The name of Vidal Sassoon is synonymous with an era considered to be the height of decadence considering social concepts and attitude. The 60's 'look' embraced modernity into the creative equasion taking inspiration from contempoary art, design and architecture, Vidal Sassoon was one such person who felt compelled to instigate a need for change.
An orphan for 7 years of his early life and child of worn torn Britain, these factors shaped the young Vidal who soon became aware of the political climate whilst endevouring to throughly revolutionize former concepts of beauty and style... but not without his struggles. His vision, passion and ideals are legendary, Sassoon is forever locked into our consciousness as an innovator. Nowadays Vidal spends his life living between London and Los Angeles. Vidal currently in London town opens his door dressed in a natty grey ensemble complete with matching and rather jauntily placed flat cap, ever the style icon, his presence is at once charming and welcoming as he leads us into his flat full of strategically placed contemporary paintings, sculptures and furniture set out in a minimalist style. Joining us today, John Vial who joined London salon 'realhair' as a creative director 2003 but worked closely with Vidal as part of Sassoons team, being creative director in Asia throughout the 90's. John Vial shares the great passion Vidal has, consequently never really seeing Vidal as so much as a work colleague... more of a Dad!
I am fascinated by Vidal's beginnings, there is a timeless quality to Sassoons aura and I find myself immediatly captivated as the stories begin to unravel. Starting his training in 1942, at Adolf Cohen's salon, 101 Whitechapel Road, 'He was the top guy in the neighbourhood!' Sassoon found himself in the midst of World War Two, age 14, 'Across the road the buildings had been bombed down, no one was rebuilding during the war. Didn’t make any sense to.' Sassoons memory of the time is crystal clear. He remembers how the community supported eachother, 'They were just tucking in with neighbours and in the underground. The tailors union would wait for someone to give them a job for the day.' In the midst of all this trauma hairdresser Adolf Cohen catered for the grooming needs of the area. Who were the people that went to Adolf Cohen’s? Painting a vivid picture, Sassoon explains, 'I would say the local people, but there was an enormous amount of kids in uniform, in the army and women.' Even though times were hard, presentation was of utmost importance, a sense of self preservation prevailed in Cohens salon, 'Trousers pressed, shoes cleaned, nails clipped, all whilst living in the shelters.' Cohen's standards were high, and it's from this initiation Sassoon laid the foundations of his future. The ethos and basic training were to reappear in later years when Sassoon opened his own salon in the mid 50's. Sassoon describes his daily life at the time, 'There were no cleaners then because most of the women were on wool-work and in factories, so we’d have to go and scrub the floors and then scrub the clients.'
Meeting Vidal Sassoon for the first time, I admit I was totally mesmurized, and I'm really not sure if Vidal is actually aware of the effect he seems to create around himself. He's a real eastend boy with a down to earth attitude and that really is part of his affable charm. We got talking on this occasion and I relayed a story of a book milliner Stephen Jones lent me to read some years ago. It was the story of Mayfair hairdresser Mr 'Teasy Weasy' Raymond Bessone.
Mr 'Teasy Weasy' Raymond
At once Vidal rather excitedly tells me he worked under Raymond, it all makes complete sense now I think to myself. Raymond was known for the teased behive hair of the 1950's, all very set and 'dressed' hair confections of the time. 'Yes, that’s why I broke off. My year with Raymond was just wonderful, I really learned how to control a pair of scissors. But without discipline from my first job at Adolf Cohen I probably wouldn’t have got to Raymond.' Raymond was somewhat of a showman, with TV appearances, even a fake French accent and become somewhat of a celebrity of the day. Vidal was keen to soak up all the knowledge he could, 'And part of that was leaving places I wasn’t learning anything, so I’d take off. Once I was 6 weeks without work as I earned a bit of a reputation as someone who didn’t stick around.' Vidal pays homage to Mr Teasy Weasy, 'That was my last year of training before I went out on my own. And it was the best year. He taught me how to cut hair, with scissors, to get rid of the shears and all the other nonsense... Raymond, lovely work, the very very best of the other style. The best of what was going on before we came along.' This was about 1952, two years later in 1954 Vidal Sassoon would be opening his first salon in Bond Street, Mayfair, revolutionizing the way people thought about hair. 'It was imperative that we got rid of all that backcombing. Women were taking off in the wind.' Partial to a bit of backcombing myself I am fascinated by the way Vidal took fundamental elements of Teasy Weasie Raymond's cutting techniques and set a creative backlash, working with the hair rather than against it. This was all rather radical in the mid to late 50's and it wasn't really until the 60's that the concepts Vidal had been pioneering eventually saw the light of day. From his small salon Vidal stuck by his guns and perfected the 3 basic cuts that would become Sassoon cornerstones.
The kind of ethos and basic training Vidal first encountered via Cohen and Raymond carried a high standard that Vidal took through into his own realm. Looking the part and presenting yourself in a smart fashion became fundamental to the 'look' of Sassoon. It must have become apparent Raymond saw in Vidal a drive and ambition... 'Compared to many of the stylists at Raymond’s who’d been there for many years, I’d only been there one year, he said to me “I’m opening in Cardiff and would you like to go there take over and manage?” I told him I would, but I was much more interested in the artistic side. I asked could it be named 'Vidal And Raymond'. He said, "no we don’t do that, as it’s not part of company policy".' Vidal continues, 'I realised that while Cardiff may be a charming city, I was thinking of New York'.
Funnily enough years later John Vial would open Sassoons in... Cardiff, Vial explains, 'Vidal and I opened up Sassoon in Cardiff in about 1990. It was great fun'. Vial turns to Vidal noting, 'It’s funny that Raymond was offering you the job of opening up there and you were saying “no it’s Cardiff”, and yet 40 years later one of your stylists would be doing just that.' John Vial goes on to relay the excitement and stir the Sassoon salon ceated, 'It was a really big deal, it was like being a celebrity. Everybody in Wales at the time had long curly hair and all our kids working there had bonkers geometric haircuts and neon hair. You knew who’d been there. It was amazing. It must have been your 25th salon'. As part of the Sassoon team John Vial travelled the world, 'We had loads of great trips in Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore, Tokyo, Japan. For me that was my favourite time in hairdressing, running round with Vidal, Ronnie, Tim and Martin.' John Vial is curious to know about Vidal's best time in hairdressing? Vidal considers the question, 'Obviously the design side, from '54 to '67 when we brought out the 'Greek Goddess'. I’ll never forget that. We took two rooms at Grosvenor House and spent a whole weekend to get it perfected. When people were tired they took a few hours to sleep or got some food. We had a salon there, Roger Thompson and me. By Monday morning, Annie Humphrey had done the perm and Roger Thompson had done a beautiful geometric cut. It was beautiful, I said, “That’s it, lets photograph it”.
John notes how the impact this new concept of styling a 'perm' must have had at the time, 'Even that was a massive revolution. It was the first ever wash and wear perm. Permed hear was always previously set or blow dried out'. Rather humourously Vidal and Vial wonder who actually perms or has perms nowadays, Vidal continues, 'I’ve seen young girls with beautiful hair that I can’t tell if they have a perm, but I guess we’ve put a stop to perming, it’s very old fashioned. It’s all in the cut and colour.'
But I diverse, this pivotal moment signaled a change for Vidal Sassoon, 'After that I went away and thought to myself, 'Do I stand behind the chair for the rest of my life, where I’d had marvellous times, or do we go international?' From that moment Sassoon the brand was born, 'So we started a show team and a product company. You don’t do that without superb people around you. We had Rodger Thompson in New York and Christopher Brooker in London. A marvellous team and very good management.'
On a parallel, Sassoon was on the path to revolutionizing hair with amazing cutting techniques, at the same time he was also revolutionizing the the way he promoted himself, the way his staff dressed and the look of his salons, the complete package was considered. Later Vidal Sassoon would involve his own branded products into his burgeoning empire, up till then there really hadn't been anything like it before Sassoon came along. With vision, incredible drive and a real perfectionists attitude he had a precise way of going about things and making his dream become a reality. 'The precision was in the discipline... the ideas that come out of peoples’ heads. You can’t make rules for that. Though the more hard work you put in the more likely you are to make something happen. I must go back to the team because all the top people that I had, had chosen to come; I wanted them to feel that this was their company. And they did. Not for the shares but for the love of the work. We‘ve had people cry when we’ve had to tell them “we don’t think you’re going to make it”. They would say, “Where can I go?” The standard was and is incredibly high, Vidal himself set the precedent, 'To open up new salons meant training, training, training. The teaching team had their own spiritual way, they were proud that you could get hold of someone very young and teach, teach, teach and the artistic team oversee. So the organisation was terrific which allowed me the freedom of working around in New York and getting involved with products.' This work ethic is still with him, and Vidal, age 82 has continued with a schedule a person less than half his age would feel exhausted at the prospect of, 'These last two years have been madness, I’ve written my own book.' Vidal: The Autobiography' 'Which', he adds, 'Is not ghost-written.' Then there’s the film, 'Vidal Sassoon The Movie' produced by Michael Gordon, who incidently is really quite a legend in the hairdressing field himself having founded salon and product line Bumble & Bumble. Vidal proudly exclaims, 'The film has been taken by the New York Film Festival and was one of the top six out of 60. It’s going out in the cinemas in February 2011'.
What do you think of when you think of when you think of Vidal the man, I mean the real man? I don't know about you but I think of the 60’s and possibly Sassoons many peaking moments as he created images for some of the most glamourous women in the world including Twiggy, Carol Channing, Peggy Moffitt and Grace Coddington. Sassoon was and is a sexy and incredibly driven guy, there he was in the thick of things, swinging in London and NYC creating these amazingly modern haircuts. Touted as a sex symbol at the time Vidal looks bemused, and modestly replies when I put the question to him, whether he ever considered his sex symbol status, 'No, if other people thought I was then that’s fine.' Adding with a saucy glint in his eye, 'They were wonderful days, penicillin cured everything, you didn’t have to worry about a damn thing!' Ha, ha, ha, oh Mr Sassoon, so the 60’s were all swinging parties and free love? 'Well,' Vidal confidentially tells me, 'It was all the same as it is now. Just a very open society and if you fancied one another it was very simple. It was sometimes easier than it was to get a hot dinner... Well the food in London was dreadful!' He adds, 'Then, not now.'
Being in the middle of it all, Vidal set about the next phase, 'The thing that really happened was that we opened an academy and it just grew and grew. People were just coming from many different countries.' Vidal further explains, 'Our way was very different, there was a French way and there are other ways of doing hair and they do it beautifully. The young people wanted to learn our way. So when you have people from all over the world that want to learn the Vidal Sassoon method, we are their teacher, I don’t think you can go better than that. You could make a billion dollars on products, whatever you do, that’s only money. This is affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and that is very important to me. And very exciting.' It's precisely this optimistic attitude that continues to inspire Vidal and his team, John Vial reiterates, 'Everybody that you work with at Sassoon has it. Everybody was proud to be part of what was, and still is perceived to be the best in the world. And you wanted to be as good as your contemporaries, you want to work with the best. You’d always be looking round and thinking, “that’s a good haircut, better make sure my graduation is clean”.
Vidal Sassoon is philosophical when thinking about hair, 'Thing is, what other part of the body can anybody use to create shapes and angles? Only plastic surgery and that takes months. Hair can be done within a day.' Possibly it's this way of seeing that became part of concept. 'People used to say, “I bet you look first at peoples’ head of hair?’’ And I’d say, “No, I look at the ankles and then work my way up.” Adding rather logically, 'Because I wanted to get a feel of the bone shape and the body shape. Nobody objected to that.' At the time Vidal must have appeared quite eccentric, in the book first published in 1978 'Cutting Hair The Vidal Sassoon Way' Vidal from the late 1950's is described as a 'crazy young man in Bond Street trying to do something really new with hair'. Advantguarde concepts were not always accepted as immediately as we might imagined back then, but Vidal persevered, 'The excitement of working on a substance growing from the human form, that no one else can do, deserves much more credit than it gets.'
Next stop New York and although Vidal had always had his heart set on 'the city that never sleeps' it seems he happened to get there quite by chance, 'It was very strange, there was a show in New
York, which showed hairdressers from 14 different countries. They asked me if I’d be the guy to represent Britain. “Why not?” I said, I was very proud to. The show was on a Sunday at the Pierre Hotel.' It was 1964 and Vidal Sassoon's reputation had already spread across the Atlantic, 'We thought that no one would be there, but the press came and we were told by the editors that they had to have pictures in by
Sunday for the Monday morning papers. So I was suddenly cutting these three girls and I gave them all different haircuts and shapes and suddenly we were surrounded by press. There was some beautiful hairdressing going on all around us, but it was hairdressing. What we were doing were geometric cuts to suit bone structure. I used to say, “Eliminate the superfluous”. Create beautiful shapes. The following day we had coverage in the five main newspapers and on every beauty page we had pictures.' The buzz must been incredible, 'So suddenly I get a call saying a Mr Richard Saloman would like to speak with you. I went to see him and we had a chat for a few hours and he said, “O.k. I’ve heard enough, I’ll buy a building on Madison Avenue, you go there, spend a year training your staff especially for New York”. Vidal continues, 'I said, “I don’t have the kind of money to do this”. He said, “my problem is the money, yours is the artistic problem”, and suddenly were in New York without literally spending a penny.' The 60's really were a time of possibilty and Vidal was well aware of the opportunities... '1964 we did the show. 1965 we opened. There is a little bit of luck to go with the talent. You’ve somehow got to be at the right place at the right time. The 60’s were definitely it. The Beatles had just come over and the Rolling Stones were soon to follow. It was a total madhouse; it was like being in London'. Sassoon became affiliated with the London invasion and underground happening scenes of New York and by the mid 80's Andy Warhol even modeled for him endorsing Sassoon's hairspray for men. 'Well Andy did a commercial for me. A magazine commercial not a film. I’d have loved it had he done a filmed one. Thing is you met so many people being in the craft.'
The hairs styles emerging from the doors of Sassoons soon became seminal and iconic, the asymmetric bob, geometric bob and the five point cut as worn by Grace Coddington. Styles such as the Nancy Kwan, the Greek Goddess and the Graduation, the pixie cut Vidal gave Mia Farrow in film Rosemary's Baby and of course Mary Quants classic bob truly epitomised London's hip scene in the 60's era. In Europe too the atmosphere was beginning to embrace the future, Vidal remembers, 'Grace [Coddington] was walking around Paris and these models were coming over and asking, where can I get my haircut and she would say, “London”. John Vial, too young to have lived through the experience recently spent time with Grace at an airport, he interestingly quizzed her on her personal experience of the time asking, 'Have you got any idea what you two did? She replied saying, 'She didn’t realise at the time what was happening, it was just what you were doing. She had no idea of the revolution that was actually taking place.'
Sassoon has great affection for his craft and the world eventually caught up with the ideals he and his team pioneered, 'All those years, we all go through it, when you’re an unknown and you’re struggling and learning, it never happens suddenly'. Vidal is very aware of the grass roots role of being a hairdresser, 'I think hairdressers are some of the nicest people I’ve ever known. You know why? Every day they have to please every client. They can’t walk in a bad mood and do bad work. They’ve got to please them (the clients) and make them feel and look better than when they came in. I find very few miserable hairdressers'. There is something very rewarding about hairdressing, I did hairdressing from '76 to '78. I totally agree that it’s really nice to have that one to one interaction, John Vial readily agrees, 'It’s almost like giving somebody a gift. When you are pleased with it and you see the client walking away pleased'. Vidal Sassoon himself took very special care of clients and colleagues, time and time again he mentions his team and the importance of the aims they were all working towards whether in his own salon, on session work or going on to set up their own ventures. 'It's all about bringing elegance to the craft. I once sent a guy home because he had dirty shoes.' And on taking care of clients and the importance of the role of the hairdresser, 'Here’s a lovely story,' Vidal says, 'Suzy Parker was the only one I’d take downstairs and give her the rollers, pin curls, the whole bit. Because she had straight-ish hair that when it was dried in an old fashioned dryer, all you have to do was put your fingers in it and it would fall into lovely shapes.' Later on Suzy had a proposition, 'She called me and told me she was doing a two-day shoot', and added, 'I’ve asked if you’d do the hair. It was for some major company. I said to Suzy that they just wouldn’t pay. They think that we (hairdressers) just work for
the credits. She said, “Charge them a thousand pounds.” Vidal realized it was very important then to assert his role, 'A thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days. So the guy from the company gets on the phone and say’s “Mrs Parker wants you to do they hair for our company and we’ll send you lots of products.” I said, “No you won’t. Two days work, it’ll be a thousand pounds.’’He said, “What?” and slammed the phone down. He called back an hour later and said, “Mrs Parker insists, you’ll get your thousand pounds.” Vidal felt so strongly about setting standards he really stood his ground... A case in example, 'The films that Leonard did with Stanley Kubrick. Leonard had to do phenomenal hair because it made the picture, it made the frame. There was quite a few [The Shining, Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket], They were so special and I thought, “My Goodness, no mention, no awards.” The way they treated hairdressers… they’d say, “we’ll send you £100.00 worth of product.” And I’d say, “No you wont, you’ll pay me.” I said, I wouldn’t degrade not only myself but also the craft.' John Vial agrees, 'I think all of us that have opened our own salons have carried that on the Sassoon discipline. We still take the same care, love and attention.' Vidal adds, 'It’s our students that have come out of Sassoon and kept the standards going. People that have been with us for years and then left, opened their own salons, they’ve kept the standards, and we couldn’t do it alone. They’ve kept the international side going, which I’m very proud of. It is vital that the people we train go out and train.'
The main thread of inspiration in Vidal Sassoons life and the legacy Sassoon stands for continues with an honest and determined energy, Vidal sums up his life's work, 'I would say the great loyalty that I’ve had from people around me, because you have to inspire to bring out the best... And that the spirit and energy is still there'.
By Princess Julia for Ponystep Magazine