Obituary: Celebrity hairdresser Vidal Sassoon

Vidal Sassoon described hairdressing as "sculpting at its best"

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Vidal Sassoon's "wash and wear" styles contributed to a social revolution. Just as the feminist movement was looking for something new, he came up with sleek, easy styles that liberated women from the fussy, high-maintenance beehives of the '50s.

The iconic bob he gave Mary Quant ushered in an era of boyish, geometric styles that became synonymous with the swinging sixties, and spawned a collection of hair products that established Vidal Sassoon as a household name.

Sassoon said he considered hairdressing to be an art form. He described "dancing around" his clients as he looked for inspiration.

"It's sculpting at it's best, I mean, we're looking at faces and we're carving shapes to go into that bone structure. This is incredibly exciting, nobody else has that privilege - only hairdressers," he said.

Vidal Sassoon also dedicated much of his life to fighting anti-Semitism, establishing a research centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1980s.

Determination

But it was his mother, and a certain amount of luck, that dictated his career choice.

Vidal Sassoon cutting Emmanuelle Khanh's hair in 1963 Vidal Sassoon's bob took off in the '60s

He grew up in poverty in the East End of London. His Jewish mother, having been left by her husband, was evicted from the family home. She moved in with her sister, but they struggled with money and a lack of space. At the age of five, Vidal Sassoon was sent to live in an orphanage, and saw his family only once a month.

His younger brother later joined him, but, Vidal said, never got over the feelings of rejection that this caused. Vidal himself said it fostered in him a determination to make good. "It made me want to be a winner", he said.

In 1942 he was 14, and his mother said he should learn a trade. She chose hairdressing.

He worked as a shampooer for a disciplinarian who insisted on pressed trousers, clean fingernails and clean shoes at all times. It was an approach to customers that Vidal later carried through to his own salons.

"I've had so many star-quality clients, but when a working girl comes in and she's saved five shillings to have a great haircut once a month, I treat her like a princess," he said.

When the war ended, Vidal was 17, and he became involved in a group fighting the continuing threat of British fascism. He described gangs of uniformed fascists marching through the streets and chanting anti-Semitic slogans "as if the war had never happened".

Vidal Sassoon in London. (Family handout photo)

When he was 20, he travelled through Europe to fight in the Arab-Israeli war. "You don't see the danger, just the cause", he said.

'Marvellous craft'

On his return to Britain, he continued the hairdressing. But he was aware of a "British revolution", and said he had to "find something different" in his work. He came up with the Mary Quant haircut.

Financial success began in earnest when he opened his own Bond Street salon in 1954. His cuts continued to gain notoriety and his clients became more numerous. He soon moved to a larger salon, opened a hairdressing school, and came up with a line of hair products.

Looking back in his 80s, Vidal Sassoon described what made it worthwhile.

"The joy of looking at a bone structure, working on somebody's head and seeing the difference, and seeing the joy in her eyes is quite fascinating. It's not respected in any quarters but it's a marvellous craft."

In the last 25 years of his life, Vidal Sassoon did not cut any hair, except for a few instances. He was joined by a friend on holiday in Italy, but decided that he couldn't spend a week with him unless he gave him a haircut. And he gave his chihuahua a trim.

He spent much of his fortune on art works for his house in Los Angeles. "Imagine opening the paper every morning and seeing what your stock is worth, well, I'd rather walk around the house and look at the art," he said.

  • Vidal Sassoon, born January 17, 1928, died May 9, 2012

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