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Stylist was a loyalist in Sassoon's hair 'revolution'

Phillip Mason was an aspiring 20-year-old hairdresser in 1964 when he traveled from Detroit to see Vidal Sassoon in Chicago, a trip that changed his life.

While the Beatles and Rolling Stones had stormed the American music scene, Sassoon represented a British invasion that was rocking the world of hair styling.

Sassoon, who died in Los Angeles of leukemia Wednesday at the age of 84, is credited with changing the way the world looked at hair.

For Mason, who left the Midwest to study under Sassoon, watching the stylist from London work hair was like watching Pablo Casals straddle a cello.

"This was a person who changed the way things were done in every salon in America," said Mason, whose Hair Legends salon on East Jackson Street in Medford salutes Sassoon's influence. "His whole philosophy was to change things. He approached hair like designers cut fabric. At that time, everyone was doing the same old hair, but things were happening and fashion was changing."

In December of 1964, Mason went to work for Sassoon at 803 Madison Ave. in New York City. It was a high-society world, but Mason was in on the ground floor.

"I was a shampoo boy — an assistant who washed and blow-dried people's hair or brought them a cup of coffee — during the day," Mason said. "We had classes in the evening."

Wigs were a major element of the styling revolution, and among Mason's duties was preparation of faux hair for Broadway actress Carol Channing and vocalists Diana Ross & the Supremes.

Mason recalls Sassoon's exacting expectations.

"With him, you had to have a high standard, a really high standard," Mason said. "If you went to work with a wrinkled shirt or shoes that were not shined, you would have to go home and revisit those areas."

Sassoon cut hair to complement facial features and rewrote the rules when it came to hair, such as daily shampooing and use of blow driers.

"Before that, they would go to the hairdresser every week and not comb or touch their hair until they went back," Mason said.

Mason joined four or five other Sassoon apprentices on road shows across the country.

"When we first did shows, (hair dressers) got up and left because they thought we were projecting something that would never happen — hair styles where the shape was cut into hair and sustained itself," Mason said. "They thought we were nuts. For them, hair style was about rollers, comb out and a hair spray. They thought we were crazy young people with funny accents — most of the others were from England — and it was just a trend."

Mason was Sassoon's first American artistic director, charged with staff training, handling magazine work and fielding questions from the icon's clientele.

"When someone would come in and ask, 'What should I do with my hair?' he would say 'Phil come over and talk with them.' "

After an eight-year tenure with Sassoon, Mason broke away and opened his own school in San Francisco before making his way to the Rogue Valley in 1988.

Even after Sassoon sold his line of hair-care products and his salon chain for millions of dollars, he kept in touch with many of his disciples. "I knew he wasn't doing well, but I had hoped to see him this summer," Mason said.

Hairstyling reflected a broader cultural revolution a half-century ago. "When people remember Vidal Sassoon, they always talk about a haircut," Mason said. "But I think of a revolution, a hair philosophy. It was an amazing experience and time."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

Hair Legends owner Phillip Mason learned his trade from Vidal Sassoon who died this week. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch