The following is not meant or intended to be a historically accurate biography of Roger but rather my personal recollections of not only a great haircutter but, to me, and most importantly a special friend. No doubt time tends to distort memories of events so please bear with me should you believe I am in error.
It was Paris in 1964 Jerry Schatzberg, the well known photographer, was hosting a party for Glamour magazine at New Jimmies a club on the Blvd. St Michel when I first met Roger. Of course we knew of each other, he being the “Man” at Sassoon and I having the Gerard Austen at Carita salon on Sloane Street. Although the work was diametrically opposed we represented the two hottest salons in London at that time. Believe it or not Roger had started his career at the Morris School in Shaftsbury Ave. His first job was at Ivan & Gabriel, after which he joined Sassoon. Kudos to Vidal for recognizing an exceptional up-and-coming talent.
Fast forward June 1966 Vidal and I agree to join forces. I stopped crimping sat behind a desk as the Managing Director of V.S. Roger at that time was running the Grosvenor House salon. Christopher had become the manager of my old salon, Vidal by now was no longer cutting hair, he was jetting between London and N.Y.C. I had become increasingly concerned that we could be in danger of losing our creative energy. I also believed the talents of both Roger and Christopher were being wasted in running salons. I was of the opinion they needed to be unfettered and be given the opportunity to “do their thing”. The baton was passed to them and boy did they run with it! Roger and Christopher became respectively the Artistic Director and Assistant Artistic Director but what’s in a title? They were a team. The concept of Artistic Director was an industry first. Within Sassoon all were in awe of the young good looking man whose work we admired so much.
When Roger cut hair he was as one with both scissors and hair. It was spellbinding as we saw a cut evolve. It was as if we were watching genius, and we were. Roger was, in his early Sassoon years, shy and introverted, some might say aloof. Knowing him as I did, I believe he was overwhelmed and insecure in his role as a salon manager, however once he was free to cut hair and not be involved with the minutia of running a salon he more than rose to the occasion, the same applied to Christopher. With all due respect to anyone who has, or still cuts hair everything you do, knowingly or not, stems from Roger Thompson, and/or Christopher Brooker. Their technique was without parallel, I fully appreciate that if this statement raises a few eyebrows, so be it. As I said at the beginning these are my feelings. In their respective roles within the years 1966-69 they created a veritable plethora of new cuts and looks; Mifume, Mouche, Havington, Veil, Isadora, (2 versions), breeze, VS, Halo and the Greek Goddess.
Who created the haircut was of no consequence to them. Their personalities were very different. However, as a team what they brought to the table was the epitome of true dedication to their craft. It goes without saying Roger and Christopher had found their true calling and had formed this incredible creative partnership. Sassoon haircutting was in safe hands. The Greek Goddess was a revolution. It was the first Sassoon look to have movement. It was an overnight sensation, thanks in no small part to the spread Felicity Green gave it in the Daily Mirror. This led to shows across the U.K, Japan, and Sweden.
Roger and Christopher continued, most importantly to ensure the standards of work in the London salons, holding ongoing classes for stylists. There was that certain buzz that one always got when in a Sassoon salon.. They raised the bar higher and each and every crimper responded.
In 1970 Roger went to work in the New York salon. Christopher then became the European Artistic Director and Roger’s title changed to International Artistic Director. The Dream Team was no more. At this juncture Christopher exits the Roger Thompson story. There was no way I could have written about Roger and those London years of 66-70 without making much mention of him, and I know Roger would have agreed.
New York was not London. The original team of crimpers who included among others Charles Booth of La Coupe, Christopher Pluck, who had come from London, had all gone their separate ways. This was due to a law which stated that if you resided in the USA you were liable for the Draft even if not an American citizen. It was at the time of Viet Nam. Some went to Canada and others to places unknown.
The salon was lacking in artistic direction. I was aware of this as the newly appointed Exec. V.P I was now based in N.Y. Although the salon bore the name Vidal Sassoon its standards, in my opinion, fell far short. In 1969/70 Roger was asked to come to New York to kick it up. In retrospect it was the beginning of the end of his Sassoon career. The move turned out to less than the golden opportunity he had hoped for. If anything it was a regression. He was back in the business of teaching basic geometric cutting.
It is not my intention, and I certainly have no desire to put down the work of the Madison Ave. team, but to be blunt Roger had a lot of work to do. Let me set down my reactions to what I believe was the source of our problem. New York hairdressers were trained in schools in the use of rollers, pin curls, backcombing (teasing), and hood hairdryers. On the other hand we worked with 5” scissors, comb, a wooden handled Denman brush, and a handheld hairdryer. There was a conceptual clash which, again in my opinion, was exacerbated by the fashion mode difference between the dolly bird of “Swinging London” and the more elegantly conservative New York look. Each Sassoon haircutter came through our three year apprenticeship system. They were Sassoon. On the other hand in N.Y. there is no apprenticeship system. Hairdressers having got their license tended to work as individuals within a salon. There was no overall salon identity other than the name.
In Sassoon regardless of the haircutter, the client knew she would get a great Sassoon cut. In short, the New York team had great hairdressing ability but were conflicted and not yet fully into our haircutting technique, which essentially is what Sassoon is all about.
Roger soon found that he had a lot on his plate. To set up a training program, was not so easy with a team of stylists who were in a comfort zone. “Why do we need this” was their reaction. We are doing our own thing and doing quite well was the attitude. To say he was frustrated would be something of an understatement. Those who know, or were taught by Roger would recognize his reaction if shown a bad haircut the shrug of the shoulder followed by him, without comment, walking away from, in his opinion, a model with a poor haircut. He was frustrated and with the sole exception of Philip Mason there was no one who was really in tune with what he was striving to achieve. He had no time to be creative. Hence during that period nothing new flowed from him. Over the course of the past 40 years hairdressers throughout the world have learned to cut using the principals and technique of the Sassoon revolution.
I knew of his frustration although by this time I had left Sassoon. I was living in Japan but we had kept in touch. With my departure Roger was left isolated. We had been a team and I believe his coming to the USA was in part his wish to renew our working relationship. With my departure I understand the management structure radically changed, creativity was of no importance. The suits were in control, they were only interested in the bottom line. Nevertheless, Roger although isolated and working in a creative vacuum strived, and continued to give of his best.
In both London and Paris the look was changing. Hair was less structured and not so stylized. It was cut to allow the expression of its natural movement and direction, scissors weren’t cutting horizontal lines but were slithering and pointing. Natural was “in”, hair was being crunched and air dried. Roger wrote to tell me could not cut another geometric. He had reached a breaking point and was about to make one of the most crucial gut wrenching choices of his life. He was torn between his loyalty to Vidal and the need to get on with his career which he perceived had hit a major road block. As we know he resigned and opened a small salon at 155 E. 55 St. N.Y.C. He was relaxed; he had shed geometrics and once again enjoyed cutting hair.
Sometime thereafter I returned to the U.K and in 1974 was about to open a salon on Berkley Sq. London. I was in New York and of course dropped in to see him. I told him I
Was opening in Berkley Sq, I never heard the Nightingale sing, he suggested that he wanted to help me launch and he would come cut hair for the first three weeks of the opening, and he did. I was blown away. Further, he got in touch with Manfred in Munich who also came. Again I was blown away. They never asked for one penny, cent or deutschmark. I was humbled.
A year later I sponsored The World Congress of Hairdressing at the Albert Hall and asked him to appear. Although he hated stage work he duly obliged. When he came on stage it was magic. No pizzazz, no hoopla, just a chair placed at the centre of a long runway surround by lights and a TV camera. The music was most fittingly George Benson’s “Everything Must Change Nothing Stays the Same”. For the first time London saw Roger do a cut that was not a geometric. WOW.
Shortly thereafter Roger became, as I understood the creative consultant of Glemby. I was on the move again, this time to Boston just down the road from N.Y.C. Roger was offered and accepted an offer from Barneys to open a salon in their exclusive store. He was very involved with the design which was minimal, featuring a group of mini salons creating an intimate personalized client-to-haircutter ambience. As with the salon his approach to a new client was different. In the consultation area he and the client would discuss her hair. He explained what he wanted to do. If he felt the client was not comfortable he would advise her to go and think about it. As it was important for him to get the complete visual picture the client was never gowned during the consultancy. I had never seen Roger so relaxed and happy He had arrived at the place he wanted to be. A great salon, a staff that adored him, a loving wife, three great kids, and a beautiful home on Woodbine Lane, Stamford Con.
I now had a great loft in downtown L.A. Roger called to tell me was on his way to L.A. as Barneys were opening in Beverly Hills and wanted him to open a salon/spa. He needed a California license so, this is true, he was coming to the Sassoon Academy in Santa Monica for two weeks to prepare for the test. We hung out every evening, good wine, sushi, and did the L.A. thing. As we know, Barneys changed their mind and never opened the salon/spa.
It was now 1998, a fateful year. One morning I got a call from him, which was not unusual as we spoke every week, but this was different. As I picked up the phone I could tell from his voice that something was wrong. Very simply with no preamble he said “I have a brain tumor”. We cried together, wiped our eyes and agreed we would fight it. From then on we spoke everyday, kept it light, went for the laughs, and lived from day to day.
He had an operation after which he faxed me a picture of a scar which looked like a flap running down one side of his head. We joked about the Flap Look being a fashion statement. We continued to keep it light. Shortly thereafter he was readmitted to the hospital. Sara his beautiful daughter phoned to tell me he had passed. Shirley lost a wonderful husband. Sara, Sam & Sean lost a great dad. I lost a great friend. Hairdressing lost an original who cut hair like it had never been cut before or ever will be. All too soon Roger left us.