A humbling appraisal from the great man himself, plus memories of a Day Trip to Dessau – and a visit to the Bauhaus design museum that changed my life forever
A day trip to Dessau
A great turning point in my career development was my visit to the Bauhaus at Dessau, in central Germany in 1990. It took me back to the basic tenets of modernism, refreshed my viewpoint and provided true clarity.
The opportunity came when I got a phone call from Gerald Battle-Welch, Sassoon Executive Director in Germany. The Berlin Wall that had divided East and West Germany for so many years had recently come down and here was an incredible opportunity for me to go to the former East, to see a prestigious and influential design school. The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius and spawned many of the 20th century’s greatest modernist design talents.
It was a cold day when I set foot in this run-down yet beautiful space – but I felt chilled for other reasons. I could sense the ghosts of legends past who had taught here inside this sanctum of modernity, this place of pilgrimage. Its elegant theatre had premiered many icons of modernist design – and immediately I knew I wanted to stage an event for Sassoon here.
We had been working on exhibits in Australia, Japan, London and New York to celebrate 50 years of Vidal Sassoon and were privileged to meet some of fashion’s iconic figures, such as Mary Quant and Peggy Moffat. The event we were planning would also launch the book ‘Vidal Sassoon Und Das Bauhaus’. We needed to be resourceful and simple, in the manner of the Bauhaus itself. But the space we had found was spectacular and demanded something that was far from ordinary.
Our job was to persuade the Bauhaus curator to allow us to put on a hair show—and this was all in secret, because Vidal himself had no idea we were even there.
The curator looked at me very suspiciously and said, “I really don’t see how a hairdresser could have any kind of parallel to the Bauhaus school of design.”
“I know it sounds far-fetched,” I replied, “but Vidal’s original inspiration came from the Bauhaus and architecture, from people such as Mies Van Der Rohe and the greats of the early Bauhaus movement. Perhaps if I show you the work, it can speak for itself?”
I put in front of him a selection of 10 x 8 prints, used to sell the seasonal hair collections to newspapers and magazines between the 1960s and 1990s. The curator studied the images neatly laid out on his desk and said, “Wow—I never thought I would see anything quite like this. There is an incredible correlation between the work of Vidal Sassoon and the Bauhaus.” So the plan was hatched then and there: we had the go-ahead to stage a show at the Bauhaus!
Our plan was to bring in all the beauty editors from Germany’s top magazines: Vogue, Männer Vogue and more. We put up all the editors in a five-star Berlin hotel, with the anticipation of a day trip to the Bauhaus to see our unique show.
At that time there was a retrospective of the Wassily chair, a brilliantly clean 1928 design by Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus master. ‘All roads lead to Rome,’ I thought. The prototype chair was there and still in perfect condition. I could see purity in it, and what struck me were the everyday objects that were practical but also extremely beautiful, like living sculptures. The Bauhaus developed and pioneered elements of art that continue to influence our day-to-day lives.
Bauhaus bore no resemblance to my own look back then: I was listening to house music, dancing in the Hacienda and sporting long, floppy hair – I looked a mess. It was time for me to revisit Comme Des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Jil Sander, my favourite modernists of mode. I wanted to get back in touch with tailoring, with craft and an artisanal approach to fashion. This is why I wanted to involve Whitaker & Malem, who had worked with Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and also made mannequins for the pop artist Allen Jones. I felt I was bringing something different to this event, something that stood apart from the grunge fusion fashion of the time. I was returning to strict design elements and wanted to merge different art forms
Vidal and Gerald both emphasised the concept that when you live in a more minimal environment it gives you clarity of mind: there is a Zen-like quality to simplicity that enables us to focus.
The event was coming together: we brought in Whitacker & Malem to make costumes inspired by Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair. We selected 12 models to represent the heritage of Sassoon. We also had to be mindful to keep everything “in the now”, as Vidal would say, because you cannot predict the future. This event was not about fashion but about heritage, culture and design.
At Sassoon we always had to have a unique point of view that we could express in the right manner. We showcased some key techniques from the past, then a distinctive piece called Lamentation, based on a 1930s contemporary dance by Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance. This was based around organic form and lines that complemented the craft and design of the haircuts. We developed a new abstraction showcasing our uniquely designed pieces by Whitaker & Malem, with original music, utilising the old follow-spots from the Bauhaus archive. It screamed simplicity of shape and announced a firm footing in clean composition.
Around this time I also began to understand Vidal Sassoon, the man, in a realistic way. He had the courage to make the choice of modernity in every aspect of his life. He had also begun to show growing trust in me as a hairdresser, even though since the early 1980s I had dared to do root perms, bleached hair that was then permed ,vertical hair – ideas that went totally against Vidal’s principles. However, Vidal did believe in allowing people to experiment. For hair, design and ideas to move forwards you have to go through a creative process, and it is always a unique process.
People often ask me why we look at the Bauhaus for inspiration and why it is relevant today. In any profession, you need to learn its heritage. The more you understand what has gone before, the more it will help you to shape the future. The Bauhaus was about a practical application of modernist principles, as was the Sassoon system of cutting women’s hair. They were both liberating movements.
These principles also apply to colour. Walking around the Bauhaus that day, almost everything was monochrome, but there were also bursts of bold red, blue and yellow throughout the building, reflecting the language of the Bauhaus.
“Yellow is the sound of breaking glass,” said the Bauhaus artist and designer Johannes Itten in his colour theory. The ABC of the Bauhaus tells us this, it’s a great resource that always helps me to refresh, revise and move forward.
What I experienced at Dessau that day was an extraordinary cultural shift that will stay with me forever. To achieve clarity of mind is an incredible thing, which is why we have to empty it from time to time. Creating a Sassoon show inside the hallowed walls of the Bauhaus showed me the light and helped shape my future.