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Vidal Sassoon

Vidal Sassoon, innovative hairstylist, entrepreneur, political activist and philanthropist, died of leukaemia in Beverly Hills on 9 May 2012. He was 84.

Although the newspapers agree when he was born (17 January 1928) there appears to be some dispute over where exactly he was born. The Guardian has his birthplace as Whitechapel; the Daily Telegraph says it was on the other side of London, in Hammersmith; The Independent agrees, but is a little more specific, citing Shepherd’s Bush.

Likewise, there’s some dispute about when Sassoon’s philandering father left his mother; again, The Guardian is the odd one out, saying Sassoon was three years old where the others have him as five. (The Telegraph quotes Sassoon as saying that his father “spoke seven languages and made love in all of them”.)

The Financial Times skirts both issues, placing the birth in “London” and his father’s departure “when Sassoon was very young”.

All the obituaries mention his mother’s influence, The Independent most vividly:

At the age of 14 he started work at a barber’s shop in the East End, at first sweeping up and soon cutting hair. As he explained, “I thought I’d be a soccer player but my mother said I should be a hairdresser, and, as often happens, the mother got her way.” He later pointed out that his other chosen direction could have been architecture, a possible influence on his distinctive geometric styles.

Sassoon became politicised at a young age – this from The Guardian:

[He] was much more than a clever crimper. He was also a militant Zionist – though not a religious Jew – who at 17 joined the Jewish ex-servicemen of the 43 Group movement in street battles against Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascists in London. In 1948 he went to Israel, worked on a kibbutz and joined the army there, fighting in the new nation’s independence war. Both experiences gave him a lifelong passion for human rights, and he later financed the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

After returning to the UK, Sassoon joined the salon of Raymond “Mr Teasy-Weasy” Bessone, which The Independent cites as a major formative influence in Sassoon’s career (“He really taught me how to cut hair […] I’d never have achieved what I have without him.”) The FT has a good take on this:

Returning to Britain because his stepfather was ill, he joined the West End salon of Raymond Bessone, where he learnt the importance of image as well as the traditions of the business. Those meant, he told the Financial Times last year, that “women would come, three or four times a week, to have their hair done in these elaborate concoctions that the hairdresser understood but no one else could replicate. The client was trapped: the hairdresser had the knowledge, and she had to keep returning.”

The Telegraph sums up the Sassoon style with its opening paragraph:

“I wanted to eliminate the superfluous and get to the basic angles of cut and shape,” he reminisced in Craig Teper’s 2010 film, Vidal Sassoon, The Movie. Indeed, the word “hairdressing”, associated with formally-arranged “helmet” hairdos of the post-war years, held in place with stiff perms and lacquers, was anathema to Sassoon, who wanted his smooth, flat hairstyles to emphasise the face.

It was an idea whose time had come. Sassoon took the Sixties by storm; to invert The Guardian‘s analogy, he was achieving in hairstyles what Mary Quant was doing for clothes – including on Quant’s own hair, in spite of having nicked her ear on her first visit in 1957, according to the Telegraph.

The FT points out that Sassoon also racked up some notable business firsts, including creating a haircutting school and a range of haircare products for sale to the consumer. He sold the Vidal Sassoon enterprise in the early 1980s, but was “devastated” when the purchasers sold out to Procter & Gamble in 1985, to the point where he sued P&G for destroying his brand.

The Guardian mentions Sassoon’s enduring love for London and Chelsea FC, but rather oddly cites him as claiming that “everything about morality and obligations” he knew had come from football. This appears to be a lifting from Albert Camus’s “Ce que je sais de la morale, c’est au football que je le dois.” Who lifted it isn’t clear, but no-one else appears to attribute it to Sassoon.

The last word goes to The Independent and its description of the practical consequences of Sassoon’s new stylistic departure, again drawing on Sassoon’s own words:

From opening his first salon, in 1954, Sassoon soon achieved success through his elegant and practical approach to hairdressing. The hairstyles in fashion around that time, such as the beehive, were complicated and high-maintenance. He preferred the idea of “wash and wear”, emphasising that “Women were going back to work, they were assuming their own power. They didn’t have time to sit under the dryer any more … What we did was create a cut that women could wash, condition, run their fingers through, and it would fall back into place. It was a revolution.”

(Vidal Sassoon CBE, born 17 January 1928 in London, died 9 May 2012 in Beverly Hills)


The Guardian, 9 May 2012: Vidal Sassoon obituary
Financial Times, 9 May 2012: Obituary: Vidal Sassoon 1928-2012 (requires registration)
The Independent, 9 May 2012: Vidal Sassoon: Hairdresser whose minimal, informal styles revolutionised his profession
The Telegraph, 10 May 2012: Vidal Sassoon

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