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The Man Behind Wash ‘n’ Wear Hair : 30 years ago, Vidal Sassoon liberated women from rollers, back-combing and weekly treks to the beauty shop. Now his styles are making a comeback as he celebrates 50 years in the business.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not all revolutions are fought with bullets and bombs. The sexual revolution was fueled by birth control pills and rock ‘n’ roll. In the world of beauty, scissors and blow-dryers shaped the hair-care revolution of the 1960s.

And Vidal Sassoon was the first to wield the weapons of rebellion.

The same year the Beatles were playing for Queen Elizabeth, and Mary Quant was offering up the mini, Sassoon snipped his first wash-and-wear bob at his London salon and changed the course of 20th-Century hair design.

It was 1963 and women were finally liberated from rollers, back-combing and weekly treks to the beauty shop. Thirty years later, Sassoon’s original styles are making a comeback, appropriately capping grunge clothes, the ‘60s fashion playback. And, if you washed your hair this morning and blew it dry, thank Sassoon. He thought life would be easier that way.

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An exhibition saluting his work opened Monday, in New York City (Fashion Institute of Technology, through March 6) and a new book chronicling his 50th year in the hair-care business, “Vidal Sassoon: Fifty Years Ahead,” has just been published.

Sassoon, who put down his scissors 17 years ago and hasn’t renewed his cosmetologist license since, is undoubtedly the world’s most famous hairdresser. Even post-'60s babies who never heard of his cuts, grew up with his name plastered on shampoos, conditioners and grooming goo.

His “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good” slogan has become such a part of Americana that TV’s “Saturday Night Live” satirized it. If that’s not famous enough, Movieland Wax Museum soon will unveil a wax replica of him. What’s more, his name is the answer to four Trivial Pursuit questions.

There’s nothing trivial about Sassoon, however. Having sold his salons and hair-care business years ago (“yes, of course I still get royalties”), most of his time is now devoted to managing the Vidal Sassoon Foundation, which he started in the mid-'70s.

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Through it, he is working with Rebuild L.A. to help revitalize South-Central Los Angeles. The fund provides four scholarships for students from the area to attend the Santa Monica beauty academy that bears Sassoon’s name (known in the industry as the “Harvard of Hair”). The amount of the scholarships varies, but they cover the $9,000 tuition to the beauty academy and sometimes include additional money for living expenses.

In two years, the foundation plans to bankroll a salon in South-Central, so graduates can go back to their community to build a business.

Sassoon says he intends to expand the program each year, eventually graduating 12 hairstylists a year who can then work in the South-Central salon. “What other chance does a kid from poor neighborhoods have to open a business?” he asks.

The famed hairdresser was 14 and living in a London ghetto when he began his apprenticeship at Cohen’s Beauty and Barber Shop in the East End. He worked there until he was 20, when he volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. When Sassoon returned to London a year later, he working in several London salons. At the age of 26, he opened his own place on Bond Street.

Now 65 and ensconced in his new Beverly Hills estate with fourth wife Rhonda, Sassoon reflects on the haircutting years.

“Everything around me was modern except the hair--something had to happen,” he says. “Fashion had changed, music had changed, the entire culture was in flux, but the hair was still rigid.”

Mary Quant, like many British designers of the period, depended on Sassoon to design hairstyles that complemented her seasonal collections. He recalls that in ’63 she came to him and said, “Let’s really shock them this time.” That season the Sassoon bob was born.

“I didn’t invent the bob--Theda Bara wore one--but I found a way to cut it so the bob always fell into place,” he says. “My idea was to cut shape into the hair, to use it like fabric and take away everything that was superfluous.” Soon after came the Five-Point Geometric and Asymmetric cuts.

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“In the mid-'60s we were creating something that was socially necessary,” recalls Sassoon, using not the royal “we,” but, rather, referring to the team of hairdressers in his then very-slick Bond Street salon. “Women were going back to work, they were assuming their own power. They didn’t have time to sit under the dryer anymore.”

Sassoon’s wash ‘n’ wear hair concept wasn’t complete until 1967, when he developed the Greek Goddess.

“I should have called it ‘the Caucasian Afro,’ because that’s what it was,” he says.

The short cut was permed and, for the first time, not set after the curling rods were removed. The unisex style was born. “An entire soccer team had their hair cut and permed,” Sassoon notes.

Having established cut and shine as two essential elements of stylish hair, Sassoon was ready to sell products--expensive almond-scented shampoo and protein-based moisturizers. Today, Procter & Gamble, which has owned the label since 1985, sells more than $300 million worth of the products worldwide annually.

Sassoon remains a consultant to the Cincinnati-based corporation, which is sponsoring the 50th Anniversary International Exhibition and World Tour in his honor.

Hundreds of photographs mounted on seven structures that spell out his name will trace five decades in the hair-care business. Sassoon will follow the exhibit to more than a dozen cities worldwide.

Sassoon credits his energy levels to “staying limber, eating well and my doctor,” Saram Khalsa, who Sassoon says combines Eastern and Western treatments, kinesiology, acupuncture, herbs and vitamins.

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He admits that plastic surgery on his eyes “and a few strategic nips and tucks, but no face lift yet,” have kept his 65 years from showing.

One room in his hillside home is furnished with classic Bauhaus designs by Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, all a tribute to the school of art and architecture that inspired him as he took shears to mane. “Less is more, you know,” he says.


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