Mod Man: What Vidal Sassoon Taught Me About Storytelling
Once upon a time, there was a young salon apprentice who showed up to the beauty salon every morning in an immaculate white shirt.
Not a very remarkable start to a story or a career – unless the white shirt is laundered, pressed and starched amid the rubble of war-torn London- and the man is Vidal Sassoon.
Surely, Sassoon pioneered a new vision of beauty and amassed an impressive business empire. He also told a great story about a white shirt, and that’s what I remember about him today.
Eight years ago, Sassoon delivered the keynote speech at a beauty show. I was a reporter. Our paths crossed for 90 minutes.
I was impressed with him at the time. And today, as someone who writes about effective communication strategies, I am astounded by the staying power of his presence.
A white shirt was something of a daily miracle during World War II. At night, sirens raged, the city was shelled and Londoners took refuge in bomb shelters. Yet every day, they’d be crisply dressed and back to the salon, business as usual.
The white shirt, Sassoon explained, was a purposeful act of liberation in the midst of chaos. Before long, liberation would define Sassoon’s character.
I explained all this to my husband over the dinner table yesterday, as I read about Sassoon’s passing. I set down the paper and started talking – fairly convincingly – about the creative vibe of the West End, the bob, the five-point and the revolutionary idea of wash-and-wear style. I felt like I was raising a toast to an old friend.
So what did Sassoon do that day to build such a lasting impression? Here are some of the techniques used during his presentation, and the lessons I learned from them:
1. Setting context: His creativity didn’t happen in a vacuum. Sassoon talked about the tremendous energy of postwar London, and the convergence of pop art, carefree fashion for women and the personalities that drove the trends. It was like a trip back in time with the “man who styled the sixties.” While Sassoon had a long, varied and successful career, he purposely chose to capture a visual snapshot of this moment, not a documentary of his career.
2. Offering perspective: Sassoon detailed his fascination with modern architecture. Just as architects were stripping down unnecessary details from their designs, Sassoon focused on the bone structure of a woman’s face and created styles that were equally minimalist. Particularly striking were the photographs of building designs, and the hairstyles they inspired. He helped me draw new connections between beauty and architecture by explaining his viewpoint.
3. Providing some inside scoop: Everyone loves a look behind the curtains. And it’not name-dropping when your client list included Ava Gardener, Rita Hayworth, Mia Farrow, miniskirt designer Mary Quant and mod model Peggy Moffitt.
4. Building a cohesive story line: The trajectory started as a Jewish foundling, salon apprentice, fashion visionary, businessman and mentor. There was a beginning, middle and end – with well-chosen supporting stories in between.
5. Injecting some personality: Remember the ad campaign “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good?” Well, Vidal Sassoon was a man first and a brand later – a gracious and congenial one at that.
6. Employing effective visuals: Photos are best when meshed beautifully with the message. Of course it doesn’t hurt if your portfolio consists of movie stars and models wearing the definitive styles of their generation. There are many tributes to Sassoon on the Internet these days, looking back at the man who shaped the fashion of his day.
At the same time, I fondly remember the man whose words and stories will never go out of style.