January 17, 1928, is the birthdate of Vidal Sassoon, who, frustrated in his dream to become a designer of buildings, instead became an “architect” of hair – perhaps the world’s best-known hairdresser in the latter half of the 20th century.
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Sassoon, whose mother was so poor she placed him and his brother in an orphanage for seven years, went on to own not only an international chain of hair salons, but also a lucrative hair-care products company named for him.
Vidal Sassoon was born in London to the former Betty Bellin and Jack Sassoon. Betty was London-born to parents who had immigrated from Ukraine; she worked in a sweatshop. Jack, who dealt in carpets, had been born in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The family lived in the west London neighborhood of Shepherd’s Bush with other Jewish-Greek immigrants, until Jack Sassoon abandoned Betty. Vidal was 3 and brother Ivor a newborn, and they had no choice but to move in with Betty’s sister, in Petticoat Lane: two women and five children in a two-room flat with a shared toilet. In 1933, Betty placed her boys in an orphanage, run by the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, in Maida Vale.
Orphanage rules were strict – mothers could visit their children only once a month – but Vidal appreciated being given regular meals and being able to take hot showers. By joining the synagogue choir, he also was able to see his mother more frequently, on Shabbat.
At the start of World War II, in September 1939, the brothers were evacuated from London to Holt, a small village in Wiltshire. When he returned, three years later, he had hopes of becoming an architect. But his mother, who he said felt “that I didn’t have the intelligence to pick a trade myself,” informed him he was going to be a hairdresser. She arranged for Vidal to apprentice with an East End stylist, who agreed to waive his usual fee because he liked the boy’s manners.
Following the war, a 19-year-old Vidal – profoundly affected by emerging details about the Holocaust – joined an organization called the 43 Group, which would show up at and disrupt rallies organized by gangs affiliated with the anti-Semitic, Fascist leader Oswald Mosley.
A year later, in 1948, Sassoon volunteered to fight with the Palmach in Israel’s Independence War, and was stationed along the Gaza border. He returned to England after a year, following the death of his stepfather, and continued training as a hairstylist.
By 1954, having taken elocution lessons to hide his Cockney accent, Sassoon was ready to open his own salon, and to offer something other stylists didn’t: To “get down to the basic angles of cut and shape.” Indeed, he developed geometric cuts that followed the bone structure of a woman’s face and required minimal maintenance.
Sassoon told the Jewish Chronicle it took a decade to get the cuts right, but that “by 1964 half the people were walking around London swinging their heads and the hair would just fall back where we cut it.”
He cut the hair of designer Mary Quant and her models, and gave Nancy Kwan her “bob cut” for “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960). When Roman Polanski was shooting “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, he paid Sassoon $5,000 to come to Hollywood to give Mia Farrow her famous pixie haircut. “It’s a Vidal Sassoon, it’s terribly in,” Rosemary tells another character who inquires about her hair.
By the early 1970s, Sassoon had moved permanently to Los Angeles, where “having sex was like having dinner,” he later recounted to an interviewer. He soon turned management of his hair salons over to an assistant, and started up a line of hair-care products, whose slogan was “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”
By the ’80s, Sassoon had sold his businesses, though he remained involved as a consultant. He now spent most of his time on philanthropy, including founding a center for the study of anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Vidal Sassoon died on May 9, 2012, at 84, after a long struggle with leukemia.