Veni, Vidi, Vidal!
Vidal Sassoon, the man who helped style the world's coifs, gets the documentary treatment.
Tue Feb 8 2011
Quick, name some of the great monuments of 20th-century design: Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building; Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum of American Art; Vidal Sassoon's five-point haircut. Wait, what?
You're forgiven if you only recall Vidal Sassoon as the name on a series of shampoos and conditioners, or as the elegant man on early-'80s TV commercials who insisted, "If you don't look good, we don't look good." (Extra points if you remember Mia Farrow giving Sassoon a shout-out for her iconic pixie 'do in Rosemary's Baby.) But a groundbreaker? "His work helped launch the revolution of the '60s," explains director Craig Teper, whose documentary on the British hairdresser, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, places the style icon in a much broader cultural context. "Most people said, 'Oh, he's a real person?' But it's difficult to think of someone who affected their industry as much as Vidal. Henry Ford isn't the only one who innovated cars. Steve Jobs isn't the only technology innovator. But Vidal changed every single aspect of contemporary beauty. It wasn't just how one cut hair; it was the way hairdressers dressed, your manner of speech, the level of service, the way the salon looked. It freed women from having to sleep in rollers. He dragged the whole industry kicking and screaming into the modern world."
Teper's portrait certainly makes a compelling case. Producer Michael Gordon (founder of Bumble and bumble) originally wanted to commission a short tribute to honor his friend as an 80th-birthday present, and hired the director for the job. But as Teper became more familiar with Sassoon and his story, he pushed Gordon to let him make it an all-access, feature-length film. It wasn't just the story of a man redefining 'dos, Teper insisted; this was the story of a man who redefined and refined himself. Born a poor Jew in Depression-era England, raised in an orphanage and yoked with a thick Cockney accent, Sassoon was someone who'd struggled to rise above his station in a class-conscious society. During an early attempt to get a salon job, a receptionist heard his voice and told the future stylist to the stars to learn proper English first. Most would see that as an insult; Sassoon saw it as instruction. He took elocution lessons for three years from a diction coach at the Old Vic theater, and learned not only how to speak more properly but also (and most important) how to project, charm and seduce.
And as Sassoon himself recounts, once he'd reinvented a rough, Dickensian street urchin as a gent of taste and talent, he still had to change the image of his chosen profession. "You have to remember, 50 or 60 years ago hairdressers were treated like pariahs," says the 83-year-old Sassoon, talking to TONY over the phone. "Hairdressers were making people look pretty, but did it last? For me, however, it was an art form. I wanted to eliminate the superfluous." Sassoon's inspiration, he claims, was the Bauhaus movement; as we see in the film, his great innovation was to cut hair according to the bone structure, minding the shape of a client's cheeks, jaws and head. He brought geometry into the mix, using the clean lines of midcentury modernist architecture as his guide, and created looks that were tailor-made to a person's features, beautiful shapes that were as eye-catching as they were unique—and, most of all, easy to maintain.
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie covers the stylist's Horatio Alger--like narrative from his days of plucky salon crimping to his reign over a multimillion-dollar financial empire. Along the way, we see his successes: When his technique exploded in the early '60s, it led to the opening of Sassoon Hair Academies to train more practitioners; the '70s saw the launching of a merchandising freight train of hair products. In Teper's eyes, the branding of Sassoon into a household name was inevitable; it was the natural consequence of Vidal's mission to bring the hair equivalent of haute couture to the masses. "He democratized haircuts," the filmmaker says. "If you went to a Sassoon salon, you would see a duchess sitting next to a receptionist sitting next to an actress. And everyone got the same kind of haircut." The fact that Hollywood had taken note and summoned him to style its stars only increased the icon's cachet. Sassoon remembers being requested to snip, shape and whiten the hair of Peter O'Toole for Lawrence of Arabia. "The whiter you went, the bluer the eyes became," Sassoon points out. "John Gielgud said, 'Peter, if you make him any prettier, they'll have to call it Florence of Arabia!'"
And then there was that catchphrase, a ubiquitous Reagan-era mantra that helped push Sassoon into the stratosphere, which he still hears people invoke. "I went to a dinner party and I was introduced to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy," the icon explains. "And Kennedy said, 'If you don't look good, we don't look good: I was inspired by that!' I don't know how it inspired him at all, but he said it."