I’ve been spending a lot of time with Vidal Sassoon. It happens when you do a documentary about someone – we’ve been going over events in his life – nearly all of them – well, the big ones anyway. We’ve visited the places he grew up – places he hadn’t been back to since leaving them decades ago. It’s been fascinating. I knew a lot about Vidal before starting this project, but now, two years later I have a much better, more informed picture of him – his life and what it has meant to him (and by extension, to me – he has always been my hero). And then, just the other day, with the most perfect timing, Queen Elizabeth of England awards Vidal a Commander of the British Empire medal, which is similar to being knighted. There’s an irony to it – just as we’re finishing the film encapsulating his life, he is awarded one of the highest honors on the planet – for his life’s work.
I asked Vidal how it felt. When he was a shampoo boy at 14, I’m sure this was all an impossibility. Vidal is perhaps one of the most charming, most vivacious people I have ever met – he’s funny and always full of stories. But with this he got very quiet and told me he was giving it tremendous thought, but that he was unsure, really, how to take it in. He hasn’t talked much about it, but he has been very clearly moved.
Why is Vidal Sassoon the most famous hairdresser in the world? Was it the 5-point? The Mia Farrow crop? The talk show? Was it because he had something – did something – so unique that it changed hairdressing forever? Yes and no. I think his fame is largely due to the fact that he spent the majority of his life teaching everything he knew to others. Most people keep it to themselves – make the most of it while they can – their talent, their inventions, their ideas. But not Vidal – he made hairdressing better – made hairdressers all over the world better at what they do. He is that kind of man – generous, rare and always looking to lift up the craft and everyone who works within it. He’s the kind of man who, when awarded an honor of a lifetime by the Queen, doesn’t shout about it, he just quietly contemplates and tries to take it all in.
As I work on the film and book of Vidal Sassoon, one of the more interesting parallels to our current economic climate (which looks to be the worst recession of the last fifty years) is that he was born into the Great Depression of 1928. He spent six years of his childhood in an orphanage, lived through World War Two, and volunteered for the Israeli army when they were still fighting the Palestinians. Despite or because of this, Vidal became the greatest hairdressing icon of all time. To me, and perhaps to you, it’s both inspiring and comforting to realize that he survived and prospered during some of the toughest times in the last century.
The overriding intention for this project is to share his story and inspire young hairdressers (as well as not-so-young hairdressers) to realize how much is possible in this great field of work. The film project started when I was having lunch with Vidal’s son Elan in Miami. We were talking about what we could do for his 80th Birthday (which was fifteen months away at the time). It’s rather typical for me that project’s still not finished and he’s 81; more a product of meticulousness than procrastination, I’m happy to say. As I became more familiar with his story and spent more time with him, I also realized how fantastically privileged I was to be entrusted with documenting his life. Beyond the obvious, there are so many less apparent details about his life, his motivations, and his struggles, which all became part of the huge melting pot of information commonly associated with a subject worthy of a film and book. I had never really thought of this before I started working on the film, but wonderful things happen when you love what you do, and it feels somehow therapeutic to become more interested and fascinated by what you’re doing.
As some of you know, I attempt to be somewhat of a Buddhist, and one of the most important foundations of Buddhism is helping others. When you become focused on someone else’s life, it’s amazing how much better you feel about your own. At the time of writing, I’m here in New York for a week, having stopped in Paris for one day to work on the book with my good friend Steve Hiett, a legendary graphic designer and photographer. Our small team in New York spent the rest of the week watching, discussing, editing, and occasionally arguing about the film. It feels like you’re giving birth to an elephant sometimes–not always comfortable. One minute I’m thinking that this is never going to work, I’m wasting time and money, and what to do? Five minutes later, everything changes and the way forward seems like some sort of magical jigsaw puzzle, almost like a digital matrix, where all the tiny bits start falling into place. You’re not sure if you actually did anything, or were lucky enough to do nothing and cause it to change its form into something incredibly exciting. It’s a great challenge to find a new way of presenting a subject who’s incredibly famous, whose works and photographs have been shown a great many times.
If one looks a bit deeper at the current recession, it’s actually a fascinating time, one that could offer up many opportunities. I arrived in New York in 1977, when this country was in the midst of a recession. I was way over my head at the time — literally off the boat, a complete unknown, with a wife and child. I arrived in the greatest city in the world ready to make my mark. I relied on simple logic; I thought, “this is New York, where eight to ten million people live; there’s no way I can’t find clients!” When you start at the bottom, it’s easy to be optimistic about moving up, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t scared or intimidated by other hairdressers or salons. At night, on my way home, I’d review the internal dialogue I’d had that morning — there had to be a way to succeed in New York. I soon found out that most salons were closed on Mondays and open half days on Saturdays in the summer, which is when I arrived. To me, this was a golden opportunity. I stayed all day on both Saturdays and Mondays, picking up clients here and there. Gradually, Bumble and bumble began to take shape — client by client, apprentice by apprentice. Cash began to appear, but disappeared just as quickly, as I had to spend to improve the business. It’s not difficult to be successful when you’re on an upswing, but when times are hard and people are concerned about their existence, you won’t succeed unless you’re doing a great job. If you’re doing a great job, you can defy logic and grow.
A View from Bali
For the past few months, I’ve been living in Bali, which is in Indonesia. It’s a beautiful island, with the largest Hindu population outside of India. In addition to the incredible weather, being in such a vastly different culture is refreshing and calming. The average wage is $150-$200 a month and people live in large family clusters–babies, children, parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents all live together and care for one another. There are no old-age homes, and they eat a lot of rice, which they grow on their own rice fields. Not to say that they look insanely happy, but there seems to be a palpable sense of contentment and a distinct absence of craving material things. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want things or don’t get the occasional new cell phone, but shopping is not a form of entertainment for them.
Most days, at around 6:00am, I drive by a couple of incredibly vibrant, magical outdoor markets which sell fruit and vegetables—amazing produce. The streets are filled with children on bicycles in their school uniforms – there seems to be a connection to the rhythm of nature that guides everyone. You can probably tell that I’m enjoying myself. It’s not like I’m making comparisons to deem if I want to live there full time, but it’s always great to be able to see other ways of seeing the world.