Vidal Sassoon created some of the most iconic hairstyles of the 20th century, including the geometric, the Wash-and-Wear, the short bob Nancy Kwan wore in The World of Suzie Wong and Mia Farrow's famous pixie cut for Rosemary's Baby.
Now Sassoon's 69-year career is the subject of Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, a documentary tracing his journey from a working-class London neighborhood, where he spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, through a storied career that started with a shampoo-boy job when he was 14.
In 1957, Sassoon developed one of his most iconic looks — the asymmetric five-point, a modified version of the classic bob that came to define 1960s fashion.
"I had an idea that If I work on those angles [of the head] properly, I should get something special," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was geometrically the hardest thing I'd ever done."
Fashion models regularly flew from Paris to London, where Sassoon had his shop, to get the five-point cut. And a few years later, the director Roman Polanski approached Sassoon and asked him to develop a hairstyle for Mia Farrow, who was set to star in the film Rosemary's Baby. Sassoon replied that he had recently cut Farrow's hair — because she was one of his clients.
"[Polanski] said, 'Well, there will be something to take off.' I said, 'Yes, I guess you're right,' " he says. "Now Mia had cut into her own hair. She came to the salon and said, 'What can you do for me?' And I said, 'Take it very short. It's the only way. I can't pull the short hair long, but I can make the long hair short.' And we did it, and it suited her marvelously because she had a shaped face and bone structure that was just perfect."
Both Farrow's haircut and the asymmetric five-point were copied not just in Sassoon's salon but in salons all over the world. Sassoon says he was flattered by the imitations.
"You either create something and you keep it a secret and you die with it, [or] you can benefit the craft," he says. "And in essence ... you're doing something for fashion worldwide. I think that's so much more important — it's something that you leave behind that you probably will be remembered for."
On why he liked his hairdressing apprenticeship as a teenager
"The pretty girls. It's the truth. There were so many pretty girls coming into the salon as clients, and others working in the salon. And I thought, 'Hmm. This is rather nice.' But I was a very average shampoo boy in the sense that I could shampoo, but I wasn't any better than anybody else. And the war was on. You slept on your pants in the shelter so you had a crease the next day. Mr. Cohen, who I worked for, was a great disciplinarian. I think I learned so much from him because of that. You had to have pressed trousers, clean shoes and clean nails. Now, this is the middle of a war. And you weren't even at home — you were sleeping in shelters. So sometimes it wasn't quite possible, but we did our best."
On going to a vocal coach for three years to lose his Cockney accent
"I couldn't get a job in the West End. They would say, 'Learn the language. And by the way, the language is English.' It was that kind of thing. Georgia Brown, who played Nancy in Oliver, we grew up together. And she said, 'Vid, take some elocution lessons. It will be very good for you. Especially if you will be speaking in the future.' I went to [a voice coach], and she looked at me and said, 'I don't take hairdressers. I work with actors. But be at the Old Vic at 2 o'clock on Thursday.' ... For three years, when we weren't on the road doing shows, I was [taking vocal lessons] twice a week."
On giving Nancy Kwan her signature look for The World of Suzy Wong
"She had almost 4 feet of hair, and being rather small, she almost sat on it. So you had to be very careful when you put your hands through her hair; otherwise, you'd be feeling parts of her bottom, and that would not have done.
"But [she] was making a new film in London. And [the producer] wanted a whole new look. ... I looked at her bone structure, and I thought we could do almost anything with Nancy. And I started to cut at the very back of her head and I said, 'Great neckline; I'll go shorter.' And I went short in the back and graduated into more length at the sides, and I suddenly realized we had a bob that could be international. It was a very professional cut in the sense that it was layered beautifully — and it had to be layered, not just from the back to the front, but when she shook her head, it had to fall back naturally."
Photos: Vidal Sassoon gallery