Vidal Sassoon is remembered by how his pared-down artistry freed fashionable women.
The recent documentary tracking Vidal Sassoon and his enormous contribution to fashion is indeed a visual art form largely because of the British visionary who ushered in a movement – one as influential as the new directions demonstrated by a Monet or a Picasso.
Sassoon’s expressionism amounted to swapping the heavy heating and dressing for cleaner, geometric barber techniques which freed women in an age of cumbersome Lady Schick bonnet hair dryers, tacky Dippety-Do hair gels and bobby pins for curling, manic back-teasing and chemical hairspray shellacking – resulting in a renewed appreciation of natural simplicity.
The message was received and embraced by style arbiters from London to Little Rock. What could be a stronger statement than a precise angular cut? The lady was now wearing the glossy blunt hair rather than the hair entering the room first.
Like the documentary movie poster, featuring Nancy Kwan of Flower Drum Song fame, Sassoon revealed a newly chiseled star with black tresses complementing a new aesthetic: the cut. Its execution allowed little room for failure, separating the boys from the men when it came to barber acumen with a pair of sheers. While Kwan was one of the first signature bobs, Sassoon got on the map when flown into Hollywood in 1967 to cut off Mia Farrow’s long blond strands into a boyish pixie for the film Rosemary’s Baby (a change not embraced by her love interest, Frank Sinatra). As the LA Times describes, it was a $30 haircut that Sassoon calculated ending up costing around $5,000 including airfare. But it paid off as the Twiggy look was a great option for women with ultra fine hair and great bone structure.
Now that the legendary stylist has died of cancer at 84, those he greatly inspired remember his artistic genius, mentoring gifts and business savvy. Not only is he credited with reinventing the 20s bob as modern and ultra chic, but popularizing the hand held blow dryer and opening a chain of salons worldwide, starting with his shop in Beverly Hills in 1970 which prompted him to move his headquarters to Los Angeles. He also created a successful product line – the first to deliver salon styling tools to the neighborhood market.
At his training academies, he performed his techniques for protegees eager to master the wash and wear precision cuts conforming to the head, and later, blow drying methods to keep the look sleek and decidedly unfussy.
He also will be remembered as someone who turned hair stylist into celebrity stylist due to his associations with rock stars, art stars, top fashion models and designers. This was a leap for a kid who dropped out of school at 14 at his mother’s urging and began working in a salon. At 20, he served as a volunteer soldier in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and later said “it gave me a sense of dignity and the confidence that helped structure my future.”
After his military service he returned to London to work and sprang into the limelight when producing the geometric Beatles-esque blunt cut for designer Mary Quant- a hot innovator credited with inventing the miniskirt.
“If you don’t look good, we don’t look good,” was his famous line from a 1976 TV add. Hair stylists – once service industry slaves – were now elevated to the high ranks of the fashion world because of Sassoon’s marketing genius.
British stylist Tracey McAlister, co-owner of Cowboys and Angels Salon in San Francisco’s Union Square, started her training with Sassoon as a teenager and admits to getting goosebumps when learning he had died. “My mum phoned from North of England yesterday,” she shares. “He used to do her hair.”
McAlister remembers doing Vidal’s hair. “I used to shampoo it at the Sloane Street salon in London when I was 17 when he would come in and see everyone and he was marvelous, a fabulous soft spoken guy, sweet and handsome and a really nice person. We all wore these dodgy brown overalls until he married Beverly and she opened her Sassoon jeans company and then we all got to wear jeans and we actually had waist-lines.”
Training with the Sassoon teams in New York, Chicago and L.A,. McAlister started with the company in 1981 and worked at the first salon on Post street in San Francisco. “They sent people like me to the states because the education got really bad in London due to everyone being intro drugs and coke and it lost itself, but it was restructured and brought back and became strong again,” she recalls.
John Lee was also part of the early inner circle with Sassoon at the first downtown San Francisco salon on Post. The now middle-aged, reformed party boy has warm memories of learning from his mentor and friend. “My brother, Ron and I had hair down to our waists and were known as the ‘Vidal twins’ by everyone,” recalls the stylist, who continues specializing in the variation on the bob at the Street salon. “We partied a lot in the old days and all of us were very close,” he says, remembering Sassoon as a kind person whose enthusiasm was infectious.
Lee and Vidal Sassoon
Lee also speaks of the indelible mark his mentor made in no fuss art direction in hair styling, arguing it has permeated modern looks of today, not just in the cut, but in the more subtle coloring techniques.
“It’s all much less intrusive and the results are more sophisticated,” he says, pointing to an image of a model on the wall at the salon. Those images reflect the Sassoon take on the cut, dating back to the first celeb guinea pigs like Quant and Farrow. Stylists have always appreciated and applauded clients brave enough to take risks.
Lee carries a thick photo book with him containing memorabilia from the 80s, shots of him with Vidal and with his identical twin and various women friends from the old salon.
“I really miss all of the original people and wish we could get together again,” he confides, glassy eyed. “Maybe now, we will.”