The Harvard of hairstyling schools

‘Profs’ include Bill Clinton’s hairdresser. And tuition at Elan Sassoon’s academy: US$19,500.

Elan Sassoon

Beauty schools are usually tucked behind plate-glass windows in strip malls, cheek-to-jowl with taco joints and second-hand clothing stores. With names like XCell Academy, they endeavour to teach the finicky profession of hairstyling—cutting and dyeing, washing and setting, perming and straightening—and seem to get the job done for the average grad. But what of the hairstyling overachiever? The truly gifted student of the art of coiffure? Next September, these wannabe style gurus will have a chance at the education of a lifetime, according to Elan Sassoon, son of the most famous hairdresser on earth, the legendary Vidal Sassoon. On Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, beside Boston University, no less, the US$22-million Academy of Hair and Skin by Elan Sassoon will aim to take the lowly cosmetology school and transform it into an institution of higher learning. “It will be the Harvard of hair schools,” Elan promises. And he is only half-joking. Tuition will be US$19,500, significantly higher than the average beauty school, which is US$10,000.

Elan’s academy will be the first of its kind in North America. “We will teach all the influences—architecture and design,” he says. “Every weekend we will have great shows, lots of extracurricular activities. We really want the place to be a centre of cosmetology and design in the city of Boston.” Aside from its sheer size—six storeys, 90,000 sq. feet encompassing 180 dorm beds, an unheard-of convenience—it will house a 200-seat auditorium where Elan’s friends, the cream of the crop of New York’s stylists, will come to lecture. With his family background, Elan knows well that hairstyling can be every bit as fashion-forward as couture. And he is betting that two decades after his father hung up his scissors, the family name can still galvanize what he calls the luxury hair industry.

Some details are still sketchy. Teachers will be chosen, Elan says, for their expertise and their connections. Boston’s Patrick McGinley, who worked as a stylist for Vidal Sassoon for 16 years, has been recruited to craft a curriculum. New York’s stylist du jour, Michael “Vaughn” Acord, formerly of Bumble and Bumble—his clients, who have included Bill Clinton, Anderson Cooper and Sir Paul McCartney, know him simply as Vaughn—will teach. There will be a new textbook, Elan says, with “all the icons and the distributors and how the business really evolved in the past 100 years.” And there will be an exclusive line of hair care and colour products. As for the students, the school will teach 600 at a time, chosen “for their passion,” Elan says—and their ability to pay the hefty tuition.

Of course, Elan has had big ideas before, and could be accused of spreading himself a trifle thin. The son of Vidal and Beverly Adams, the Edmonton-born, 1960s-era film starlet, has at 38 already gone through one career as a Hollywood film producer and another as a director of a salon/spa chain owned by Louis Vuitton. In the past two years, he has built a number of beauty businesses. With a partner, he operates two high-end salons, both called Mizu (one in Boston’s tony Mandarin Oriental hotel, the other due to open next week on Park Avenue in New York), as well as four salon/spas called Green Tangerine in suburban Connecticut and Massachusetts. This even though he never learned to cut hair, despite being pulled out of school to travel to salons and fashion shows with his father.

He did learn his dad’s panache. Calgary hair guru Jerome Pinsonneault remembers Vidal’s flamboyance in the late ’60s, when he worked beside him for six months in Toronto. “When he cut hair he was quite theatrical,” he recalls with a laugh. “But he did good work. I learned a lot from him.” Famed Toronto salon owner Robert Gage, a Sassoon contemporary, says “he took a lot of bland, colourless people and gave them a momentary thrill.” By 1983, Vidal had sold his line of hair care products—Elan says under pressure from his shareholders—then his salons and beauty schools, losing the right to his own name in the process. “He doesn’t talk about it, but I think he still misses the business,” Elan says. “He loves to be in a salon.” In fact, it was after Elan tried and failed to buy back part of the Vidal Sassoon name in 2002 that he decided to give the business a whirl of his own.

In the next two weeks, Elan says, construction will begin on the school. And though it seems a little airy so far, says Pinsonneault, “if he has the right teachers and the right curriculum, that’s what’s important. With his father there as background, he should do well.”

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