Vidal Sassoon: Hairdresser whose minimal, informal styles revolutionised his profession


Thursday 10 May 2012 21:11 BST
Sassoon works his magic on a model in 1988
Sassoon works his magic on a model in 1988

Vidal Sassoon was one of the leading hairdressers of the 20th century, known especially for his easy-to-wear hairstyles and minimalist design philosophy. He said of his work, "My idea was to cut shape into the hair, to use it like fabric and take away everything that was superfluous."

Sassoon was born in Shepherd's Bush in London in 1928 into a Jewish immigrant family. When his father Jack left home, his mother Betty was unable to cope financially and decided to send three-year-old Vidal and his younger brother to live with their aunt. When that became too crowded, his mother arranged for the boys to move to a Jewish orphanage in Maida Vale, where they remained for nearly seven years.

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.

In 1946 he became a member of the 43 Group, an association set up by Jewish ex-servicemen and would often be involved in fist fights with fascists. Although Oswald Mosley was by then under house arrest, his supporters were still marching through London. "I used to turn up at the salon with cuts on my hands from fighting," Sassoon remembered. "It was the end of the war... I'd come into the salon with terrible bruises on my cheek, and say, 'Madam I just tripped over a hairpin'."

A year later he joined the Israeli Defence Force as part of its elite Palmach group, to fight in the War of Independence. As he recalled, "I wasn't going over there to sit in an office... I thought if we don't fight for a piece of land and make it work, then the whole Holocaust thing was a terrible waste. But this way at least we got a country out of it." Although the 43 Group disbanded three years later, his work against anti-semitism continued throughout his life.

Returning from Israel, Sassoon trained with the leading hairdresser Raymond "Mr Teasy-Weasy" Bessone at his Mayfair salon. "He really taught me how to cut hair," he said in a recent interview. "I'd never have achieved what I have without him."

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."

In 1963 Sassoon reinvented and popularised the bob, a style previously been worn in the 1920s by actresses like Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks. Celebrities who now sported the Sassoon bob included Cilla Black, Jean Muir and Mary Quant, whose clothing designs were so important to Sixties fashion. Much in demand as a hairdresser to the stars, Sassoon was flown to Hollywood to create the look for Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968), at a reported cost of $5,000.

During the early 1970s, now based in Los Angeles, he owned a worldwide network of salons and pioneered the introduction of name-branded products for sale outside the salon. The advertising slogan for these Sassoon shampoos and conditioners boldly claimed: "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

In 1983 he sold his enterprise, which had an annual turnover of $110 million, to Richardson-Vicks. Although he had hoped that the new owner would continue with his philosophy, he spoke with regret of the move: "It was the most foolish mistake I ever made. American business being what it is, they sold out to another company a year later, and all the promises were forgotten. I was devastated."

Sassoon and his fourth wife, Ronnie, bought a house by the modernist Richard Neutra on Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills in 2004. Here he was able to indulge his lifelong passion for architecture in guiding the renovation work. Interviewed recently about the house, Sassoon said: "My whole work, beginning in the late 1950s, came from the Bauhaus. It was all about studying the bone structure of the face, to bring out the character."

The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and Related Bigotries was established at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1982 and he supported a variety of other charitable causes, including the Performing Arts Council of the Music Center of Los Angeles and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

He published several books: Sorry I Kept You Waiting, Madam (1968), a memoir; A Year of Beauty and Health (1979), co-written with his second wife, Beverly; Cutting Hair the Vidal Sassoon Way (1984); and in 2010 a second autobiographical volume, Vidal. In 2009 he was awarded the CBE. The following year the documentary Vidal Sassoon – The Movie (2010) premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The hair stylist Nicky Clarke, who had become a friend in recent years, told The Independent: "Vidal Sassoon was an essential part of that Sixties look... Before him there was no sense of modernism. He was a very forward-looking man who brought a way of working which was completely different. He was humble and if he didn't agree with what you were doing, there was still an appreciation from him. Vidal was a truly iconic hairdresser and a great friend. He will be sadly missed."

Marcus Williamson

Vidal Sassoon, hairdresser and political activist: born Shepherd's Bush, London 17 January 1928; CBE 2009; married 1956 Elaine Wood (divorced 1958), 1967 Beverly Adams (divorced 1980; one son, one daughter, one adopted son and one daughter deceased), 1983 Jeanette Hartford-Davis (marriage dissolved), 1992 Rhonda Holbrook; died Beverly Hills, California 9 May 2012.

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