If Somerville Doesn’t Look Good, He Doesn’t Look Good
Why is Elan Sassoon, the son of Vidal and the heir to a $150 million hair fortune, buying up chunks of Union Square? The answer may knock your socks off.
The walls of the London hotel room felt like they were closing in around Elan Sassoon. Out of nowhere, shooting pains reverberated through his chest. Alone in the chic Mayfair hotel, thousands of miles from his home in Newton, Elan struggled to breathe. A debilitating intensity crept over his body. Despite being the picture of health—strong and athletic, with no obvious vices—he feared it was a heart attack at 44. I’m dying, he thought to himself. Instead of heading to his business meeting, Elan was taken to the hospital.
That day in 2014 was supposed to be a celebration, the realization of a dream he’d been chasing for years. Elan, son and heir of the famed hairstylist and mogul Vidal Sassoon, had spent the better part of a decade trying to buy back the entire collection of his father’s branded salons and hair-stylist schools. Selling those rights decades before had been his father’s “biggest regret.”
Elan had worked tirelessly to make this deal happen. Armed with his inheritance after his dad’s passing in 2012, he assembled a team of investors, including Procter & Gamble, who still owned the product lines, for the meeting. He was ready to relocate his family to London, his dad’s hometown. All that was left to do was sign, and the “Vidal Sassoon” brand would be back in the family.
Instead, Elan had his first panic attack. When the doctor gave him the diagnosis, the native Californian couldn’t believe it. “I’m from L.A.; I don’t get panic attacks,” Elan told her. He went back to the hotel wondering why, if this was his moment to carry on his father’s legacy, his entire being was saying otherwise? It is not meant to be, he told himself.
Elan picked up the phone and canceled the deal he had spent a year putting together. He closed the door on the path laid out for him since birth and boarded a plane back to Boston, ready to pursue a new one.
So what did the world-traveled, stylish heir to the Sassoon dynasty set his sights on next?
You read that right. Elan has made this small, hipster bastion with deep working-class roots the sole focus of a passion that took him years and multiple career changes to embrace. He has quietly emerged as a dominant force in real estate, particularly around Union Square, where he’s one of the most active, agile developers of small to midsize projects. He was able to shake off the shackles of a previous generation and is dedicated to doing the same for Somerville, one extreme property makeover at a time.
The first thing I notice, as Elan glides into the spa-like sanctuary that is his expansive Newton Highlands home, is his hair—just above the shoulder with jaw-framing, gray-tinged brown strands falling just so. It’s the iconic mane you’d expect from the heir to a hair dynasty, though more natural than the sleek architectural cuts synonymous with his father. Broad-shouldered, fit, with leading-man good looks and excellent posture, Elan wears a button-down gray-on-gray ensemble. The colors are reflective of the neutral tones—black, white, grays, taupes—central to his immaculate home and many of his Somerville developments.
Elan shows me his prized 500-pound wooden Buddha, shipped over from Bali—he’s a beast, he says, noting it took four men to carry him into the house—and welcomes me to a spot by the fireplace on a cold day. Ambient New Age music plays while candles around the room flicker. Another large Buddha sits atop the mantel, as if the Zen setting might manifest “good vibes”—one of Elan’s favorite phrases. He speaks slowly, softly, bobbing his head in that laid-back-surfer kind of way.
Try as I may, I find it impossible to imagine this man having a panic attack. Not even when we get to the topic of his childhood do I sense a blip in his even keel, a tinge of agitation. And there was plenty to be agitated over: the constant travel, his father’s many marriages and divorces, the family history of substance abuse, a sibling who was disowned. “It was sad. It was exciting. It was painful. It was all of it,” admits Elan’s sister, Eden Sassoon, known for her role on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, of their shared childhood. Eden, who once struggled with alcoholism, is now nine years sober. Their oldest sibling, Catya, wasn’t so lucky: She dropped out of high school to pursue modeling in New York at age 14 and married at 15, with their father’s permission. She died in 2002 at 33 from a drug overdose.
Then there is David. Adopted in 1975 from a biracial family in Tennessee when he was three and Elan was five, he found the transition into the family challenging, often clashing with the stringent Sassoon way of life. In 2013, the fallout reached the public eye when the Daily Mail published an interview with David in which he talked about family struggles and painted Vidal as an image-obsessed perfectionist.
Yet when I ask Elan about his childhood, he leans back on the white-colored couch and tells me it was “fantastic” and that his father was “dedicated and very loving.” (“My brother was using at the time,” he says of the tabloid interview, quickly reassuring me that David is “clean” and that all is well between them.)
Elan’s childhood was one of stunning Beverly Hills mansions, world travels by his father’s side, and boarding school in Switzerland. But what seems to really have given Elan such a different take on his rarified childhood is that he passed his father’s test, rose to the challenges, and emerged as the chosen one—the heir apparent. “Everything came back to discipline with him,” Elan says of his father. “[My dad] believed you were born with either a strong, powerful soul to guide your life where it’s supposed to be, or you don’t have any discipline and will go in a bad direction. But that’s totally up to you. You could either take advantage of that freedom, or you can abuse it and go off the rails.”
Elan never fell off the rails—even when, at 17, he moved to Rio de Janeiro for his senior year of high school after falling in love with a Brazilian girl. (“He’s a hopeless romantic,” Eden says.) Elan learned Portuguese, finished high school, and headed to American University in Washington, DC, for college. He married at 24 and started a family, determined to provide the stability at home that his childhood had lacked.
Eden credits her big brother’s compassion and grounded nature as being key to his ability to navigate through the “chaos” of their youth and overcome conflict. He chose control over chaos, in many ways embodying the ideals his father had used in his own early life, when he escaped poverty in wartime London and rose to become the world’s first celebrity hair stylist. “They have a similar soul,” Eden says—from rigorous morning rituals, healthy diets, and exercise regimens to their shared drive to succeed, focused on aesthetics. They even shared the same birthday.
Growing up in the shadow of their father’s example was “humbling,” Eden says, but mostly so for Elan, who felt the pressure most keenly as the one who seemed the obvious choice to follow in his father’s footsteps. And for years he did. He launched beauty product lines, and worked for a subsidiary of the luxury-goods company LVMH, running its salons, spas, and medical centers.
When Vidal Sassoon died at 84 in 2012, the mogul left his estimated $150 million fortune to Elan, Eden, and Vidal’s fourth wife, Rhonda. Notably absent from the will: David, who by then was not in contact with his father. Now Elan had the money to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted, or at least thought he did, was to use the money to buy back his father’s name.
Vidal had sold his company in 1983, and it was later acquired by Procter & Gamble. The salons and schools had ended up with global salon giant Regis Corporation. Elan had already failed once to buy back the salons, in 2002, when his father was still alive. Outbid or outmatched, he found that no one was letting the lucrative salons go easily. A non-compete clause with P&G meant Vidal couldn’t advise his son on next steps in the often cutthroat beauty industry that he had entered. Since the failed bid, Elan had worked tirelessly to make the deal happen. “To realize you have a last name and somebody else owns it. That was a big shock for him,” says Kenneth O’Bryhim, Elan’s former teacher in Brazil and mentor for the past 34 years.
Still, there was another Elan lurking inside the well-put-together man who was the natural choice to continue his father’s hair empire. There was the man who hid his surname when he met people. “Elan never wanted his name to be his presenter,” O’Bryhim says. “Nor ride his father’s coattails.” He still cared about beauty and appearances, but he wanted to make his mark another way. His own way.
I’m sitting across a table from Elan at Remnant Brewing, a microbrewery/espresso bar at Bow Market in Union Square, as he sips his decaf oat milk latte. I can’t help but notice that he just doesn’t fit into this Friday-morning tableau. He is a little too polished, chic—elegant even—in a black turtleneck sweater and ponytail. A few minutes ago, when he made his way from the front door to my table, even from behind his mask, he turned heads. Elan looks more Paris than Somerville. And when he speaks, he is definitely more California than Massachusetts. His favorite expression is “good vibes”—he both seeks them in life and intends to deliver them to Somerville.
I grew up in Somerville, as a fourth-generation resident, and I am raising the fifth. I have seen the changes in my hometown over recent years, as it has become hipper and more sought out, but still, I am confounded by Elan’s life choice: Why here?
Elan tells me he first came to Boston in 2008 when his then-wife got cancer and the family relocated here for her treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While in Boston, he embarked on a real estate-meets-salon venture. Dubbed “the Harvard of hair schools,” the $22 million Academy of Hair and Skin by Elan Sassoon touted a first-ever full-campus experience for beauty school students. Elan, who has never cut hair, once again felt the pressure from the spotlight he had shied away from: Boston media touted him as “Vidal Sassoon’s heir apparent.”
The school never materialized. Because of the recession, financing fell through. Elan quietly exited the deal, and he and his family left Boston in 2011 after his wife’s successful treatment. But his kids missed the area. And much to his surprise, so did he. In 2013, the family moved back. “It’s home,” he says, shrugging.
When I asked, specifically, why Somerville, Elan says—not unexpectedly—that it had to do with the good vibe. “People in Somerville are like these cool, artsy, fun, you know, Bohemian liberal types,” he says. “Free spirits without fakeness. It feels like L.A., without the bullshit.”
If Somerville was like L.A. in all the right ways, construction was unlike the salon world in precisely the right ways, too. “There are a lot of personalities,” he says of the hair industry. “At least I know in a building, I can deal with everyone’s personalities and the building is going to get done. Then, I can move to the next one and it’s a whole different, exciting challenge.”
His first project in the area was his own palatial home in Newton, and he decided to keep going to see what else he could build. Elan vetted eight builders in the area; none were a good fit. They were all in family businesses, he says, and it wasn’t a good dynamic. (After all, if he was breaking with his own family business, why get in bed with someone else’s?) Then one day at Newton City Hall, Elan was filing papers on his project when he met John Topalis, a local builder, and they hit it off. Topalis introduced Elan to his partner, Gerry McDonough. They are, as Elan says, “salt of the earth…really good Boston guys”—a big change from the people in the drama-filled stylist world. It may have been an odd match, but the affection goes both ways. “He really fits in, and no one’s ever really fit in with Gerry and myself,” Topalis told me in his thick Boston accent. Possibly channeling Elan’s Zen way of looking at life, he added, “It was meant to be.”
The trio formed SMT Development and ventured into an already gentrifying Somerville. They turned a sizable profit on their first project, a small two-family home not far from Union Square. And that was it: Union Square became Elan’s baby.
His timing couldn’t have been better. The neighborhood is on the precipice of realizing a new vision for its future with dramatic changes to its design and character. The March arrival of the decades-awaited Green Line Extension aims to maximize Union Square’s location—3 miles from downtown Boston and within walking distance to Harvard University—extending the line from Lechmere to Union Square, and to Tufts University in West Somerville/Medford. It is also the focus of the Union Square Revitalization Plan, a colossal, $2 billion, 15-acre, transit-oriented redevelopment strategy helmed by the city’s chosen master developer
US2, a partnership between two Chicago-based developers. The massive project will bring, among other things, 1.2 million square feet of lab and office space, 1,000 residential units, and a density that dwarfs the current one.
Banking on US2’s success, Elan and his partners have bet big and often on Union Square. They’ve done 10 projects, with plans for a half dozen more in the near future. What Elan saw in the neighborhood was something he could make more beautiful. “It had all these funky old buildings you could update,” he says. “I had this vision of, like, a cool little European village where everyone’s dining outside and people live upstairs.” It’s a little hard to imagine on this cold late-winter day when the mercury hasn’t inched over the 40-degree mark. But it’s a nice thought.
In fact, everything about Elan is, well, nice. Those close to him are not surprised he could sell people on Somerville as a European village. “[Elan] has this energy, this sense about him, that’s very grounding,” Eden explains. “You know that he’s going to get the job done. There’s this drive and passion, but yet, everything’s chill, everything’s okay.”
As the face of SMT at public meetings, Elan has used the very same interpersonal skills that helped him navigate a chaotic childhood to overcome the reputation of what he refers to as “scumbag developers” who don’t care about doing right by the city. And Somerville has had its fair share of those. “Anyone who does repeated business in Somerville knows you’re not going to have much success if everyone in the neighborhood views you as rude, domineering, and arrogant—what you typically see from developers,” says Ben Ewen-Campen, city councilor from Ward 3, which includes part of the Union Square area. He says Elan engages in the community-feedback process, sometimes making concessions with neighbors, even when the zoning allows for more freedom. “It’s kind of clear to me,” he says, “that Elan has figured out what the rules are in Somerville.”
If Elan’s arrival in Somerville marked a departure from business as usual with developers, it also marked a sea change in his own life. “It wasn’t until he left the hair industry and found his place that Elan really flourished,” Eden says. “He is finally able to explore his passion and what he’s really capable of…. The pressure was relieved and everything aligned.”
If you ask Elan, everything in his life—the failures, the growth, the career changes—have been leading toward this moment in Somerville. “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” he says, remarking that it was one of his dad’s favorite quotes attributed to Winston Churchill. “My legacy will be left in Somerville,” he adds, taking a deep breath and smiling. “Who would have thought?”
I want to know exactly what Elan’s signature vibe will look like in reality, so I ask him to take me on a tour of the town I have called home for my entire life. He’s relaxed at the wheel of his pristine two-tone Range Rover, and the ultra-smooth ride makes it easy for me to scribble notes as we glide over frequent potholes, his glass bottle of Acqua Panna undisturbed in the cup holder between us.
Elan knows the geography of my hometown better than most transplants, and it’s interesting to see the city through his eyes. It’s all potential and possibility—his favorite phrases today seem to be: I bought that, I tried to buy that, and I hope to buy that. There’s a lot of the future tense. Somerville is his blank canvas, his chance to make stable, stylish environments a world away from where he grew up. “I like to create,” he tells me.
His baby may be Union Square, but he has developed nearly 60 projects in Somerville—from Union Square and Winter Hill, to the very last street in East Somerville before the Boston city line, to West Somerville and the outskirts of bustling Davis Square. He’s touched all seven wards and has a dozen more potential projects in the pipeline. Though he’s neither the largest nor the newest developer in Somerville, his impact is visible if you know where to look.
Elan knows the value of the buildings. Still, it’s the stories and the people inside them that are foreign to him. During our tour, we discuss everything from the Winter Hill Gang (he’s vaguely heard of it) to a heated battle over a long-standing pizza-shop closure in Magoun Square (he’s friendly with the developer involved), and the recent mayoral election (“I try to stay out of politics,” he says).
Of course, Somerville isn’t really the blank canvas Elan views it as. The buildings in my Somerville are landmarks of my youth, tied to memories and intergenerational stories of my family—the church that my great-grandfather emigrated from Italy to help build; the club my musician brother played gigs at growing up; the public housing development my mother was raised in. Elan shows a genuine interest, the way a traveler on a tour might take in remnants of an ancient civilization. “What’s another good Somerville story?” he asks before pointing out his latest acquisition.
Many of Elan’s projects don’t just take advantage of what he calls underutilized spaces; they remake the past. Thunder Road, a shuttered, beloved music club; an old farmhouse on a huge city lot overlooking Prospect Hill; a funeral home; a defunct church; an auto shop; small working shops that are now faded remnants of the neighborhoods’ industrial yesteryears, are all transforming into mixed-use spaces with housing, retail, and dining, aimed at maximizing density and creating what he calls “atmosphere.”
Much like it was for his father before him, appearances are central to Elan’s vision. And like his father’s cuts, which reflected Vidal’s favorite modernist architects, Elan’s aesthetic favors the new and the modern. “You’ve got to do it right and make it look incredible,” he says. He points out details that set his developments apart in the flooded market: underground parking with electric-car charging, preservation of historical features, brightening of a limestone façade, and what he dubs his “call sign”—sycamore trees—found at most of his developments, a nod to his Cali roots.
He describes his buildings as “adorable” and “spectacular,” while other spots we view around town, such as the public safety building and the multicolored paint job at a residential building—those in the “before” category—prompt a different vocabulary: “gross,” “haunted,” “depressing,” “garbage,” and, not surprisingly, “bad vibes.”
It’s hard not to cringe at hearing my hometown described this way—and I know I am not alone. “I don’t want to live in Copley Square,” says Lieba Savitt, a 16-year resident who lives next to one of Elan’s recent residential projects. “It can become very anonymous, and it’s very hard to create any kind of relationships with neighbors,” she says, concerned with loss of community and the looming increased density as part of Union Square’s Revitalization Plan.
Elan is aware that not everyone is feeling his vibe. “When we started off years ago, some people were angry. They didn’t want it to change and they said it’s not affordable anymore,” he says, “but the people that lived there for 50 years, who bought a house for 25 grand that is now worth a million and a half, are doing well now and I think that’s a positive.”
The problem is that not everyone is seeing those advantages. Renters make up a staggering 65 percent of the city’s population, and an even higher percentage in Union Square. Many people neither qualify for affordable housing nor can afford to purchase property, with the price of a home averaging around $900,000. As a renter, I count myself among them.
For homeowners around Union Square, there’s mounting pressure to sell, especially as the landscape grows increasingly unfamiliar. Natalie Vieira is a 50-year resident of the city who lives in the Union Square area. She knows what her house is worth, but has no intention of leaving her tight-knit neighborhood. “When somebody said to me, ‘Oh, you can get a million and a quarter for your house,’ I said, ‘Who said I was selling?’” Vieira recalls. Her husband, a disabled veteran, has lived on the same street in Somerville all his life. “I said to him, ‘You want to make all this money and then try to find a condo somewhere?’ And he said: ‘I’m not leaving.’” Vieira says she wishes her own children could afford to buy homes in the city they grew up in and take advantage of some of the positive changes coming, such as the Green Line. But they cannot.
There is a certain irony to the fact that Elan’s work in Somerville has finally led him out from under his father’s shadow, when his developments are part of a process that is disrupting generational family legacies in Somerville. Still, even those critical of development accept it as inevitable. And as developers go, people say that Elan has proven himself good to work with, fair and, dare I say, full of good vibes. “I’m truly doing what makes me happy,” says Elan, who hopes that what makes him happy is also leaving Somerville in better shape than how he found it. “I want people to think kindly of me and in the end say, ‘There’s a good guy. He wasn’t a complete jerk and he didn’t steal my property.’ It’s got to be good energy.”