Vidal Sassoon was the legendary hair stylist who liberated a generation of women with his signature five point cut. In an interview last year, Sassoon told i-D “For over eighty years, I’ve led the most wonderful, exciting life. No one could have had a better experience going from where I started”.
Sassoon’s first job was working as a shampoo boy. Seventy years later, the East London born, Beverly Hills bound entrepreneur was the figurehead of his own hairdressing empire. In the 1960s, Sassoon pioneered geometric, Bauhaus-inspired hairdos and a “wash and wear” philosophy that liberated generations of women from the tyranny of the salon. The Sassoon cut was short, sleek and unapologetically modern, designed to fit the exact proportions of the individual’s bone structure. Not afraid to take risks, the young Sassoon would lop the locks off the world’s most famous women, challenging society’s pre-conceptions about beauty. By allowing women to lose inches and gain poise, Sassoon earned his reputation as the session stylist who re-wrote the rulebook. “When I see young people today I tell them if you can bring something out of yourself – which often means hard work, it doesn’t mean partying – you will be so proud when you surprise yourself. Who knows where you can end up!”
Last year ‘Vidal Sassoon The Movie’ was released, celebrating his life and legacy. Filmed over the course of three years, the documentary boasted unprecedented access to Sassoon, candid interviews with former staff, family members, reporters and historians. To celebrate the occasion, i-D online spoke to Mr Sassoon over the telephone from his Beverley Hills home to discuss the film and his work as the most influential hairdresser in the world. Pay your respects to a legend.
In the documentary you come across as quite the perfectionist. Did this transcend into every area of your life? I think I learned discipline during World War II. I was nineteen in 1942, the war was half way through and I worked for a man called Adolf Cohen in the East End, where I lived in Whitechapel. He was incredible. We used to have to come in with pressed trousers, clean shoes and clean nails. He was such a disciplinarian. We were learning our craft and that was the only thing that was important at that time.
Who is the most beautiful woman whose hair you have cut? That’s such a hard one, but there was Suzy Parker, who was the most beautiful model I ever met. She was absolutely exquisite. Then there was Jean Shrimpton, who was a very special face, then Mia Farrow with the most marvellous face and head structure. I could go on to half a dozen women…
Did you ever feel nervous before cutting somebody’s hair? I’ve always considered myself very lucky because I’ve never really suffered from nerves. I just went for it. We had to make the changes and I couldn’t stand there shivering. Maybe they were nervous having me stood behind them with a pair of scissors but that was something different. I grew up in the East End with a wonderful girl called Georgia Brown. She played Nancy in Oliver and she was one of my first clients. I cut her hair for the opening night of Oliver and she left the saloon screaming, “You’ve ruined my career, it’s much too short!” The following morning she apologised and said, “I’m terribly sorry, everybody loves it.” It suited her beautifully. I had the feeling that this would happen.
Do you remember the first time you ever cut anyone’s hair? My boss, Adolf, sent me to Doughton House, a sheltered accommodation for people who had lost everything and were down on their luck. Well, they needed haircuts and this enormous man came in front of me. The first thing he said was “Are you the lucky limey lad who’s going to be cutting the hair of this fine Irish gentleman?” His name was O’Shaunessy. A brilliant man and for one year he’d come to the salon and every time he’d leave he’d tell me the next time he’d visit he would leave me a magnificent tip. He never had any money, so he never could, but that didn’t matter. He said to me one day, “Young man you need educating.” So he started telling me about James Joyce, Brendan Behan, J. P. Donleavy and Samuel Beckett. I’d never heard of any of these people and within a year I was quite conversant with these wonderful Irish playwrights. So I would have paid him, never mind him pay me!
When you developed the five-point cut you liberated an entire generation. What were your intentions for the cut? I learnt how to cut with just cutting scissors, no thinning scissors, razors or sheers. My teacher was tremendous with an extraordinary personality. I watched him for a year and learnt so much about cutting. I wondered if I could incorporate my love of buildings into geometric cutting. Had l been educated, I would have been an architect. It’s my first love now.
How did you first meet Mary Quant? That was a lovely story. Mary walked into my first salon with her lovely husband in 1957 and said “I’d love a haircut, do you have time?” I cut her hair and I did something that I had never done before. Bouncing around the chair I nipped her ear and it started gushing with blood. She was delightfully embarrassed and her husband said, “Do you charge extra for that?” After that we became like blood brother and sister. We did all the shows together and she gave me all the clothes I needed. We saw one another three months ago in London. Mary is still there being Mary. Back then she was the queen of the Kings Road. That was her whole atelier.
You’ve also cut Grace Coddington’s hair… Gracey was a young waif, when Mary and I met her when she was about eighteen years old. I took one look at her and thought how exquisite her bone structure was. Clare Rendlesham was the Beauty Editor of Queen magazine at the time, a client and a friend. Clare and I changed Grace’s whole look, her hair, her make-up, the way she was in essence, the way she must have felt when she looked in the mirror. Clare was the one who wanted Grace to have the five point cut. You didn’t argue with Clare.
How did you pass on your signature haircutting styles to those you trained? We opened a school in 1969 because so many people wanted to learn our methods. We had a meeting with our top stylists and we asked them who would like to be a teacher. Our teachers had to be as good as the people working in the salon; we would not allow anyone to be second rate. Our teaching is so good we’ve just opened a second academy in Shanghai. The ambience and attitude has crept abroad. Japan is one of our biggest markets. We didn’t franchise anything.
Looking back on your career what are you the most proud of? I had to make a decision, do I stand behind a chair for the rest of my life or do I step out and let the artistic team go to different countries in the world, do our work and sell our philosophy by demonstrating what we have achieved. Had I have stood behind the chair it wouldn’t have been fair to my people. I worked with experts, people like Roger Thompson and Christopher Brooker, Tim Hartley and the current artistic director. The standards are so very high. The fact that we’ve got a standard of work that started in Britain, the East End of London, that went international and is recognised as the number one teaching academy in the world is because of the very high standards of teaching. It was lovely knocking Paris off their perch. When I was a kid unless you came from Paris or lived in Paris you had to be second rate and suddenly London was the place for hair.
Did it feel liberating to allow women all over the world to transform their hair? We didn’t read the rulebook. As far as we were concerned if you had the bone structure you could wear your hair long or short. There were so many choices. The more you can free a woman’s sense of choice the better.
Vidal Sassoon The Movie will screen on BBC1 tonight at 10.35pm.
Text: Milly McMahon