“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”–Gore Vidal

Sassoon cut 1962
Sassoon cut 1962

A while back, Gore Vidal appeared on the Ali G show. Topics moved from Moses to U.S. Constitution, and then to hair products. “You are the Vidal, aren’t you?” It was a funny moment.  Gore Vidal handled it well. You can watch the end of the interview.

I’m not into Ali G or Gore Vidal, but I’m a Sassoon junkie who has traveled from salon to salon–from London to Boston to NYC to Miami– to experience as many wash-and-wear dos as possible. The cuts last a long time, need nothing more than a shake after a shower. I  figure I save on the BTU’s needed for hair dryers and on the time I might spend futzing.

In Boston I pay $100 for a cut from a senior stylist. In comparison, ho hum, in 1969 Mia Farrow’s short haircut in Rosemary’s Baby cost $5000. It was shot as a scene for the film; Sassoon, a charismatic, handsome man, was at the height of his fame. About then Rudi’s Gernreich’s big-bottomed topless bathing suit models sported five-point Sassoon cuts above their boobs. London’s Mary Quant, mother of the mini-skirt, wore a Sassoon bob, and it was her, really, who popularized the angular look that Beckham and Katie Cruise–and myself– are still wearing.

The angles are mathematically calculated. Stylists use small scissors. Hairs are swept in all directions–over the top from the right, from the left and from the back, straight down and straight up–to get the geometry right. No matter which way it might fall, hair looks groomed. Sassoon designed for dark, straight, shiny hair.  My hair–except for the color– is the absolutely perfect weight for his classic cuts.

A few months ago, after a Miami orange hair-color disaster, I found out Sassoon no longer owns his salons. Since 2002 Regis Corporation has owned them. This news chopped off a big chunk of glamour for me. It made what was artistic turn all-business.

Regis is the largest hair salon chain in the world, employing 55,000 stylists in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.  In their stable, Sassoon is high-class; SuperCuts are low end.  They have family priced and teen trend conscious salons. Their Hair Club for Men addresses the universal angst of balding men. Regis also maintains cosmetology centers and hair education centers and has a 49% partnership in an organic supplement company. To fly out of the Fortune 1000 and into the the Fortune 500 all Regis has to do is  combine interests and come up with a pill for men that grows hair on their heads. To get to #1 on the Fortune 500, the Regis pill could provide not only hair growth but also Viagra-like growth.

My regular Sassoon hair stylist, who has been with the company for twenty plus years, moans for the old days, when stylist training was rigorous, when customer satisfaction presaged the number of customers, when enhanced profitability and optimizing cost structure didn’t dictate her day, and when the word ‘underperforming’ didn’t threaten her job.  Sound familiar?

Sassoon doesn’t own his hair products anymore either–at least not in North America and Europe. Through a series of mergers Proctor and Gamble came to own the right to Sassoon products. In 2003, Sassoon sued P&G for not spending as much money on promoting his name products as they spent on their own high-end brand, Pantene. “They dropped my name in the 99-cent bin,” he said. P&G sabotaged an agreement to pay royalties to Sassoon, and he wanted his name back so that he could reenter the world of beauty.  Case was settled. No disclosures made. P&G continues to aggressively market Sassoon hair care products in Asia, where they are top sellers.  In the US, consumers can buy only Sassoon brand hair tools, such as flat irons and hair dryers.

So where am I going? This month Elan Sassoon, Vidal’s son, is opening  3,000 square foot, high-end salon in Boston on Boylston Street inside the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel.  Additionally the son is opening an Academy for Hair and Skin by Elan Sassoon in Kenmore Square, right next to BU’s haunts. The school will be the first of  its kind, cater to international students, and teach everything from hair hstory to hair etiquette.  Training costs over $19,000 a year. Students will have an option to live in Sassoon-owned dormitories.

Elan and his partner will open day spas in Foxbourough and Dedham. Elan Sassoon hair care products will soon appear on shelves in North American and European convenience stores. Like George and George W Bush, the son carries on with the father’s battle.  In this case, clipping women’s heads instead of women’s sons.

My hair stylist in Boston  says the son isn’t a threat to the Sasoon salons. “Elan’s not a stylist like his father.  He’s a business man.”  She believes Elan will not threaten her customer base. “He’s really going after an older crowd, “ she said.  “Women who can afford to pay; women who stay in the fancy hotel.”

How much more than $100 will women pay for  haircut? Cuts at the Elan salon start at $125.
“And did you hear the news about us?” my stylist asked. “We’re moving.”

“Out of Boston?” I asked, somewhat shocked. Regis Corporation plans to close 109 shops at the start of January 2009.

“Not far. To Boylston Street.  Everything will be new.”  She patted my head. “New chairs, mirrors, floor.  And we’ll be on the first floor. Street level.”

Me thinks being on the street level will make Sassoon more like SuperCuts and less exclusive. I like the ride on Newbury Street: up four floors in the shiny brass elevator that opens in a gush onto a bustling, perfumed, private room. No one can look at me through the window.

The one-time artistic director of Sassoon’s Newbury Street salon, Billie, is moving back to Boston from Alabama, where he retreated to about a year ago. “He’s a good hair cutter,” my stylist said.  I silently agreed.  Billie had cut my hair when my regular was sick and it he gave me one of the best cuts ever.  I paid $125 ans stayed away fr0m a salon for eight months. That’s $15 a month; about 50-cents a day.