Now Vidal Sassoon Is Telling the Japanese: 'if You Don't Look Good, I Don't Look Good'

updated 05/10/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1982 01:00AM

It has been two decades since Vidal Sassoon revolutionized hairstyles with his geometric cuts, and over 11 years since he put down his scissors to devote himself full-time to building a beauty empire. But when he showed up at the spring Grand Sumo tournament in Osaka, Japan in March, Sassoon was clearly fascinated by the wrestlers' traditional topknots. Even so, he resisted the urge to fashion a sumo do of his own. "Haircutting is like piano playing," explains Vidal. "You can't do it well unless you practice every day."

Sassoon, 54, had journeyed the 5,500 miles from his California home to launch his line of hair-care products (for both men and women) in Japan. He already owns 31 salons in six countries and three schools (in L.A. and London) where aspiring hairdressers are taught his famous coiffures. Vidal also peddles combs, brushes, hair spray and, of course, scissors—all packaged in his signature colors of chocolate-brown and silver. "I became a businessman to survive," he says. "There's no money in being a hairdresser. Products are where the money is."

Vidal also offers the Sassoon cut in clothes. He boasts an expensive sportswear boutique in London, and will open another next week on Rodeo Drive. Two years ago he began manufacturing a line of jeans, after a legal donnybrook with the New York-based ("Ooh-la-la") Sasson Jeans Inc. Vidal claimed the company mispronounced its name knowing the public probably would confuse it with his well-known one. Sassoon filed suit and Sasson countersued, each charging misappropriation of the other's name. Under the settlement, Sasson must pronounce the last syllable of its name "sohn," not "soon" and Sassoon must always use its full name. Altogether Vidal Sassoon Inc., of which he is the principal stockholder, grosses $100 million-plus.

Nothing in Sassoon's family background prepared him to be a mogul. The son of a Jewish carpet salesman from Istanbul, Vidal grew up poor on Petticoat Lane in London's tawdry East End. During the Depression his father abandoned the family, and his mother was forced to place him and his younger brother in an orphanage, where they stayed for eight years. A failure as a student, Vidal dropped out of school at 14 and went to work in a beauty salon. "It was my mother's idea," he says. "Her feeling was that I didn't have the intelligence to pick a trade myself."

In 1948, after the partition of Palestine, Sassoon joined the Israeli Army and fought for a year in the Negev Desert. "I had always asked myself why being Jewish was so different," he says. "I had to find an answer. Also, the army gave me dignity and confidence and helped structure my future." Back in London, he opened his first shop on Bond Street. "I decided that if I had to be in hair then I had to do something different," he recalls. "Great change was needed." Soon he was clipping models, actresses and designer Mary Quant. After the Beatles adopted his style in the early '60s, Sassoon became a household word on both sides of the Atlantic. "At the time I had great prestige and about $20 million worth of publicity—but no cash," he remembers.

Now he has all three, though not every Sassoon venture has succeeded as well as his 1976 best-seller, A Year of Beauty and Health (co-authored with his then wife, Beverly). In 1980 he took to the airwaves with a syndicated talk show called Your New Day. It flopped quicker than a bouffant on a muggy day. Sniped one critic before Your Day was yanked after 26 weeks: "Mr. Sassoon emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant little man spewing forth some of the most obnoxious advice imaginable."

Since his divorce from Beverly (she got $5 million) that same year, Vidal has sold their $1 million Beverly Hills mansion and moved to a furnished four-bedroom apartment near Century City. The couple remain friends and share custody of their four children, ages 8 to 13. Sassoon, who attends his share of Hollywood parties, nonetheless favors small dinners with friends such as California Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley. A moderate Democrat, he has even suggested he'd like to run for office himself someday.

"I have the edge on most politicians in passion," claims Sassoon. "I've lived both the ghetto life and the good life. One of my friends said to me, 'Your kind stays a nuisance for a long time.' I intend to stay a nuisance for another 50 years."

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