Q. How did you start?
Vidal: In the 1950’s you had to pay to be an apprentice. I wanted to be a footballer, but my mother said that she had had a ‘vision,’ a ‘premonition’- that she had to take me to visit a hairdresser by the name of Adolf Cohen, at 101 Whitechapel Road in the East End of London. Adolf and my mother ‘hit it off’ immediately, as they both spoke Yiddish together, but when she asked if I could become an apprentice, he said the fee for this was 100 Guineas -an impossible amount of money for my mother. We turned to leave and I took off my cap (it was winter), ‘doffed’ it to Mr Cohen, held the door for my mother and we went out. Adolf came running after us. “I don’t see many young men as polite as you,” he said. “You can become my apprentice and I’ll waive the fee.” My mother looked at me: “I told you my premonition would work,” she said.
Q. How did you perfect your hairdressing skills?
Vidal: I went on to work for Raymond. He was an amazing hairdresser and he was also the most charismatic individual I’d ever worked with. I had enormous respect for him. He used small scissors for everything, pruning the hair, thinning and shaping ….I watched and learnt. I had always loved geometry and I began to develop a plan to cut hair geometrically.
Q. Tell us about your early life?
Vidal: I was from a poor East End family during the depression. My father left my mother, brother and I when I was very young and for some time we lived with my aunt and her three children in a two room flat in a tenement block in Petticoat Lane. My mother couldn’t afford to keep us and from the age of five until I was eleven, I was sent to a Jewish orphanage, together with Ivor, my brother. Then at the beginning of the war I was sent, courtesy of the British government, to the country, with a million other children. We were evacuees, but I longed to return to London, even though that meant sleeping in a shelter at night. I never realised we were struggling, I just accepted where I was. I loved sport and I had enthusiasm.
Q. And you seem to have an amazing enthusiasm for everything?
Vidal: Churchill is my hero and he said: ‘Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’ I have tried to work to that formula.
Q. How did Vidal Sassoon the hairdresser develop?
Vidal: Very early on I realised that my ‘East End Chat’ wasn’t going to work. (Although I know this is less important now.) I had an enormous respect for the English language and I wanted to learn to speak properly. I loved the theatre and on my ½ day off on a Wednesday afternoon, I would often get the number 25 bus to Tottenham Court Road and buy a shilling and six pence ticket to the theatre to see actors like Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson and Lawrence Olivier. I tried to emulate them, failing miserably. Then my friend, the singer/actress Georgia Brown suggested I go to a voice coach called Iris Warren. At first Iris refused to teach a hairdresser, as she said ‘I only work with actors’ but with Georgia’s persistence I was invited to my first lesson at the Old Vic.
While I was waiting in the Green Room I could hear her coaching a famous voice. Afterwards I found out it was Sir Lawrence Olivier. Iris continued to train me for three years.
Q. And how did Vidal Sassoon the salon come about?
Vidal: In 1954 I opened my first salon. A client Lyla Burkman, a terrific lady, said she could see the possibilities and had her husband put up the money. It was on the 3rd floor of 108 New Bond Street. I had 2 members of staff and had to supplement my takings by teaching and moving back with my mother. I started with nothing. I had so much respect for Raymond that I didn’t want to steal his clients, so success didn’t happen overnight. My immediate concept was that I had to make changes to hairdressing and if I couldn’t achieve that goal, then I would move on to something else. Those changes didn’t happen immediately though. It took 9 years of working late, often until 1am, practicing on models, working continually, sometimes alone and sometimes with my team, focusing on our skills, trying to achieve something no one else had done.
My original logo was very flowery -I thought it looked French. Three days after we opened the postman came into the salon looked around and said “ ‘Ere, which one of you lot is Fifal Faffoon?” I immediately got a signwriter to change my logo to the bold lettering that remains today!
Q. Some hairdressers are influenced by art, architecture, fashion, films and music. What influences you?
Vidal: As I’ve said, geometry has always fascinated me and I like artists such as Braque, Mondrian and Fontana ,architects with enormous vision such as Frank Geary, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid and of course Bauhaus which was a major influence. In fact we had our 50th anniversary at the Bauhaus, Dessau, Germany it was indeed very special. Do you know, I’ve flown across the world to see and experience a building -in places like Barcelona, Bilbao, Cincinnati, Tokyo and of course, Chicago. Art, nature, architecture….you need to smell it, feel it, experience it -and some of it will come out!
Q. You were the first hairdresser to build a team. How did you develop this ethos?
Vidal: I had a huge respect for Raymond, but one thing happened whilst I worked for him. He offered me the position of junior partner in his Cardiff salon. I, in turn, asked if I could have my name on any work I did for him. He said this wasn’t his policy -and I decided that my policy would be to give my team recognition as individuals. When I opened Vidal Sassoon in the Grosvenor House, the name over the salon was “Roger at Vidal Sassoon” because I respected the director, Roger Thompson, a brilliant artist and wanted to give him recognition.
Q. So many, now famous hairdressers have worked for you, or gone through your school haven’t they?
Vidal: Oh yes and there are so many wonderful, talented people that I couldn’t pick out names, although perhaps I’ll mention just three; Paul Mitchell, who I took to New York and who went on to develop his own very successful product line, before his untimely death, Leonard, one of the first celebrity hairdressers who had an extraordinary house in Grosvenor Square and Trevor Sorbie, a visionary who was Hairdresser of the Year, four years running. Of my art directors that started in the 60’s, I was fortunate when Roger, Christopher Brooker, Tim Hartley, Mark Hayes and of course Annie Humphreys joined me. (They made a team that was so talented, it would be hard to emulate.)
Q. You obviously wanted to share what you were developing?
Vidal: Of course. If you create something and keep it to yourself it will die, if you share your knowledge it will grow and develop. That is why we opened our school and why we started doing international shows.
I also wanted to share my success, so I made my team partners and shareholders.
Q. When did your ‘revolution’ being?
Vidal: Well you know the 60’s actually began for me in 1954 when I opened my salon. So there was an evolution before the revolution!...And it took me a long time to get to that 5-point cut!
Hairdressing wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle. I would be invited to a party and at 11pm I’d get up to go home. People would say, ‘Where are you going it’s just starting?’ and I’d say, ‘No, for me it starts at 9am tomorrow.’
Q.What was it like being part of the 60’s scene?
Vidal: It was an incredible time. You felt you were one of a New Movement. There were fantastic writers like Harold Pinter, (who has just won the Nobel Literary Prize), John Osborne and the Schaeffer brothers; who wrote brilliantly from an in-depth knowledge of the language. The press called their work ‘kitchen sink’ dramas but it was much more.
The fashion designer Mary Quant was a client. I cut her bob -and we became blood brother and sister (literally) -as I nipped her ear! Photographers David Bailey and Terrance Donovan were friends. David liked messy hair though, so I preferred Terrance to photograph my geometric cuts.
One day the actress Nancy Kwan came in for a haircut. Her hair was 4 feet long! I cut it into a short, sharp geometric cut. I phoned Donovan, “Can we work tonight Terry?” and he said “Sure” and we worked half the night photographing her. He shot a particular angle. It was essentially her and the cut. That picture appeared in every international edition of Vogue.
Another time I was in Conde Nast and high up a ladder was a young girl crying. I said she’d better come down as her make-up was running. ‘Anyway’, I asked, ‘What are you doing up there and what is your name?’ she said ‘Bailey put me here…..and my name is Twiggy.’ At that moment Bailey appeared and was little put out that I had made his young model move!
We hairdressers didn’t think of ourselves any lesser artists than everyone else at that time –together with the musicians, actors and the fashion people, we all made our mark.
I started doing hair for magazines and after I’d worked for French Elle, my team and I were invited to style the hair for Ungaro’s first fashion show. I said to him: ‘I hope you haven’t got any pre-conceptions because I know exactly what I want to do.’ He replied: ‘That’s exactly as it should be.’ We all developed an incredible camaraderie.
Recently Michael Caine and his wife Shakira came into The Ivy in Los Angeles. He stopped at our table and he said: ‘Ere. They haven’t found anyone to replace us yet, have they!’
Q. You created some amazing looks. Tell us about the Greek Goddess?
Vidal: I was in Harlem and I was looking at the beautiful girls and I decided I wanted to create that effect on Caucasian and Asian girls. When I came back to London we spent an entire weekend trying to create the vision I held in my mind. We tried and tried and eventually Annie permed the model’s hair and Roger cut it. We’d got it! There’s no such thing as genius - just hard work!
Q. Do you still feel you are a hairdresser?
Vidal: Let’s turn this around! I hope in 50 years time, I will still be thought of as a hairdresser!
Q. Does hair still excite you?
Vidal: I know a hairstyle is the result of much hard work and sometimes I see a photo and long to meet the hairdresser who has created that look just to discuss it with him or her.
Q. What advice would you give to a young hairdresser?
Vidal: It’s never going to be easy. Failure creates success. If you’re not excited about your work -then do something else. You need: Passion, Dedication, Patience and Discipline. (Discipline is a necessary inconvenience.)…And you also need Energy. When I started, I used to work 14 hour days! But, it’s hard to give advice to 1000 hairdressers -because everyone is different. You need to talk to people about their own vision, illustrate to them ‘open up your vision then you’ll see where to go’. You need someone to get that out of you. I was fortunate, Raymond did that for me.
Q. So do you still cut hair?
Vidal: Come on! He laughs. How many women would want a 77 year old dancing around them, stepping on their toes and cutting their hair! But, I do always carry a pair of scissors and a few weeks ago I was on holiday in Capri with friends and I looked across the table at my friend and said; ‘If I’m going to spend a week with you, then I’ve got to cut your hair.’
Seriously, in my 50’s I realised I’d done it and I didn’t want to do the same work again, so I left it to my team to take my work to the next level. The excitement in creating a Revolution is taking it and changing it -globally.
Q. What is your purpose today?
Vidal: When you become fortunate, you need to use that to help others.
Twenty two years ago I set up a study centre against Xenophobia in Jerusalem. Its aim was to teach Arabs – Christian and Moslem, Druizes and Jews to appreciate the talents of the other. I believe in enlightenment and in the philosophy of loving others, the sense of having a universe with an awareness of others.
After the Second World War I was strongly affected by the Holocaust. I then spent a year in Israel in the army and that has had an extraordinary effect on my life.
I believe hairdressers have the power to talk about subjects like the ecology, and the Holocaust, (and let’s face it this continues today in places like the Sudan.) They shouldn’t just talk about beauty. I have very strong beliefs you know.
Q. Hairdressing was recently voted the most satisfying job; followed by nursing. Why do you think that it is?
Vidal: On an average day you perhaps do 10 clients and try to develop with them, a sense of themselves. You look into their eyes, study their bone structure and if you get it right that perception of ‘themselves’ can be altered. It’s great! And that happens for 9 out of 10 clients. (But I’ll tell you what,…perhaps that 10th one, needs to be sent to the nurse!)
Hairdressing isn’t work -it’s a hobby. The aim is to excite, to create an atmosphere and a team spirit amongst your hairdressers.
And lastly Anthony turns to a subject dear to both their hearts; Chelsea football team.
Q. We know you love football don’t you?
Vidal: I’ve supported Chelsea since I was 7 and have had a season ticket since I was 22….and it’s great because now they’re having their ‘Glory Days.’ …. ‘Go Chels!’
For all of us, privileged to listen to the wonderful Vidal Sassoon, our Glory Day had come too.