The Man Who Can Turn Your Hair into Modern Architecture

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Courtesy of John Vial

John Vial is one of today’s most revered hairstylists. Here, he shares how Zaha Hadid and Vidal Sassoon shaped his career in more ways than one

Over the course of 30 years in the industry, hairstylist John Vial has coiffed some of the most iconic figures in fashion and pop culture – including Vidal Sassoon himself, who Vial trained under at the start of his career. He has gone on to showcase his talent for shaping hair on the runways of London Fashion Week, and in Salon Sloane, his editorially lead hairdressers co-founded with Belle Cannan. Not only was Vial best friends with the inimitable late Professor Louise Wilson – who he attributes to forming his ‘give no fucks’ attitude when it comes to creative pursuits – but he also counts Zaha Hadid as one of his great influences; he cut her hair up until her untimely passing in 2016.

The pair also collaborated on a pop-up salon housed in the Zaha Hadid Design Gallery in London’s Clerkenwell, where her groundbreaking architectural practice met with Vial’s innovative and similarly structural hairdressing. This work is exemplified in his mind-bogglingly technical cuts and colours on artist Julie Verhoeven, for which he has received both praise and a few raised eyebrows. Here, we speak to Vial about the impact that his friendships with Hadid and Wilson have had on his life, and why he has zero regrets about learning how to finger wave.

On his big break...
“I trained in Derby originally, which is where I’m from. The guy who trained me was a Swiss hairdresser, he was one of the best hairdressers I’ve ever seen. He was very disciplined. He would teach us how to do finger waves and pin curls and everything. But it was the 1980s and I didn’t want to do that. Everybody had big hair like Carol Decker and I just thought ‘nobody wants fucking finger waves’, but he assured me I should learn how to do them. Of course, now I’m over the moon that he taught me, because it’s how I made my break. After that, I went to work at Vidal Sassoon. Suddenly, at the end of about 1993, they start sponsoring London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week and they needed someone to do finger waves. Because Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and all the supermodels started wearing their hair in rollers, pin curls and barrel curls and having this incredibly glamorous, set hair. And I thought ‘thank fuck I learned how to do this!’ because at the time there were only about ten people around the world that worked at Sassoon’s who could do that kind of hair, and it worked to my advantage.”

On what Vidal Sassoon taught him...
“I actually love some of the negative feedback I get. I posted one of the styles I did on Julie Verhoeven on my Instagram and someone from America commented ‘man, it looks like a squirrel’s asshole!’ Me and Julie were over the moon about it. People ask if I get I upset by things like this, but really I take it all in my stride and I don’t think anything more of it. I cut Vidal Sassoon’s hair for 20 years, and he used to say to me ‘John, let me tell you... Sometimes it just takes a while for the eye to adjust. People sometimes don’t like things that are new and be prepared for that. When I cut Mary Quant and Grace Coddington’s hair, people hated it.’ And it was true. Everybody back then in the 1960s was just like ‘what the fuck is Vidal doing?’ And so I was always prepared for negative reactions. I sort of knew it took a time for people to get used to things, and I knew that I’d get backlash on all Julie’s haircuts and all that sort of stuff.”

On Gareth Pugh and Scarlett Cannon...
“It was amazing working with Val Garland for Gareth’s A/W17 show. It was interesting not working with just models – people like Scarlett Cannon. She was a famous BLITZ kid. I copied her hair for the show from this really iconic photo of her in the 1980s. I’m sure everybody must have thought 'Who’s the old lady?’ but I was just like, ‘wait until you see the old lady work it, darling!’ I’ve always loved working with really unusual and incredible people like her.”

On Zaha Hadid...
“Many years ago, Vidal’s wife Ronnie, whose hair I also used to cut, was at dinner with this architect. And this architect said, ‘oh I like your hair Ronnie, who does it? I want him to cut my hair.’ That person was Zaha Hadid and that’s how I first met her. When Vidal died there was a memorial at St Paul’s. Everybody was there. Mary Quant, Michael Caine, they were all there. Anyway, I went with my best friend Louise Wilson, professor of fashion at Central Saint Martins, and Zaha. You probably won’t know this, but Zaha wanted to be a hairdresser. When she read the eulogy at Vidal’s funeral, she said ‘Vidal introduced me to my now hairdresser. We do a pop-up together. I wanted to be a hairdresser and the nearest I've got is to be a pop-up salon, which I do with John Vial.’ And I was like, ‘oh my god, did Zaha just mention me, in St Paul’s at Vidal Sassoon’s funeral?’ I couldn’t believe it. It was a real wow moment.”

On the people who made him...
“Nobody could have told me that two years later I would be standing in St Paul’s in front of another serious fashion crowd, reading Louise’s eulogy. I can still remember saying: ‘Professor Louise Wilson; for those and a thousand other memories, I thank you, I love you, and I will miss you until the day I join you.’ I remember the end of it really clearly because I had rehearsed it, and I remember thinking I was going to cry. But then I looked up and Zaha was there in the crowd nodding as if to say to me, ‘carry on, it’s alright, carry on’. Just one year later, we were doing Zaha’s memorial at St Paul’s as well. I mean Vidal, Louise and Zaha – they were my three really iconic people who helped develop my personality and career.”