Hair-Care Pioneer Vidal Sassoon Dies at 84

posted 2012-05-09 17:09:12 by stevemay

Vidal Sassoon, who has died aged 84, became the most famous hairdresser of the 1960s, creating styles that caught and then boosted women's new feelings of personal freedom. In doing so, he changed the craft of hairstyling forever.

Before Sassoon and his three-storey, glass-fronted Bond Street salon arrived, women were piling their hair up in "beehives" that were back-combed and lacquered into a consistency of candy floss: the fashionable stylist of the day was Raymond Bessone, "Mr Teasy-Weasy". Sassoon transformed women's hair with his geometric "wash-and-wear" cuts, so carefully shaped that a woman could shake her head and the style would fall back in place. And she needed a cut only once every six weeks, instead of the tortuous weekly visits that had been de rigueur until then.

Sassoon's client list soon included most of the young models and film stars of the day – including Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Mia Farrow – as well as most of London's fashionistas.

Although hairdressing was the trade that took Sassoon from a tenement block in the city's East End to a house in Beverly Hills and a considerable fortune, he was much more than a clever crimper. He was also a militant Zionist – though not a religious Jew – who at 17 joined Jewish ex-servicemen in street battles against Sir Oswald Mosley's fascists in London, and in 1948 went to Israel 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 Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Sassoon was born in Whitechapel, but his father left the family when Vidal was five. With his younger brother, Ivor, he lived in an orphanage for six years until his mother remarried. She could not afford to keep him in school, and he left at 14 to become a shampoo boy at Cohen's Beauty and Barber shop, where he stayed for two years.

In Israel he had wanted to attend college and become an architect, but his still-impoverished family called him home to London, and he returned to hairdressing. While learning the trade he visited West End theatres and took elocution lessons to moderate his cockney accent. At the age of 26 he opened his first salon in Bond Street, but it was so small that customers had to sit on the stairs while waiting. "Sassoon's", as it was soon known, prospered and became fashionable, and four years later he moved to bigger premises.

In 1958 he created the "shape", which became his signature cut - influenced by the Bauhaus designs he had studied - and in 1963 he devised the classic "bob" for fashion designer Mary Quant, who was doing for clothes what Sassoon was achieving in hairstyles.

The 1960s and "swinging London" as Time magazine called it, had begun to jump. Carnaby Street, a previously nonedescript thoroughfare near Liberty's department store, became the hub of fashion and a destination for visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of its pop star customers. Sassoon's salon was another element of this explosion of culture and style, but by 1964 he was already thinking bigger: he went international, opening his first salon in New York.

Within five years he had established salons in Toronto and in Beverly Hills, and his first hairdressing school, in London. In 1973, he launched his hair-care products for the trade market and by the mid-1970s had 14 salons and three schools in the US, Canada, Britain and Germany.

In the early New York days, Sassoon had battled the licensing process for hairdressers, who were forced to undergo examinations in technology, such as curling tongs, that Sassoon himself had rendered out-of-date. By 1975 he had more or less stopped cutting hair, although he appeared regularly in television advertisments for his hair-care products - boyish-looking and with a mid-Atlantic accent - his slogan, "If you don't look good, we don't look good," becoming a catchphrase.

In the late 1960s he had married his second wife, the Canadian actress Beverly Adams, and they had two sons and two daughters. Having moved to Los Angeles, the couple took up health care and published a bestselling book, A Year of Beauty and Health (1975). By 1980 he even – briefly – had his own American television talk show.

Sassoon sold his business in 1983 to a company that was acquired two years later by the Proctor & Gamble corporation, but he continued to promote the products bearing his name. In 1992 he married his fourth wife, Ronnie Holbrook, a designer, and they restored a classic 1960 modernist house in Beverly Hills with glass walls and a polished onyx floor. The dormant architect in Sassoon now had the time and money to indulge his fantasies.

He is survived by Ronnie and three of his children. His daughter Catya, a model and actor, died in 2002.