In homage to the raconteur and artist that changed the world of hairdressing forever we revisit our intimate portrait of Vidal Sassoon, the man, the legend.
The name Vidal Sassoon is synonymous with an era. His vision, passion and ideals are legendary, and he will forever be locked into our consciousness as an innovator – the man who instigated change and started a hair revolution. Today, at home in London, he opens his door, dressed in a natty grey ensemble, complete with a rather jauntily placed flat cap – ever the style icon. He is charming and welcoming as he leads the way into his home, a space full of strategically placed contemporary paintings, sculptures and furniture, set out in a minimalist style.
There is a timeless quality to Sassoon’s aura and I find myself immediately captivated as the stories begin to unravel. He’s a real East End boy with a down to earth attitude which is key to his affable charm. I relay a story of a book milliner Stephen Jones lent me some years ago. It was the biography of Mayfair hairdresser Raymond ‘Mr Teasy-Weasy’ Bessone. At once, Vidal rather excitedly tells me that he worked under Raymond, a man known for the teased beehive hair of the 1950′s – the very set and ‘dressed’ hair confections of the time. “Yes, that’s why I broke off,” he remembers, laughing. “My year with Raymond was just wonderful though. It 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 did lovely work, the very best of what was going on before we came along.”
Two years later, in 1954, Sassoon opened his first salon in Bond Street, Mayfair, revolutionising the way people thought about hair. “It was imperative that we got rid of all that backcombing,” he remembers. “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-Weasy’s cutting techniques and set a creative backlash, working with the hair rather than against it. It wasn’t 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 cuts that would become Sassoon cornerstones. He created images for some of the most glamorous 60′s icons in the world, including Twiggy, Carol Channing and Peggy Moffitt. The hairstyles emerging from the doors of his salon soon became iconic: the asymmetric bob, the geometric bob, and the five point cut as worn by Grace Coddington. Styles such as the ‘Nancy Kwan’, the ‘Greek Goddess’ – the pixie cut Vidal gave Mia Farrow in the film Rosemary’s Baby – and, of course, Mary Quant’s classic bob truly epitomised hip 60′s London.
Touted as a sex symbol at the time, I ask him what he thought about this status. Did he consider himself a sex symbol? “No,” he laughs, “but if other people thought I was, then that’s fine.” With a saucy glint in his eye, he adds: “They were wonderful days. Penicillin cured everything, and you didn’t have to worry about a damn thing!” So the 60′s were all swinging parties and free love? “Well,” he tells me confidentially, “it was 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.”
So what was his best time in hairdressing? “Obviously the design side, and particularly when we brought out the ‘Greek Goddess’. I’ll never forget that. We took two rooms at the Grosvenor House Hotel and spent a whole weekend to get it perfected. When people were tired, they took a few hours to sleep or got some food. By Monday morning, Annie Humphrey had done the perm and Roger Thompson had done a beautiful geometric cut. It was beautiful.
Vidal Sassoon is philosophical when thinking about hair. “The 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 vision that became part of concept. “People used to say, ‘I bet you look first at people’s hair first?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I look at the ankles and then work my way up, because I wanted to get a feel of the bone shape and the body shape. Nobody objected to that.”