I remember a story once told to me by a cousin of my grandfather’s about her visit to Vidal Sassoon’s London salon and the pixie cut that she left with. When she arrived back at the hotel, her husband said he hoped she’d never wear her hair any other way. Some fifty years later, it remains the same.
Over the course of the last 50 years, countless hair styles have become classics. Generally, we’ve referred to them by the people who wore them, not the artists who created them. Jacqueline Kennedy, Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Aniston: People asked for their hair. And yet we all know Vidal Sassoon’s styles — even when done for Mia Farrow or Peggy Moffatt — as Vidal Sassoon’s. For that reason alone, he stood out from the rest.
Vidal Sassoon passed away in Los Angeles on Wednesday from leukemia. He was 84.
Today, I’m not taking for granted the fact that my hair can be done so simply and make me feel good as long as it’s cut well. A great cut defines the jawline, the cheekbones and neck. For these ideas, and the very concept of “wash and wear,” I thank Mr. Sassoon.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way history and art, design and fashion all intertwine. The way ideas ripple in so many directions. As it did for Sassoon.
He loved modern architecture and clean lines, and as the Mod Movement hit London in the late fifties, he found his ideas worked beautifully with the times. Or maybe, the times with his work.
Sassoon’s career as a stylist wasn’t something he himself had planned, but if not for the circumstances of his life, perhaps he wouldn’t have set out to break the mold and make such a statement.
He grew up in London tenements, and when his parents divorced, he and his brother spent seven years living in a Jewish orphanage as his mother was unable to support them. She was allowed to visit them monthly but they could never leave with her. All this amidst the growing anti-semitism and rumblings of world war.
He dreamed of going to college, but at 14 he had to leave school for work. He soon began an apprenticeship with a hair dresser, as his mother had had a premonition that this was to be his calling. Sassoon listened to his mother. Wisely.
Self-educated, he took elocution lessons to lose his Cockney accent and became politically active. At seventeen, he became the youngest member of the English anti-fascist movement, 43 Group, and in 1948, joined the Israeli army to fight in the Arab-Israeli War. He considered it one of the most important years of his life. (In 1982, The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism was founded at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as an international research program.)
Sassoon returned to London from Israel on the cusp of a new decade, just as beehives and bouffants were to become all the rage. He had other ideas. He was thinking outside the box that teased and set and shellaced hair so that it would stay for a week or so, until the next salon appointment.
As he said in the 2010 documentary Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, “If I was going to be in hairdressing, I wanted to change things. I wanted to eliminate the superfluous and get down to the basic angles of cut and shape.”
And for the next decade, he would work to perfect that. In 1963, he gave Mary Quant a haircut that would become as famous as the miniskirt she created. In a beautiful tribute in the UK’s Daily Mail, Quant wrote “Along with the Pill and the mini-skirt, his influence was truly liberating.”
Without Vidal Sassoon we’d never have known the idea of hair that could be done without being “done.” That hair cuts were styles in and of themselves and didn’t require teasing and curling and weekly trips to the salon in order to be au courant. He had the notion that hair should be cut to flatter bone structure. Liberating? Yes. Flattering? That too.
Two of the most wonderful stylists I know, my friend’s parents John And Suzanne Chadwick, knew Sassoon as both a colleague and friend. They began their careers in London before moving to New York and then Los Angeles, not unlike Sassoon.
They told me “Vidal was a kind, helpful and superb individual who led millions of hairdressers to strive on to follow his impeccable standards of work and pure ethics. Much has and will be written about this incredible man. He was extraordinary in more ways that we could ever convey, other than to say he made us proud to call ourselves hairdressers.”
They described him as a “remarkable philanthropic man who made this planet a better place to walk upon…who built homes after Katrina with his own hands and mobilized our profession to become involved.”
(Sassoon co-founded Hair Unlocking Hope, which raised funds to help build homes after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Having grown up without a home much of his life, this cause was close to his heart.)
We live in a time where celebrity and fame are so often lauded without talent to support it. We must be careful not to overuse words like icon for they’ll begin to lose their luster.
But for Mr. Sassoon I can think of no other. He was an artist, a businessman, a humanitarian, a father, brother, husband and son. And a friend.
As I received in an email from John and Suzanne:
Thank you Vidal for being a lifetime friend, laughing at our bad jokes, always twinkling with excitement, making us so welcome in your home and counseling us so wisely…everyone should have a champion like you. Rest now, as your reputation and uniqueness radiates around the planet. We shall miss you.
Rest in peace, Mr Sassoon.