Sassoon was born to Jewish parents in Hammersmith, London and lived in Shepherds Bush. His father, Jack Sassoon, was from Thessaloniki, Greece, and his mother, Betty, came from a family of immigrants from Ukraine. Sassoon had a younger brother, Ivor, who died from a heart attack at the age of 46. Jack Sassoon, a womanizer, left his family when Vidal was three.
Due to his mother’s extreme poverty and now being a single parent, she was forced to place Sassoon and his younger brother in a Jewish orphanage, where they stayed for seven years. His mother was only allowed to visit them once a month and was never allowed to take them out. He attended Essendine Road Primary School, a Christian school, before being evacuated to Holt, Wiltshire. After his return to London he left school at the age of 14 and worked as a messenger before starting a hairdressing apprenticeship.
At the age of 17, although having been too young to serve in the Second World War, he became the youngest member of the 43 Group, a Jewish veterans’ underground organisation. It fought against anti-semitism after the war ended by breaking up Fascist meetings in East London. One newspaper refers to him as an “anti-fascist warrior-hairdresser”, whose aim was to prevent Sir Oswald Mosley’s far-Right movement from spreading “messages of hatred” in the period following the Second World War.
In 1948, at the age of 20, he joined the Haganah (which shortly afterwards became the Israeli Defence Forces) and fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which began after Israel achieved statehood. During an interview, he described the year he spent training with the Israelis as “the best year of my life,”
Sassoon trained under Raymond Bessone, in his salon in Mayfair. He said, about Bessone, in 2010 that “He really taught me how to cut hair…. I’d never have achieved what I have without him.” Sassoon opened his first salon in 1954 in London.
Sassoon’s works include the geometric perm and the “Nancy Kwan” hairstyles. They were all modern and low-maintenance. The hairstyles created by Sassoon relied on dark, straight, and shiny hair cut into geometric yet organic shapes.
In 1963, Sassoon created a short, angular hairstyle cut on a horizontal plane that was the recreation of the classic “bob cut.”
His geometric haircuts seemed to be severely cut, but were entirely lacquer-free, relying on the natural shine of the hair for effect. Sassoon has been a key force in the commercial direction of hair styling.
By the early 1980s, after moving to the United States, Sassoon had sold his name to manufacturers of haircare products and the multinational Procter & Gamble was applying his name to shampoos and conditioners sold worldwide, with a commercial campaign featuring the iconic slogan “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.” Former salon colleagues also bought Sassoon’s salons and acquired the right to use his name, extending the brand in salons into the United Kingdom and United States.
In 1982, Sassoon started the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, or SICSA, a research centre devoted to the non-political, interdisciplinary gathering of information about antisemitism.
In 2003, Sassoon sued Procter & Gamble in the Federal Court alleging that P&G was destroying his brand by skimping on marketing in favour of the company’s other hair product lines, Pantene especially. The suit was settled to their mutual satisfaction before trial.
In 2002, the chain of Vidal Sassoon salons had been sold to Regis Corporation. By 2004, it was reported that Sassoon was no longer associated with the brand that bears his name. Vidal Sassoon authored several books, including A Year of Beauty and Health co-written with his former wife, Beverly Sassoon. He also had a short-lived TV series called Your New Day with Vidal Sassoon, which aired in the fall of 1980.
“Hairdressers are a wonderful breed. You work one-on-one with another human being and the object is to make them feel so much better and to look at themselves with a twinkle in their eye. Work on their bone structure, the colour, the cut, whatever, but when you’ve finished, you have an enormous sense of satisfaction.”
In 2010, a feature-length documentary was released about Sassoon’s life, career, and influence on fashion and culture. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in 2010 to much acclaim and was picked as an Official Selection that year.
On May 9, 2012, Sassoon died of leukemia at his home in Los Angeles. He told the Chicago Tribune in 2004 that he was proud to have entered the field.