‘I have had an incredible life, a life I could never have imagined. And I’m ready,’ said Vidal Sassoon to his wife Ronnie shortly before he died, as told by his son Elan Sassoon in a moving address at his father’s memorial. The hairdresser passed away at his home in Los Angeles in May, aged 84, after a battle with leukaemia.
This morning, at St Paul’s cathedral, a service celebrated the life of Vidal Sassoon – the man who changed the hair world through his iconic vision and super-human drive; he shaped the look of the 1960s with the Bob and Five-Point Cut, liberating women with his ‘wash and wear hair’ in the process; he founded modern hairdressing and went on to build an empire.
In attendance were the great and good of British hairdressing, including John Frieda, Nicky Clarke and James Brown, the fashion designers Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes, the actors Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons and architects John Pawson, Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid.
David Puttnam, a childhood friend of Sassoon’s, spoke of the icon’s humble beginnings. Born in the East End of London, he grew up in Shepherd’s Bush, until his father left home when he was five. For the next six years Sassoon and his younger brother went to live in a Jewish orphanage, until his mother remarried and could care for them again. It was his mother who was instrumental in his hairdressing career; she found him an apprenticeship, when he was 14, at Cohen’s Barbour and Beauty Shop. He then went on to shape modern hairdressing with a network of academies, hair products and salons that turned his craft into a multi-million pound industry and his name into international household status. ‘But he always wore his celebrity lightly and with enormous grace,’ said Lord Puttnam, adding: ‘He retained that very 1960s quality of never going into denial about his background.’
Jeremy Irons then spoke of his great energy for life. ‘He never grew old, he always wanted to win,’ said the actor, before reading To An Athlete Dying Young, from A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Houseman.
Zaha Hadid also gave an address. ‘Vidal’s talent was to liberate women,’ she said. ‘It was his combination of modesty and pure genius that made him very special.’
Rabbi Julia Neuberger spoke of the other important aspects of his life. How, in 1946, Sassoon had joined the 43 Group – forty-three Jewish ex-servicemen and women who fought against Oswald Mosley’s fascism in London; two years later, Sassoon left the UK to join the Israeli army in the War of Independence. ‘His strong sense of Jewishness never left him,’ she said. In 1982, he established the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
But for all his hairdressing fame, iconic status and conviction in his faith, it was his son Elan’s tribute that summed up Sassoon, the man. He was, we learned, a huge Chelsea FC fan, a health fanatic (swimming a mile a day, eating vegetables for breakfast), a generous benefactor (he set up Hairdressers For Hope to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), and a loving father and husband.
Icon, legend and revolutionary. It was a celebration of an extraordinary life, a life that touched so many – at least, anyone who had their hair cut in the last 50 years.
Vidal Sassoon CBE, 17 January 1928 – 9 May 2012