Viva Vidal!

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Legendary hairstylist Vidal Sassoon makes New Orleans look good

As the third anniversary of Katrina hovers, New Orleans has largely faded from the radars of most people outside the city, as other news inevitably dominates the headlines. But for others, the arduous plight of New Orleans post-storm remains constant, especially for preeminent hair industry icon Vidal Sassoon, who revolutionized hair with his trademark cuts based on geometric shapes and bone structure. Sassoon, who endured homelessness and life in an orphanage as a young boy in London during World War II and was finally reunited with his mother to move into a home constructed by the British government, sponsored the construction of two houses in Slidell in 2006. Delighted by the joy his efforts brought to the recipient families as they moved into their new homes, Sassoon co-created Hairdressers Unlocking Hope in 2007, with Mary Rector- Gable, founder of international beauty Web site www. behindthechair.com, in order to unite the hair industry to raise funds and work with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for low-income Gulf Coast families displaced by the storms of 2005.

The result has been stunning. In its inaugural year, Hairdressers Unlocking Hope rallied hair industry professionals to raise money and build 10 homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity families. This year, hairdressers from around the country came to New Orleans in June for the Cool & Caring: Serious Business 2008 Conference and descended on Slidell with hammers in their hands to break ground for nine new homes, demonstrating that an industry dedicated to making people look beautiful remains committed to making beautiful things happen for humanity as a whole. And Sassoon, the charming, eloquent and compassionate man who has garnered a lifetime of unprecedented successes in the world of hair while never losing an ounce of humility along the way, couldn’t be more proud of the remarkable humanitarian efforts put forth by his industry. New Orleans Living was so amazed and inspired by the dedication and “re-Vidal-ization” put forth by Hairdressers Unlocking Hope that a chat with Sassoon at the build site in Slidell was imperative–and indubitably delightful!

Mr. Sassoon, it’s amazing that you have taken such an incredible interest in the rebuilding of New Orleans. I am so honored to talk to you today!

Oh, you’re very kind Christine. After the storm, my wife and I looked at one another and said, “How can we do as well as we do and have people within our own society without any shelter to put their heads?” And we came to New Orleans and built two houses and two families moved in. And I thought it would be marvelous if we could get the craft involved. And did they become involved! What fascinated me was, yes, many of the big companies gave a house and money for a house, but then the $5 and $10 checks came in, and we’re close to $2 million dollars now. This will be the 21st house!

That’s incredible! So all the money is being raised through the efforts of the entire hair industry?

Yes. They may give half-priced haircuts or sell products and donate a portion to the cause. And I think it’s really a lesson to government, which could have cared less during Katrina, and I think we all became ashamed. I do believe people have woken up to the fact that we are one society, and there has to be a safety net which doesn’t interfere with capitalism at all. There’s a quote by [Albert] Camus, which I use because it’s so real: “Too many of us have dispensed with generosity in order to practice charity.” And this has nothing to do with charity—it’s social consciousness. I think we must bring up this generation with an awareness that they belong to our United States and our world, and you can’t just look at your local community and say, “Oh, we’re doing fine,” while others suffer.

The hair industry has banded together. You’d think government could do a better job.

It’s pure humanity to look after one’s people. I think the American public has been brainwashed to think that anything that is purely progressive is some sort of socialism. It’s nonsense. It’s humanism. When you get a statement from Washington in the newspapers that [they’re] not in the real estate business, you think, Well what business are you in? Train service here is outrageous when you think they’re zipping across France at 260 miles an hour. And the levee that recently broke in the Midwest is another tragedy. When are we going to make all this right? They say we need a trillion and a half dollars for infrastructure to make us what we are, a leading nation. How can a nation that is so advanced in technology and number one in so many things be so far behind when it comes to social consciousness? When you look at Scandinavia and Western Europe and what they’ve done, it’s extraordinary. We missed out; unfortunately, Roosevelt died too soon. And I think this worries not just Democrats or Republicans, it worries Americans. How did we get this far behind when it comes to social reaction to our own people? It’s frightening, and we definitely have to do something about it.

I can’t imagine how those people who’ve lost homes during the storm feel when they get that key to their new home. I’m also aware that life was rough for you as a child, and that obviously made an impression on you.

I can only go with what my mother said. I asked her what her worst moment in life was, and she said, “To know that I had no home.” She was evicted when I was 3, and my brother was 6 months old, and eventually he and I were placed in an orphanage for six years so we’d be fed, so I get the gist of this probably as well as anybody. Literally, my mother had nothing. During World War II, the Luftwaffe was bombing London day and night, and many people were homeless, and parts of homes couldn’t be used anymore because they’d been destroyed; I know because I lived in one. As a child you don’t realize the tragedy as much as people who’ve worked all their lives then suddenly have nothing. Why don’t people care? Are they not taught to care when they’re young? The ability for humanity to progress with just a little help is extraordinary. So many people have forgotten Katrina and are on to the next thing. The next movie star is getting a divorce! What about the important stuff?

Your slogan, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good,” comes to mind regarding your involvement with New Orleans. It puts a whole new spin on it. Obviously, you saw the beauty in New Orleans even while it was drowning.

I think you’ve hit something on the head. I’ve never even thought of that! But it really is the slogan: “If New Orleans doesn’t look good, we don’t look good.” I think it works in beautifully!

Why thank you! And in conjunction with the build in Slidell, the Cool & Caring: Serious Business 2008 Conference was held in New Orleans, and professionals in the industry honored you at a hair show for everything you’ve contributed to the craft. It’s obvious that people really love and respect you for what you’ve done in the industry. And what a mob scene at the show—you are absolutely the rock star of hair!

Can you imagine what the Beatles must have felt, having the whole world driving them crazy! It’s very flattering to think that at age 80, they realize what we did back in the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. So without being pompous at all, it must have been reasonably substantive!

What can I say? It’s nice to see enthusiasm. They’re a wonderful team of people. They keep up the standards of the industry and bring out the best in themselves, and what they did is a great compliment. And these kids that came and did the building on the site did it purely from the heart. At 80 years old, I can say they’re my kids! I am very proud of them for this wonderful effort.

You had an extreme drive to change the future of hair. You make the connection with geometric shapes and hair, something that’s so fluid. Your concept was to free women from things like bobby pins and curling irons, letting hair drape naturally like it should. Your revolution was to take the superfluous out of hair.

Oh, you’ve got it. I used to say, “Eliminate the superfluousness.” And I was inspired by architecture, not by fashion. I’d look at an individual’s bone structure, and I wanted to cut shapes into it. It was more architectural than just making them look pretty. My inspiration was Bauhaus and all the great architects at the time. There was this whole feeling for new ideas for hair that was so needed. The essence was to cut angles so individuals could just shake their hair or even go under the shower and let it just fall in place.

What a creative hotbed you were part of in London, with the music scene and everything exploding over there!

Yeah, it was wonderful! There was a revolution in the ’60s, and fortuitously, I was a part of it. There was just so much talent inspiring other talent; you worked and created with them, whether they were in music or whatever. It started in the late ’50s; suddenly you had this extraordinary happening

in England where fiscally for the first time the young earned money and created the images rather than their parents or grandparents. And Mick Jagger’s still out there doing it! I was in a restaurant in London six weeks ago, and Michael Caine was there with his family and we all knew each other when we were all broke– he was a struggling actor and I had just a small salon—and he just passed the table and said, “They haven’t found anyone to replace us yet!”

Nor will they! And when you first came to the United States, you brought that revolutionary spirit right along with you. Weren’t you flabbergasted by the exam you were required to take as a hairdresser in the United States?

Oh, I was a rebel—I didn’t take it! I went to take it, and when they told me what I had to do, like getting a head of hair and teasing it down and just cutting off what’s left, I said, “You’ve taken the craft back 100 years!” And they said, “Well, if you don’t want to take our test, then leave and you won’t be able to work in New York.” It got in the newspapers and the judge says, “Who does this goddamn limey think he is, coming over here to tell us how to cut hair!” I’ll never forget getting a telegram from Irving Penn saying, “Keep at it.” You take risks, but they’re fun risks, and you get criticized for those risks. Then you know you’re doing the right thing! Slowly but surely the work came in, because people wanted a great cut that they could just shampoo and it would fall into place.

I heard that the gentleman you worked for in London as a shampoo boy at age 14 instilled the importance of appearance, cleanliness and health in you, and boy, does it show! It’s 1,000 degrees here on the build site in Slidell and you look marvelous! You are a meticulous man. Is it hard to always look so fabulously dapper?

Oh, it’s hard! Oh, absolutely, yes! He was something else. And it was wartime; imagine having to come in with pressed pants! And you were sleeping in the shelter, you slept on your pants! [Laughs] Cleans nails, clean shoes … he was a disciplinarian of some sort, but he was a terrific man.

A wonderful documentary about your life will be released in the near future. What will we learn from it?

A dear friend, Michael Gordon of Bumble & Bumble, approached me and said, “I want to give you a birthday present.” And I said, “There is nothing I need.” He said, “I want to make a film of your life.” I guess we’re making it to inspire young people that they can come out of nowhere and if they have some sort of creative ability and they work hard at developing it, suddenly, something exciting and different may happen. There’s a lovely old saying that the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.

We are looking forward to that film, and to having you and the hair industry come back to see some progress in New Orleans next year. Thank you so much for caring about our city!

Oh, I’m so proud of those kids! I look forward to it too. To meet the families you’ve helped to put a roof over their heads—what a great feeling when you put your head down at night. It’s important to ask where America’s going. If you love it, if you change your British passport to become an American citizen, you’ve got to love your country. I’m very concerned about the government, and its lack of responsibility. I always leave New Orleans thinking there is so much more to do.