Greetings. Vidal Sassoon, who died this year at the age of 84, never intended to revolutionize the world of fashion and hair design. And he might not have, except for circumstance and the fact that he was open to the power of learning from other disciplines. He grew up in poverty in East London, and his real interest was in fighting racial hatred and the fascist gangs springing up in England after the end of World War II. But needing money, at the age of 14 his mother apprenticed him to a local barbershop. While this was not something that Sassoon had shown an interest in, he committed to becoming the very best hairdresser possible and he decided that the best way to make this happen was by working for the London’s richest, most successful, and most fashion savvy people. To accomplish this, he decided to regularly attend the theatre where he would learn how to speak “posh” English as his ticket to finding work in London’s West End. There he would have the opportunity to “toil over the finest heads of hair by day” and then head out to the streets at night to fight. A slight detour would have him leave London for the new state of Israel in 1948 before returning a few years later to open his own hair salon on fashionable Bond Street.
For the next nine years, Sassoon would experiment with a wide range of new and unique hairstyles and techniques with a keen focus on creating simple and elegant looks for his clients. His claim to fame would come in 1963 when he would create the “Bob and Five-Point Cut,” also known simply as the “Bob.” It was a revolutionary hairstyle that quickly caught on and would earn him renown as the “founder of modern hairdressing.” And, it would become a style that still endures fifty years later. He would go on to leverage his fame by partnering with hair salons across the United Kingdom and the U.S. and through the development of a very popular line of hair care products that continues to be sold through the world today.
But what is most interesting about this remarkable innovator is the source of his inspiration, because it didn’t come from going to classes or from watching other leading hairdressers in the top salons of London. Rather, his real breakthrough came from studying Bauhaus architecture and design—itself an innovative architectural and arts movement that began in Germany just after World War I. Bauhaus had its roots in the cultural movement of Modernism that had as its key pillars a focus on simple forms, functionality, and the hopeful idea of producing significant buildings, crafts, and arts for the masses.
As Bauhaus design focused on simple geometric shapes and sharp angles, so did Sassoon’s hair designs. His new looks were short and often strikingly simple, with a geometry that mirrored his clients’ facial structure. Renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the leading lights of both Bauhaus and modern architecture, would use the phrase “less is more” to summarize this new view of design, and it was clear that Sassoon would find new inspiration in the possibility of creating hairstyles that were “less” and “more” at the same time—easy to cut, easy to take care of, simple, functional, accessible to everyone, stylish and, as it turned out, viewed as a new “sexy.” They were haircuts that women could wash at home and then wear with little or no maintenance. Makes you wonder if that’s where the phrase “low maintenance” comes from. And he did this at a time when the traditional world of hair design was one of complicated styles that were stiff and typically required women to either use hair curlers and hairspray or visit the beauty salon every week.
All from studying the genius of strangers whose work he saw on walks through the streets and shops of northern Europe and in the emerging cityscape of modern Israel— especially Tel Aviv which was becoming a center of Bauhaus design.
When he died in 2012, Grace Coddington, the creative director of Vogue magazine, would say that Sassoon had “changed the way everyone looked at hair.” And isn’t this what innovation is really all about? Changing the way that people look at a product, a service, a solution, an industry, an aspect of life, a style, or the way that things are done? By being open to the world around us and inspired by strangers who were doing the very same thing in a very different field. Sassoon found his inspiration in innovation that was occurring in the fields of architecture and design. Not by asking friends in the world of hairdressing for their ideas.
And so can all of us. By changing the way people look at hair, or clothes, or food, or communicating, or hospitality, or computing, or government contracting, or healthcare, or transportation, or education, or anything else worth doing…and by thinking based on very different ideas and a very different frame of reference.
We win in business and life when we are open to the genius of others. And when we use it to create our own unique style.