, Williams estimates she spent $25,000 – all without the help of a small business loan.
“I just worked hard and saved my money,” Williams explains.
When Williams saw the finished product at the grand opening in 2015, she couldn’t believe her dream had become reality.
“I visualized it and it worked. I’m really proud of it,” Williams said. “When we were at the grand opening, my daughter said ‘why are you crying?’ And I said ‘well, look at it – it’s a real salon.’”
Williams maintains a seat at a fixed-location salon, New Image at 378 S. Pickett St., where you can find her on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Every other day of the week you’ll find her at Hair Nirvana, whether she’s parked at a client’s home, at an Alexandria event or driving Marymount University in Arlington. Every other Sunday, Hair Nirvana heads to the West End Farmer’s Market at 4800 Brenman Park Drive and every Thursday the salon sets up shop behind the Enterprise Rent-a-Car at 4213 Duke St.
Williams said response to the salon has been overwhelmingly positive so far.
“People are very surprised, and also inspired. Everybody is like ‘what a brilliant idea,’” Williams said. “We drive down the road and people are taking pictures … It’s just two years that we’ve been in business, and it’s been very successful.”
The mobile salon concept has attracted considerable attention, and was featured on The Washington Post’s business page in an April column. Since then, a number of women with aspirations of starting their own mobile business have reached out to Williams.
“It’s been a beautiful innovation for women and men, but it’s also inspiring a lot of women,” Williams said. “When I was written up in the Washington Post, one woman contacted me and said ‘I want to open a math [tutoring business] on wheels.’ She asked ‘how did you go about doing it?’”
When asked about what inspired her, Williams thinks back to the people who encouraged her along the way – her mother, her two children (a 27-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter) and her faith in God.
“My mom kept pushing me. Whenever I told her ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ my mom would say ‘no, no, no. Keep going. Keep going. God didn’t make you go this far to stop now,’” Williams said.
When Williams began taking cosmetology classes while a student at Lake Braddock Secondary School, she never thought she would end up opening a salon of her own. Though in hindsight, Williams has loved doing hair her whole life. Growing up, Williams, who was born in Panama City, Florida and later relocated to Alexandria with her family, walked around with a comb in her hand.
“I would always do my hair and it always looked nice. In my 10th grade year, I started taking cosmetology,” Williams said. “Ever since then, it’s just been keeping going forward with this.”
After graduating from high school, Williams started as a stylist at the Hair Cuttery, where she spent 12 years. Eunice Copeland has been going to Williams to get her hair done since that time. Though originally Copeland went to another stylist at the Hair Cuttery, over time, she got to know Williams and admired her work.
“One day when my stylist wasn’t there, I tried her and, needless to say, I never went back to my old stylist,” Copeland said. “She’s very confident in what she does and I found her to be a very hard-working lady. She’s very dedicated to what she does.”
Copeland has continued as Williams’ client for 25 years and, in that time, Copeland has followed Williams to two subsequent salons, TC International Salon at 3690 King St. and then New Look at 508 S. Van Dorn St.
Copeland also continued as a client when Williams made her first solo venture. Copeland continues to be a frequent customer.
She said she was in shock when she first saw the mobile hair salon.
“We had been talking throughout the process, but when I first laid eyes on it, I was in awe,” Copeland said. “It’s beautiful and it’s convenient.”
Copeland said Williams’ success is a testament to her dedication.
“She’s just really a success story. She’s determined to be on her own, and that she can make it,” Copeland said. “She never gave up on the dream.”
Another client, Linda Oliveros, who has been going to Williams since 2005, has a similar story. Oliveros’ original hair stylist at TC International Salon was running late one day, and suggested she go to Williams instead.
“Rubie took me that day and I never went back to that other guy,” Oliveros said. “We joke about it, but if that hadn’t happened, I may have never met her. It’s a blessing that he was so rude. I’ve been her client ever since.”
Oliveros said it’s Williams’ upbeat personality and her skill with all types of hair – from women’s and men’s hair to kids’ cuts – that keeps her coming back. In fact, Williams counts Oliveros’ husband and sons as clients as well.
Oliveros said she tends to visit Williams at her stationary salon, but she
has patronized both.
“The first time I went in there, I thought ‘wow.’ I didn’t think I was in an RV,” she said.
She’s told Williams that, should she move out of Alexandria, she’ll still return as a client.
“I told her if we ever retire to Hilton Head, I’ll be back,” Oliveros joked.
As for Williams, she isn’t done with building new concepts. She’s in the midst of working on a new RV concept – a mobile nail salon.
“I want to have a fleet of these,” Williams said. “I want a nail truck and then I’m thinking a massage and then a meditation truck.”
She urges other entrepreneur-hopefuls to have patience – and keep persevering.
“There are going to be obstacles in the way. Those will only make you stronger,” Williams said. “When you step on the ladder, you go up. You don’t just take big steps. You keep elevating. You keep going.”