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Vidal Sassoon – the early years

It’s interesting, how it all worked out…

I don’t usually give quotations but feel obliged to in this case by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is only on standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It seems questionable that we learn from history, given the state of the world, but I will share some early history of that great company Vidal Sassoon, in the hope it will be of some use to aspiring professionals in our industry.

My experience there was between 1960 and 1990. They were very interesting and mainly successful years in the history of the Vidal Sassoon company. A friend recently said to me that I am “the last leaf” from that era, and it is true regretfully that I am the only one left of the original board members who worked throughout the period I have mentioned.

It is not regretful that I am still here, but that my fellow board members and a lot of our team are not. I tell you this because I see information online from my former colleagues that is relatively true – not that they are telling lies, but what they are saying is relative to their experience at that time and not necessarily the most important thing as far as the company was concerned. I also see misinformation on the internet, which is a bad thing.

When I joined VS in 1960 there were fewer than 12 stylists. When I left there were more than 700 highly trained hairstylists in four countries in our salons, thousands of hairdressers attended our schools each year and our products were sold all over the free world, so we must have done something right!

Vidal himself in 1960 was still a hairdresser. The company had moved from the third floor on Bond Street, London, to another more prestigious location on the same street – 171 New Bond Street. There had been problems, though: two of the most successful stylists had left with their clients, predicting Vidal would be out of business within three months and also there had been a flood that brought down the ceiling in the main part of the salon. Not what a new salon needed! So, Vidal needed staff. Roger Thompson joined six months before me, Joshua Galvin six months after me – they were much more experienced than I was, at that time. I was just a junior stylist, a “varderer” – someone who watches and learns and should be as helpful as possible; that was part of the training then.

Everything Vidal did professionally was intended to be better than what had gone before; the training, however, would improve greatly once the VS schools got into their stride. Vidal charged more than the other stylists – ten shillings and six pence, little more than half a pound or 50 American cents. Any woman could go to the person who I thought (and still do think) was the best hairdresser in the world for 10 bob. I don’t know what that small amount of money would equate to today but I am sure we offered good value to our clients, as well as a very good service. And of course, the rest of the stylists charged even less!

So, we had a big fancy location and didn’t charge much, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. Vidal had moved back to his mum’s because he couldn’t afford an apartment. When I joined I was one of 16 hopefuls, and they all left within three months, apart from me – mainly because they couldn’t afford to work there (not that I could afford it either, but I couldn’t afford not to because I loved the aspiration and the perspiration wasn’t too bad!).

I saw that happen many times. We all had a common goal, and that was to be the best hairdressers we could possibly be; that was what kept us going. After some time and a few price hikes I remember Vidal himself charging the heady sum of one guinea – 21 shillings. That was a big deal for us, although the rest of the stylists still charged less. I tell you this because it amazed me that within 13 years it went from what I have described to two whole floors of a skyscraper in America full of computers with staff working three or four shifts counting receipts 24 hours a day!

How did that happen? Vidal had run the company as a meritocracy, he did his best to instil in the company the need to find and train the best talent. If a stylist didn’t work out their position would be changed, so you could run in the fast lane with Vidal but you had better be able to run. I don’t want to suggest to you that Vidal was a ruthless man but sometimes in business hard decisions have to be made as I’m sure you know. If you don’t do it, the clients will do it for you, so maybe you will get two chances?!

In the 60’s Vidal gradually employed professional management, so economically we became more successful. Very successful people were chosen and developed in every aspect of our industry – it’s just a pity they were not always good bedfellows. For example, the needs of management (to make as much money as possible) were not necessarily the needs of the art team: compromises had to be made, and these were not always so successful.

To cut a long story short the metaphor of “a hand” comes to mind. If, say, the Vidal Sassoon company was the palm of the hand, then the fingers were people who were experts in different aspects of our industry, such as management, artistic, products, public relations, etc. If any of those “fingers” had been missing, it would not have been as successful as it was.