Liberator of ladies' hair Vidal Sassoon dies at 84

Associated Press + More

By SANDY COHEN, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Vidal Sassoon used his hairstyling shears to free women from beehives and hot rollers and give them wash-and-wear cuts that made him an international name in hair care.

When he came on the scene in the 1950s, hair was high and heavy — typically curled, teased, piled and shellacked into place. Then came the 1960s, and Sassoon's creative cuts, which required little styling and fell into place perfectly every time, fit right in with the fledgling women's liberation movement.

"His timing was perfect: As women's hair was liberated, so were their lives," Allure magazine Editor-in-Chief Linda Wells told The Associated Press in a written statement. "Sassoon was one of the original feminists."

Sassoon was at his home in Los Angeles with his family when he died Wednesday at age 84, police spokesman Kevin Maiberger said. Maiberger said police were summoned to the home but found that Sassoon had died of natural causes, and authorities wouldn't investigate further.

His exact cause of death was unclear, but publicist Mark Sejvar said Sassoon had leukemia for several years.

"Vidal Sassoon was the most famous hairstylist in the history of the world," said John Paul DeJoria, a close friend of Sassoon and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems, a company he co-founded with the late Paul Mitchell, a Sassoon protege. "Good hairstylists never die. Vidal Sassoon and Paul Mitchell will always live on."

DeJoria said Sassoon had been scheduled to sit at his table for a fundraiser Monday night but called to cancel, saying "his body was feeling just a little bit too tired and he would be there in spirit."

Sassoon opened his first salon in his native London in 1954 but said he didn't perfect his cut-is-everything approach until the mid-'60s. Once the wash-and-wear concept hit, though, it hit big, and many women retired their curlers for good.

His shaped cuts were an integral part of the "look" of Mary Quant, the superstar British fashion designer who popularized the miniskirt.

"My idea was to cut shape into the hair, to use it like fabric and take away everything that was superfluous," Sassoon said in 1993 in the Los Angeles Times, which first reported his death. "Women were going back to work, they were assuming their own power. They didn't have time to sit under the dryer anymore."

His wash-and-wear styles included the bob, the Five-Point cut and the "Greek Goddess," a short, tousled perm — inspired by the "Afro-marvelous-looking women" he said he saw in New York's Harlem.

Paul Mitchell's son Angus Mitchell, co-owner of John Paul Mitchell systems and a prominent hairstylist in his own right, said Sassoon's simple-but-dynamic system forever changed the business because it could be replicated anywhere.

"Vidal was like Christopher Columbus," Angus Mitchell, who studied under Sassoon, told the AP in a phone interview Wednesday. "He discovered that the world was round with his cutting system. It was the first language that people could follow."

Celebrity stylist and Madison Avenue salon owner Oscar Blandi said Sassoon made him fall in love with the hair business and showed him the "true art of styling."

"He truly changed the world of hair and beauty," Blandi said in an email. "He was definitely the most innovative person ever to enter the industry. He led the way for the celebrity stylists of today."

Many of those celebrity stylists were tweeting tributes as word spread.

"My great day turned into a devastating day," Tabatha Coffey of the Bravo reality TV series "Tabatha Takes Over" said on her Twitter account. "RIP Vidal Sassoon thank you for all you have done for our industry and for me."

Hairstylist Frederic Fekkai, who has his own chain of salons and collection of namesake products, called Sassoon "an extraordinary man."

"He was an artist — a talent and a visionary," Fekkai said. "He paved the way to introduce contemporary hairstyles and made an incredible impact on the fashion and beauty communities. ... The world has lost not only an icon but a kind man."

Sassoon often worked in the 1960s with American designer Rudi Gernreich, who became a household name in 1964 with his much-publicized (but seldom-worn) topless bathing suit.

"While Mr. Gernreich has dressed his mannequins to look like little girls," The New York Times wrote after viewing Gernreich's collection for fall 1965, "Vidal Sassoon has cut their hair to look like little boys with eye-level bangs in front, short crop in back. For really big evenings, a pin-on curl is added at the cheek."

In 1966, he did a curly look inspired by 1920s film star Clara Bow for the designer Ungaro. He got more headlines 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."

Sassoon opened more salons in England and expanded to the United States before also developing a line of shampoos and styling products bearing his name. His advertising slogan was "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

The hairdresser also established Vidal Sassoon Academies to teach aspiring stylists how to envision haircuts based on a client's bone structure. There are now academies in England, Germany, China, the U.S. and Canada.

"Whether long or short, hair should be carved to a woman's bone structure," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1967. "Actually short hair is a state of mind ... not a state of age."

Sassoon's hair-care mantra: "To sculpt a head of hair with scissors is an art form. It's in pursuit of art."

He wrote four books: "Vidal: The Autobiography" released in February of this year; an earlier autobiography, "Sorry I Kept You Waiting, Madam," published in 1968; "A Year of Beauty and Health," written with his second wife, Beverly, and published in 1979; and 1984's "Cutting Hair the Vidal Sassoon Way.

He sold his business interests in the early 1980s to devote himself to philanthropy. The Boys Clubs of America and the Performing Arts Council of the Music Center of Los Angeles were among the causes he supported through his Vidal Sassoon Foundation. He later became active in post-Hurricane Katrina charities in New Orleans.

He had moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s in search of a chemist to formulate his hair-care products and decided to make the city his home.

A veteran of Israel's 1948 War of Independence, Sassoon also had a lifelong commitment to eradicating anti-Semitism. In 1982, he established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Growing up very poor in London, Sassoon said that when he was 14, his mother declared he was to become a hairdresser. After traveling to Palestine and serving in the Israeli war, he returned home to fulfill her dream.

"I thought I'd be a soccer player but my mother said I should be a hairdresser, and, as often happens, the mother got her way," he told the AP in 2007.

He told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that he was proud to have entered the field.

"Hairdressers are a wonderful breed," Sassoon said. "You work one-on-one with another human being and the object is to make them feel so much better and to look at themselves with a twinkle in their eye. Work on their bone structure, the color, the cut, whatever, but when you've finished, you have an enormous sense of satisfaction."

Married four times, Sassoon had four children with his second wife, Beverly, a sometime film and television actress, usually billed as Beverly Adams.

None of the children went into the family business. The eldest, Catya, an actress and model, died in her sleep on New Year's Day 2002 of an accidental overdose.

___

Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.