'He freed us as much as the Pill and mini-skirts': Mary Quant pays tribute to Vidal Sassoon, whose scissors made the 60s swing
00:23 GMT, 11 May 2012
Dashing past the wrong end of London’s Bond Street one day in the early Sixties, I saw a photograph of a haircut in a salon window that stunned me. It was unlike any style I’d ever seen before: sharp, geometric and precision-cut. The sign on the window said ‘Vidal Sassoon’.
Vidal, I discovered, inhabited a premises apparently miles upstairs, reached by a rickety lift, capable of carrying only one person.
But up there in his eyrie he ruled, cutting hair and performing as if he were on stage.
Trailblazers: Clothes designer Mary Quant, one of the leading lights of the Sixties British fashion scenes, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon with whom she led a fashion revolution
Having braved the lift, I sat and watched him, mesmerised: that is my first memory of a man who not only transformed the way I felt about myself irrevocably, but also shaped my distinctive image. As the great Sixties photographer Terence Donovan was later to tell me: ‘Of course, Vidal invented the way you look.’
When I learned of his death, I was bereft; not only was he the most extraordinary of men — generous, optimistic, relentlessly creative and hard-working — he was also one of my best friends.
That day at his salon, I did not have a Sassoon haircut because I could not afford it. But I knew I would save up.
The actress Jill Bennett, who saw my long, thick ponytail, shouted: ‘Don’t do it.’ But, of course, I did and it was a revelation.
The bob: American actress Nancy Kwan sports a bob by Vidal Sassoon for his first Vogue cover in 1963
Vidal Sassoon revolutionised the way women thought about their hair. Before Vidal, they just had a ‘hairdo’. Then Vidal invented cut and style. He was a visionary. He didn’t do perms and sets. He saw that, like architecture — for which he had a passion — hair could be cut into bold, unfussy, structured shapes.
It could have textures that not only flattered the hair, but also projected the best qualities of the head and face; highlighting the cheekbones, focusing on the eyes and making the maximum impact on the individuality of features and personality.
In the Japanese erotic tradition, he also drew attention to the back of the neck.
Vidal not only created the most famous and important of his cuts, the ‘five-point’ — which became my trademark — but he went on to develop more and more innovative variations. Asymmetric or ‘en brosse’, I enjoyed them all, as so many of us did.
And it was characteristic of his professional generosity that he set up Vidal Sassoon schools and taught everyone about his haircutting techniques and style. There is now hardly a country in the world where you cannot find a Sassoon disciple to cut your hair. He leaves this legion of stylists with a legacy of confidence to go on and develop their own ideas.
Star style: Joan Collins with her Vidal Sassoon cut in 1966. The actress used to send for him to see to her hairdressing needs at the airport
Sassoon also liberated women from the tyranny of hours spent par-boiling under the bonnet of a hairdryer, with fat rollers skewered to their scalps.
We found the freedom to swim in the sea, drive in an open-top car, walk in the rain and then just slick our head under a tap and shake it to look good again.
Your hair did not forget the shape and chunky curves he created; it simply returned to its original sleekness.
As well as being a creative genius, Vidal Sassoon was a formative figure of the Sixties. Along with the Pill and the mini-skirt, his influence was truly liberating.
Actually, he and I were a team: we complemented each other. Vidal’s hairstyles were the perfect balance to my leggy mini-skirted designs; they provided the ideal foil and frame for my Colour Cosmetics make-up.
Vidal was a great performer, too. When he got going, he was one hell of an act. He said he liked cutting my hair, particularly because I have a double crown and that makes the hair sit as he liked it to on the back of the head.
One particular haircut stands in my memory. I was in his Bond Street salon late one evening helping him promote his famous five-point cut. Spurred on by a huge audience, who included the editor of Vogue and a mass of Press photographers, Vidal flourished his scissors and inadvertently nicked a chunk out of the lobe of my ear. Nothing gushes blood quite so furiously as a cut ear lobe.
Vidal continued as though nothing had happened, dabbing at it while talking faster and faster, waving his scissors in ever-widening circles.
As a hair stylist he has legions of protgs and millions of imitators. His influence remains ubiquitous; he was, quite simply, an inspiration to everyone around him.
Mary Quant: My Autobiography is published by Headline.Scissors that made the Sixties swingHis daring styles made him the stars' darling – and his salon the centre of the sexual revolution. And (if you asked nicely) a visit to Vidal Sassoon could be a short-cut to his bedroom
00:23 GMT, 11 May 2012
Of all the many liberating ideas that transformed women’s lives in the Sixties, the freedom to wear your hair exactly as you pleased was one of the most important. And the man who made it happen was Vidal Sassoon, hairstylist to a generation.
Vidal, who has just died aged 84 in Los Angeles — reportedly after succumbing to leukaemia — broke all the stuffy conventions that had ruled the world of hair. He ignored the high maintenance fashion for backcombs and beehives, lacquer and hairspray, re-invented the bouncing bob and gave the world the informal blow-dry, known as wash and go — and soon synonymous with sexual freedom.
As much a trailblazer for the Sixties sexual revolution as David Bailey or Michael Caine, he was also a keen Zionist who fought for Israel in 1948 and carried on fund-raising for that country to the end.
Legend: Vidal Sassoon was one of the first to take hairdressing out of the local High Street, introduce a global franchise then go international. But he also achieved much in his personal life and had his fair share of tragedy
His ground-breaking achievements earned him a CBE in 2009, but he also lost a daughter to drugs when she was only 33. He blamed the tragedy on the luxurious lifestyle he’d been able to provide for his family. Sassoon was one of the first to take hairdressing out of the local High Street, introduce a nationwide franchise and then go international. An astute businessman, schooled by a tough East End background, he made an 80 million fortune from the sale of his own products around the globe, while his talent spawned a host of lesser celebrity crimpers.
It was quite an achievement for a boy raised in an orphanage, and if it was in part made possible by those extraordinary egalitarian times, it was also due to a ferocious work ethic combined with good looks and an enviable easy charm.
Sassoon’s colourful life started in 1928, when he was born into a Jewish family in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. His father, Jack Sassoon, a Turkish carpet seller and multi-lingual womaniser — ‘he had sex in seven languages,’ Vidal later recalled — disappeared when he was three. His impoverished mother Betty then sent Vidal and his younger brother Ivor to live with an aunt in the East End in a housing block where four families shared one toilet in the corridor.
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Revolutionary: Styles like the 'angle cut', left, and the 'graduated bob', right, tore up the conventions of hairdressing and freed women from the constraints of rollers, driers and frequent salon visits
Vidal got rid of all that. No longer did his clients have to visit the salon every three days, they could hold out for a whole month and do their own hair in between. But he came to fame in the Sixties for the geometric cut he invented by transferring the architectural designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Breuer into hair with his deep fringes and angular bobs.
‘I was crazy,’ he used to say. ‘But it wasn’t ego, it was a demand for perfection.’ When customers tried to tell him how to do their hair, he used to put them in a cab and send them to an old-style salon. ‘The customer was never right unless she had the good taste to know what truly suited her,’ he said. In other words, unless she agreed with him.
As well as giving Mary Quant her geometric cut, he gave actress Mia Farrow the urchin cut that turned her from a so-so soap star in Peyton Place to Roman Polanski’s leading lady in Rosemary’s Baby.
It must have taken quite some nerve to chop off the waist-length blonde tresses of Frank Sinatra’s fiance, as Mia was at the time.
Star's darling: Vidal Sassoon gives Mia Farrow's hair the urchin cut style on the set of Rosemary's Baby in 1968
Soon the celebrities were streaming into his salon. He was Ava Gardner’s hairdresser and Rita Hayworth’s — ‘she loved sitting on the floor and having a drink’. He styled Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler during the Profumo affair. Elizabeth Taylor used to send for him to see to her hairdressing needs at the airport between flights.
He gave Peter O’Toole his blond highlights for Lawrence Of Arabia, giving rise to the quip that if he had made him any prettier, he’d have been known as Florence of Arabia.
Another customer was Frances Shand Kydd, mother of Princess Diana. But for all Vidal’s cockney charm, not everyone liked him. The Duke of Bedford, for one, complained he’d made his wife look like a lesbian. But in women’s eyes, Vidal could do no wrong.
Some loved him so much, they angled to book the last appointment of the day in the hope of getting some sex thrown in. If he liked them, Vidal went along with it. It was such a recipe for success that by 1965, when everything English was fashionable in the U.S., he opened a salon in New York. And by the Seventies he was lost to England and moved to Beverly Hills.
Around this time his errant father died, but both Vidal and his brother Ivor, who had become his accountant, refused to go to the funeral.
The East End boy blossomed in Los Angeles, where he sent for his mother and gave her all the luxuries she’d never been able to afford.
He revelled in the sunshine and celebrity social life: I remember going with him to the first night of a musical on the Sunset Strip. Surrounded by dancers and actors devoted to the body beautiful, he was in his element.
But fame took its toll on his private life. His first marriage, in 1956 to his receptionist Elaine Wood, had ended after she ran away with the British water-ski champion, and his second, to American actress Beverley Adams, mother of his four children, ended in divorce in 1980.
Fringe benefits: Hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, surrounded by models, showing off his new cuts for 1976 in London
British: Sassoon stayed true to his roots and was in awe of the Queen when he was made a CBE in 2009
Fashionable beginnings: Sassoon opened his Bond Street salon at age 26 in 1954 (shown here in 1968)
Vidal continued to be plagued by unpleasant memories. First their adopted son, David, refused to talk to him, then first-born Catya, a struggling actress, embarked on a losing battle with drugs.
Catya once said she had been using them since the age of six, was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at nine, and was sleeping with her father’s friends at 13. She died of an ecstasy overdose in 2002.
His third marriage, to dressage champion Jeanette Hartford-Davis, foundered when she discovered that she preferred her horses to him. Then, when he was 62, he found fourth wife Ronnie, then a 39-year-old marketing executive, who was with him to the end.
Financially secure, Vidal hadn’t plied his trade for years — though on a recent sailing trip, he insisted on tidying up the looks of a couple of companions. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if I’m going to have to look at you for two weeks, I’m going to have to cut your hair.’
Though he realised he owed everything to hairdressing, he was saying until the day he died that he wished he could have been an architect. Countless women whose images he changed so dramatically would argue that, in many ways, he was.