Vidal Sassoon: Living Legend

By Alicia Liotta | 12/04/2008 11:31:00 AM


The professional beauty industry would not be what it is today without the work, innovation, inspiration, commitment and influence of Vidal Sassoon. I had the privilege to sit down with the father of modern hairdressing and an exemplary steward of social consciousness to talk about his past, present and future. During our time together, I learned where this man came from and where he is going. At 80 years old, Sassoon is not done.

Sassoon not only revolutionized the beauty industry through his famous cuts and commitment to education, but also through his various philanthropic efforts. His “rags-to-riches” saga is one that has been chronicled worldwide and gives him the compassion and empathy to bring hope and help to others. His revolutionary system of cutting hair was the metamorphosis that has led hundreds of thousands of hairdressers around the globe to new heights as their craft was turned into an art form by a man and his shears. 

Although he has stepped away from dressing hair, which he has left to the next generations, Sassoon still works for and with hairdressers to promote a greater good and a better world all in the name of the craft. A few years ago, I met with Sassoon at the Sassoon Academy in Santa Monica, California. It was then that he told me “you have to share and pass on what you have created and learned. There are too many people who are too afraid to share. If you keep it all to yourself, when you go it goes—that which you have created dies with you.” 

Through his influence, his craft, his teachings and his philanthropic efforts we continue to witness this belief and his philosophy in action.

You can watch clips of Alicia's interview with Vidal!
Check out VIDEO: Vidal in His Own Words

Alicia Marantz Liotta: I’ve read that your mother had a dream that you were going to become a hairdresser. Is this what you always wanted to do?
Vidal Sassoon: First I wanted to be a soccer player and then an architect. I was 14 years old and WWII was on. It was a time when you did not have many choices unless you were coming out of a very good school, which I was not. My mother said she had this dream that I would become a hairdresser and I would go work for a man named Adolph Cohen. I told my mum I wanted to be a soccer player, she said, “No, there is no future in that.” Obviously she did not imagine what is going on today [in soccer].

AML: What was your first job in the industry?
VS: In 1942, my mum took me to Adolph Cohen’s salon on White Chapel Road in the heart of the East Side of London. He gave me a job as a shampoo boy. Meanwhile, London was being bombed by the German Airforce every night. We would sleep in bomb shelters, yet every morning Adolf Cohen expected us to have creases in our trousers, clean shoes and clean nails. It was unreal. Funny enough, we managed it somehow. We stuck our trousers under the mattress and slept on them so they would not be wrinkled. [Adolph Cohen] created in me the sense that discipline was a necessary inconvenience. That time really showed me the triumph of the human spirit.

AML: Where did you learn to cut hair and who taught you?
VS: I worked for a man named Raymond “Mr. Teasey Weasey,” as he was known. He had a way of using a small pair of scissors to shape, prune and cut angular hair. He taught me how to use a pair of scissors. He was an amazing man, truly my hero.

AML: When did you open your first salon?
VS: In 1954 we opened a third floor salon on Bond Street—the wrong side of Bond Street. After two years it became impossible—we got so busy there were people sitting on the stairs.

AML: When you started, what was happening in the professional beauty industry?
VS: There were really three main things happening that were in the midst of changing.
In the salon, we were mostly seeing backcombing, chignons and sets. We began to change that with geometric cutting and angles suited for individual bone structure. We were also doing color. When we first started to do color we made our bleach from peroxide and ammonia. The peroxide was poured into the bowl and mixed, then very carefully the ammonia was poured into the peroxide, and we had bleach. It was pathetic in a way, but you have to start from somewhere. Suddenly companies started to develop colors from new technology and a new essence of what color was about arose that gave the colorist the ability to change and create so many things.

The third thing was how we handled curl. In 1965 we opened [the salon] in New York. I started to look around at the hair and I thought to myself, why denegrate curl? Why not utilize it? I went back to London and took a weekend at the Grosvenor House with Roger Thompson, Annie Humphreys, Christopher Brooker and a photographer. We spent all weekend cutting, perming, trying to get something, and then we did. It was there that the Greek Goddess was created. During that session the main sense of who we were was the passion we put into our work, and passion creates vision. It’s the passion and the work that leads to success.

AML: What would you say were your growth years?
VS: The real creation happened 1954-1967. It really took nine years to change from the hairdressing I was doing to where we got to by 1963. Then, from ’63 to ’67 we continued working hard and creating new cuts. In the beginning, I didn’t really have the passion or any special talents. It wasn’t until much later that I started to rationalize, think and feel the passion of the craft and look at architecture. The great architects were my idols. I thought if we could cut hair in shapes and angles, we could do for a bone structure what architecture does for a city. I gave myself five years to get out of the old ways and change what was going on in the craft. When I looked at all the teasing and the backcombing and the chignons, they were all beautifully done but it did not seem to work with the clothes being designed and what was happening on the streets of London or around the world.

AML: Your geometric hair cuts and shapes liberated women from going to the salon every few days to once a month for their cuts. You also made the salon less of an elitist luxury. Did the shift in politics and culture at the time have an effect on this revolutionary change in hairdressing?
VS: London was changing and the whole ideal of the British mentality was changing. People like Pinto began writing about what was really going on, not about the aristocracy but really about the way people lived. Mary Quant came along with the way she cut cloth. There was an astronomical change. Suddenly there was a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy giving the country a sense of urgency to move forward. It was the time of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Suddenly you found people of enormous talent who wanted to share that. There was a sense of humility where everyone just got on with their lives and their work.

AML: What were your favorite looks you created and on whom?
VS: The one that got the most attention was the Nancy Kwan bob. It was cut shorter in the back, layered and longer at the sides. From the point of view of pure artistry, it would have to be the five-point cut. This is the ultimate in geometry—every strand had to lay perfectly when the woman shook her head or shampooed it in the shower. I did the five-point cut on Grace Coddington, now a top editor at Vogue in New York, when she was about 14 years old.
AML: What was your favorite part of doing hair?
VS: The intuitive days, the days when we just took chances and worked from the gut. Also, the excitement of not only being creative but of having others want your creativity. We were asked to do Ungaro’s first two shows when he left Balenciaga. Every other weekend I was in Paris working with Elaine Lazareth at Elle. Essentially though, if I were to boil the whole thing down, which is so difficult to do because there are so many aspects to it and so much talent, it is the young people who wanted to learn the methods and then took it their way that I believe is the true international success of what I’ve started.
AML: You also revolutionized education. Before you, beauty schools were merely teaching the basics. When did you decide to also focus on education? How did your system of education, true teaching and hands-on training come about?
VS: In 1967 so many people wanted to come work with us, so, we decided to work with a school in Knightsbridge. The teachers were our top hairdressers. Some of them decided to go into teaching full time and with that we created very high standards. We’ve had a long line of extraordinarily influential and talented creative directors. One person could not have done this alone. The wonderful mixture of young people coming in with the passion and caring to learn and then teach is really what got this whole thing going.

AML: Let’s talk about how you have and are influencing people through your philanthropic work and the Vidal Sassoon Foundation.
VS: Recently, I came out of New Orleans and the 21st house had been built [through the Hairdressers Unlocking Hope Program] and it was all done by hairdressers. After Katrina, my wife Ronnie and I went down and built two houses. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could get this over to the craft? I invited Mary Rector [of] and said why don’t we get the craft involved in helping to rebuild? So, we started Hairdressers Unlocking Hope. What was exciting is that young kids were sending in $50 dollars or whatever they could afford.
I once asked my mother, “what was the worst time in your life?” She said, “when you were three and your father left and we got evicted.” We went to my aunt’s home and lived there for two years until it became impossible. At five, my mother had to put my brother and me into an orphanage.
When I look at New Orleans and see how many people are homeless, it brings me back to my early days. I continue to ask myself, how can one of the richest countries in the world not look after one of its greatest cities? We are number one in innovation and technology but when it comes to looking after our own, we fall short. And I think we should talk about it. I’ve always believed whatever you put into a purpose comes out in a final analysis. I believe this is what will happen with our project in New Orleans.

It was 26 years ago a man named Yehuda Bauer, a professor at Hebrew University in Israel who was born in Prague and escaped the Nazis, approached me and asked, ‘how would you feel about opening a center for the study of anti-Semitism and other related bigotries?’
After the Holocaust, in 1948, I was fighting Facists, who had been let out of jail, in the streets of Britain with the 43 Group. Then an opportunity came for me to join the Israeli Army. I was 20 years old. Being Jewish, I knew I was lucky to be in London during the war and I know that 20 miles of water saved me and 350,000 people in Britian from going up a chimney. So when Professor Bauer came and asked me to open the center, we did, because hate, like love, is an important part of the way we human beings are. [In 1982 Sassoon founded the Vidal Sassoon International Center for Anti-Semitism.]
Now, 60 percent of the people who come to the seminars in Israel, Europe and America are not Jewish—they are just caring people who realize the tragedy of the human being.
AML: How have you seen the professional beauty industry change? What do you see for the future of the industry?
VS: I see two things. There are people with passion who care, hold training nights, do shows and are very involved in the progression of the craft. And then I see
big business that is taking over endless amounts of salons and just looking at the bottom line. There is never a practice night. There is nothing to do with artistry. I see a lot more wonderful cutters who are so well trained, not only by us, but by other great schools—but I also see the other side which I find very dangerous.

AML: What advice would you give to the next generation of hairdressers?
VS: The word I would focus on is individuality. When it comes to the development of your craft, try to do something that will benefit others in your craft, as well as yourself. Have a sense of awareness of the joy and happiness you are giving to so many thousands of people, which our craft does and very few others do. To be able to cut, mold and shape to bone structure and to make people look and feel special is a privilege. I often ask hairdressers, “Do you know what you’ve got? Do you realize the return on invested energy that comes back to you 1,000 fold?”

AML: With such a vast history and so many successes, is there anything else you would like to share that we have not touched on?
VS: Winston Churchill—one of my heroes—said that success is the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. Three months after we opened the large Bond Street salon, the people upstairs had this enormous flood and we were closed for four months. Robert Edele, who became one of our top teachers, had taken over my old third floor salon. I called him and he said, “I never wanted you to leave anyway.” What I’m trying to say is: Get over adversity, don’t let it get you down. We managed to do all of our clients, that way and nobody was fired, nobody had to take time off, and everybody worked.
Nobody I know has had a life of great charm, love all the time—we’ve all had our difficulties. However, it is the ability to get over those difficulties that makes us successful. You really cannot learn anything if everything is good all the time.

Photography: Steven Barston
Grooming: Noel Nichols

Want to weigh in with your own choices for our list of 50 Influential Hairdressers? Visit Editor-in-Chief Laurel Smoke’s blog titled “Voice Your Choice” and tell us what you think.




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