Monday, February 14, 2011

My two favorite (Valentine) male "pioneers"

by Blair Sabol

Call me shallow but it was one of the highlights of my life: In June 1965 all I wanted for my high school graduation gift was a Vidal Sassoon haircut.

Miraculously my Mom got me an appointment with "HIM" on the day the Sassoon salon opened on Madison Avenue. I remember being overwhelmed by the shop's decor; vintage brown and silver "minimal," giant front glass window from roof to ground (you could see all the customers on the mezzanine floor getting sheared), big steely ball lamps cascading down the bare stairwell.

There was nothing like it on the street at the time. It was more like an art gallery than a hair salon. At that time Vidal was already on the same star par with The Beatles, Michael Caine, Terrence Stamp, and Mary Quant was rumored to be a part of a store opening up the street called "Paraphernalia." I admit I was a late teen already swept up and into the "British Invasion" ... Madison Avenue style rather than Kings Road. And The Beatles were the least of it.

Girl in White Boots by Wayne Thiebaud. The portrait is of an 18-year-old me which shows the haircut that Sassoon gave me in 1966.
I'll never forget the way Vidal greeted me at the front desk. He gave me a genuine hug (a hug?) and he seemed honestly excited to meet me (a nobody teen from Philadelphia). He kept looking at my total body image and intensely discussed my particular bone structure as we made our way to his chair. He had the softest voice and said the word "marvelous" ("mahhhhvelous") like I had never heard it before.

In 43 minutes he took me from a shapeless frizzy schlubhead into a sleek "five pointed" bob headed member of a whole new generation. Immediately I looked as "mod" as Twiggy (at that time it could have been equivalent to having today's major plastic surgery).

I fell in love with Vidal on first sight (who didn't). He was thin and dressed impeccably in a tight brown vest and matching brown tight straight pants with a white shirt that had big cuffs and collar and a tie that was short and fat and had a huge knot. I remember he had the most joyful brown eyes. After he called me "Luv" and told me I was "Supahhh" I was GONE!!!

Watching him cut my hair was a Cirque de Soleil performance. Vidal cut with his whole body. He danced in, out and around the chair making hilarious unconscious facial grimaces and exploding deep orgasmic exhales. It was the first time I had ever witnessed someone with such a passion for his craft.

There were three or more assistants (hairdressers surrounded him). All of them were Beatlesque and "new in town" from London. One month after the salon opened it became apparent that dating a Sassoon shampoo boy, much less a Sassoon hairdresser, was all a girl could ask for.

Mary Quant gets a touch-up from Vidal Sassoon in November 1964.
Grace Coddington in 1961, with a Vidal Sassoon haircut.
Rosemary's Baby Mia Farrow gets a haircut by Vidal Sassoon 1968 Paramount.
They became rock stars ... all of them. Vidal not only revolutionized haircutting but he changed hairdressing from a gay to a heterosexual occupation (then came Gene Shacove, Paul Mitchell, John Peters and finally Warren Beatty in Shampoo). At the time Vidal transformed the "helmet heads" of Kenneth and the elaborate doubledecker "cake heads" of Alexandre into a new cool kind of architecture and his own brand of geometric style.

Hairdressing would never be the same. I remember I never had a shampoo like that day in June 1965. The shampoo smelled like strawberries and the shampoo boy "finished me off" with a cold rinse. Then Vidal turned me over to "Harvey" (another scared young English transplant) who "will blow you out." Who knew from "blowouts." Up to then we were all into rollers and sitting under giant domed hairdryers for 45 minutes.

I then proceeded to fall in love with Harvey (who dressed and spoke exactly like Vidal). I recall that Vidal asked Harvey to make sure he got to "check" me before I left the salon.

Who "checks" a haircut anymore? After Vidal performed the final "check" he asked me to "Now shake your hair. Go on luv ... shake it."

That was his ultimate blessing. My hair moved and every strand fell back in perfect place.

At the end of the day a leading fashion editor from The Chicago Herald Tribune stopped me at the door. She was covering Vidal's opening day and found my graduation gift story a great angle. Vidal and I made the Style section's front page. From that moment on, my life changed. I decided that maybe fashion and /or style had a future in my life and just experiencing Vidal's genuine passion for my head was something I would never forget. Plus he became my first (and last) real "Youthquake" crush.

We never saw each other again. By 1972 I had moved on and out and into being the "counterculture" fashion columnist for The Village Voice, complete with a giant "afro." Later on I ended up in Los Angeles writing for the L.A. Times style section. All along I had noted that Vidal was having unbelievable success with all his hair salons, schools and hair products.

He married the gorgeous Beverly. Together they did the first real best selling health and diet book (A Year of Beauty and Health) and ended up doing a popular morning TV show (pre Regis and Kathy Lee) called Your New Day.

It was clear to me that they were firmly ensconced in and indeed epitomized the Beverly Hills lifestyle. Vidal became an honorary "Californian" along with Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney. But years went by and so did the concept of "star hairdressers."

Today if you are a top hairdresser you are merely a name credit on a magazine "celebrity" cover line. Salons have become franchised "Super Cuts" or typical neighborhood outlets. Nothing special. No wonder everyone's hair on the red carpets and in the streets looks like bed headed messes.

And don't even mention great haircuts to me! Imagine ... Justin Bieber's style is all that is left. But every great and bad hairdresser I have ever met has had their roots firmly planted in (and they always kudo) Sassoon. It's as if every single hairdresser in the world did some study at some Sassoon academy somewhere.
Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adam.
Five or more years ago a friend and literary agent called me out of the blue to see if I would help Vidal (his new client) write his autobiography. I gasped and grabbed for the meeting just to reconnect. Though I totally believed and backed his book concept, I knew I was the wrong person to help him. I hadn't written a word in 16 years and I felt he needed the likes of Andrew Morton or William Novack (top pros in the "as told to" world) to guide him.

We met up in his gorgeous minimally decorated (grey and steel ... of course) house (Neutra?) in the high Beverly Hills. I remember he had incredible art and sculpture ... a few vintage Ed Ruschas were hung on his walls. He was as charming, enthusiastic and handsome as he was 45 years ago. For some reason he reminded me of Philip Johnson (why not ... they are both great architects) in his wizened attractiveness.

However Vidal still had his own hair (white) and a terrific short haircut himself. His current wife of over 22 years Ronnie was gloriously tall, dark and very welcoming. We sat down and talked of "old times." We agreed on the current classlessness of much of the culture today and though Vidal agreed with me about the crash of most fashion "Style" today, he maintained an even soft voiced (very "forgiving") overview.
There didn't seem to be an ounce of bitterness, rage or any hardcore resentment in his bones. At that time Vidal was in his late 70s and I was aware that he had had some health "issues." But he had resolved all of them with his fierce strict cleanse diets and rigorous exercise regimes of pool laps and Pilates/yoga. His daughter had tragically overdosed the year before and I had heard it almost did him in. There was also a brutal legal battle to get his name reinstated on his product line. The case was "settled" and I sensed he was exhausted from that viscous bout.

And though he maintained a certain strength of posture at the time, I felt he was strangely fragile. With all that ... I still fell in love with him all over again. To me nobody has more vulnerability, humility and genuine concern than Vidal. He still makes YOU feel like you are number one and gives you his full attention. And talk about "cool" attire ... he had on all black cashmere (still with the tight pants) and a perfectly tied scarf. Nobody does it better. We spoke of our love for Rudi Gernreich and Miles Davis, and his interest (philanthropic) in Israel.

Vidal was up to date with everything culturally and politically. He had much to say ... quietly. Before I left I got up the nerve to ask him "How about giving me a haircut for old times sake." As I said the words I was already embarrassed. What a cheap request. His response was perfect. Very sweet and almost shy ... he merely held up his hands and said "Oh my dear ... at this point these hands can't and won't do it ... anymore." His hands looked great to me but I "got it."
The first Vidal Sassoon team on their way to the U.S. Amongst the group is Harvey Kay, Paul Mitchell, Ralph Stroh, Charles Booth, Christopher Pluck, and Philip Mason.
When I left I felt confused and perplexed that this man somehow wasn't more respected as a living treasure. Maybe the general public was too familiar with his name and perhaps his prevalent Beverly Hills presence was too much of a "given." Somehow I felt he needed the book to give him the accolades he so richly deserved.

Then a mere month ago I heard about the documentary being done on him. At last "Attention must be paid." And so it has. Vidal Sassoon The Movie: How One Man Changed The World with a Pair of Scissors is indeed a valuable history. Not only does it trace his 69-year career as a hairdresser, but he himself gets to narrate all the highs and lows of his life and era. Everything from the $7,000 Mia Farrow haircut to "If You Don't Look Good We don't Look Good" product campaign to honors from The Queen and all the X wives and X employees in between.

Producer Michael Gordon (Bumble and Bumble creator) does a masterful job at bringing Vidal's "thousand points of lights" all together in poignant interviews and personal evaluations. The varied music and vintage graphics fill in the rest of the blanks. It's Vidal Sassoon in MRI vision. Not to be missed. Whether it will follow the success of other pop personality documentaries remains to be seen. After all Isaac Mizrahi (Unzipped), Valentino, Joan Rivers (Piece of Work) and the Vogue staff (September Issue) all had huge PR engines behind them. But Vidal has his personal immense history and iconic story. That should be enough fuel.

Football Hall of Fame 2011 recipient 95-year-old Ed Sabol, in his red socks.
On a similar and personal note: On Super Bowl Sunday my 95-year-old Dad Ed Sabol was inducted into Football's Hall of Fame. 50 years ago he started NFL Films and revolutionized how the world sees professional football. He humanized the game and made it into high art via slow motion and Hollywood cinematic treatments.

At the risk of self bloviating ... I believe my Dad more than earned this high achievement. And it was about time. I am particularly proud to say my Dad was and still is an incredible dresser. He was originally an overcoat salesman and takes his wardrobe seriously.

He is also quite a fashion critic ... thank God. But he is best known for wearing red socks at all times (he and Van Johnson!).

On Super Bowl Sunday all the side line cameramen, the TV commentators, and Football Commissioner Roger Goodell all donned red socks in Ed Sabol's honor.

It was quite a sight and no doubt the first time the Super Bowl made any kind of a fashion statement ... in spite of its "thuggy" self.

Between my Dad and Vidal Sassoon it was my week of homaging. My two favorite (Valentine) male "pioneers." Both were incredible visionaries and at last validated in their lifetimes. Imagine ... my Dad gave me my life and Vidal initiated my life path.

Long may they reign!
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