LONDON -- In a week in which we’ve said good-bye to one of the great authors and illustrators of our time, Maurice Sendak, we also mourn the passing of another great artist: fashion designer Vidal Sassoon.
It’s hard to think about 20th century fashion without thinking of Vidal Sassoon. Back in the 1960’s, he revolutionized women’s hairstyles – and lifestyles – by popularizing a “wash and go” approach to hair-styling, liberating ladies of all social classes from the onerous, time-intensive beehive and bouffant looks that had dominated the 1950s.
Sassoon had many famous clients and admirers including the Duchess of Bedford, actor Terence Stamp and fashion designer Mary Quant, who called him the "Chanel of hair." He knew he’d hit the big time when he was flown to Hollywood from London, at a reputed cost of $5,000, to create Mia Farrow's pixie cut for the 1968 film Rosemary's Baby.
Like Sendak, Sassoon endured a childhood of hardship. His father left his mother and younger brother when he was five years old, at which point his mother put both boys into a Jewish orphanage in London’s East End, where he spent the next seven years. In an interview last year on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Disks program, Sassoon confided that he once ran away from the orphanage to find his father, who promptly returned him. “I decided there and then that I didn’t love him,” Sassoon explained matter-of-factly. He only saw his father once or twice after that.
But Sassoon insisted that he doesn’t regret the orphanage experience, which he claims made him a fighter.
As the years wore on, Sassoon went from being a hair stylist to the stars to an international hair and beauty product magnate, with hundreds of salons the world over. I still remember the one that opened on the main street of my hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, the Sassoon motto “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” is as era-defining as Wrigley’s Doublemint “Double your pleasure; Double your fun.”
(Apparently, that reference must not resonate for the younger generation, as scores of people are taking to Twitter today to confess that they didn’t realize that Sassoon was a real person.)
I myself am eternally grateful to Vidal Sassoon. As someone who is the opposite of hirsute, with hair so fine my stylist once decried it to be “like a doll’s,” I’ve sported a Sassoon bob (and its descendants) for as long as I can remember.
(Of course, not everyone bought into Sassoon’s signature look. The Dallas-based Vidal Sassoon salon closed soon after opening in the mid-70s because women hated the trademark, architecturally-inspired blunt haircuts. Former governor Ann Richards’s hairdresser famously said that in Texas, anyway, you didn’t want your hair to be smaller than your bum, as “big hair gives a gal proportion.” Ha!)
I’ve also been inspired by Sassoon’s philanthropic work. A veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Sassoon was a lifelong, committed campaigner on behalf of Jewish ex-service members. In 1982, he founded the Vidal Sassoon International Centre For the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Through his Vidal Sassoon Foundation, he contributed to many charitable causes, including setting up scholarships for underprivileged African Americans who aspired to a career in hairstyling.
In the BBC radio interview last year, the 83-year-old Sassoon was asked about his failing health. (He underwent a quadruple bypass for heart problems in his early 70’s.) His response is instructive:
“I woke up [in the hospital] one night smiling, I swear. And I thought, I’ve had the best adventure you could possibly have, for a kid that started from nowhere...So if I have to go now, I’m ready.”