An Interview With The Hairdresser To The Stars: Sam McKnight

It might seem odd that the highly sought-after hairdresser is without a base where he can be booked for a cut and blow-dry (sorry to disappoint you), but for Scottish-born McKnight, the appeal of hairdressing is tangled up in the heady world of fashion.

In fact, until this autumn, few outside the fashion world had heard of the master hairstylist, despite his former role as Princess Diana’s hairdresser. He is also credited with developing the images of icons such as Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista over the years. Now, he’s set to become the name on everyone’s lips with the dazzling exhibition Hair by Sam McKnight at Somerset House, which celebrates his extraordinary 40-year career and long-standing collaborations with fashion heavyweights such as Patrick Demarchelier, Nick Knight, Mario Testino and Karl Lagerfeld, to name a few.

Curated by Shonagh Marshall and designed by acclaimed art director Michael Howells, Hair by Sam McKnight showcases a staggering array of photography, wigs, magazines and behind-the-scenes footage to shine a light on the little-known creative process that goes into producing the world’s biggest fashion shows, shoots and campaigns.

You may not have heard of him until now, but you’ll no doubt recognise much of his work. He’s the man behind Princess Diana’s slicked-back crop, Madonna’s Bedtime Stories album cover and hundreds of Vogue covers, not to mention campaigns for Givenchy, YSL, Louis Vuitton and Marni. As if that’s not enough, he’s set to release his first book this month of the same name as the exhibition. It’s enough to inflate anyone’s ego, but as we found out when we caught up with him, McKnight is a cut above the rest in every way.

You’ve been an integral part of the fashion industry for 40 years. How does it feel to have an exhibition about your career?
Daunting. I mean it’s not something I sought out. Somerset House very kindly approached me about doing an exhibition and at first I kind of thought: ‘Really? We have an audience for that?’ And they think we do. And when I saw the context that they were going to put it in, I agreed. It’s an honour. The team have been fantastic. It’s nice to highlight the hairdressing industry – my particular part of the hairdressing industry – because I’m not from a salon background. I hope this show is a way of explaining what we do and encouraging young people to be interested in our craft. It’s not just for hairdressers as it’s a very high-fashion exhibition. I’m hoping young stylists and fashionistas will be interested in this. Then again, everyone is interested in fashion, so I hope it has a broad appeal.

You’re behind some of the most iconic looks in recent years, not to mention hundreds of magazine covers. What inspires you as a hairstylist?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredible people. I do shows for designers such as Chanel, Balmain, Fendi and Tom Ford, so I’m very lucky to be surrounded by amazing creative people to bounce off. When you’re in a room doing a fitting for a show or for a magazine, then you kind of have this collaboration of incredibly inspiring people – so whether the inspiration comes from retro pictures from a movie or artists or even the colours in my garden, I think if your eyes are open, then the inspiration is there all the time.

You’re originally from Scotland. What attracted you to London in the 1970s?
I’m from an isolated village in the hills of Scotland and I came to London on holiday when I was 17 or 18 years old. I’d never been in a big city before – I didn’t even know Glasgow very well – so London just blew me away. It was full of people who either looked like they’d just walked out of Biba [the famous London fashion store] or a David Bowie concert. It was really bright and colourful and it had a certain raw glamour to it, and I really loved that.

How did you get your first break in the city?
I started out working in Elizabeth Arden and Miss Selfridge – both had hair salons in those days. Then I got a job at Molton Brown and at that time it was the cool salon in London. A few months into the job, one of the stylists either got sick or there was a booking mistake – I can’t quite remember – and I was sent to do his job for Vogue magazine. So, in at the deep end! I guess I did an OK job. That was 1977 or 1978, so I’ve had almost a 40-year career with Vogue. 


What’s been the most memorable moment of your career to date?
Too many, and they’re still coming thick and fast. But I guess the ones that are rooted in me is where I’ve travelled to incredible places around the world, like the Taj Mahal with Princess Diana – that’s something that happens because of what I do for a living. I would never have access to anything like that if I didn’t have this job.

Princess DianaWhat was it like working with Princess Diana for seven years, at a time when her style was really evolving?
I started working with Diana in 1990. She was getting Versace to design her suits – those beautiful pastel-coloured suits – and she had short hair. After her divorce I guess she was kind of growing up and becoming her own person – she was blossoming. It was really exciting to be working with her at that time. My greatest memory of her is that we laughed a lot. She could be very, very funny, and she could be very serious, too. She was a natural sort of nurse, I used to think – she had that quality that nurses have of making people feel completely at ease. She would disarm people so, from the word go, they weren’t at all intimidated. That gave her an incredible power. She never abused that power. She was a wonderful person.

You have been described as Kate Moss’s ‘go-to hairstylist’. What’s it like to work with a fashion icon like her?
Well, she’s not really ‘Kate Moss the icon’ to me – she’s just the lovely Kate Moss I’ve known since she was 17 years old. So that’s still the same. I don’t have that icon image of her in my head – Kate is just Kate and she’s gorgeous and she’s lovely and she’s the best model that’s ever existed. She’s such a chameleon and she genuinely loves her job, she loves all the [hair] changes. That’s her role and she does it really well, always bringing a lot to the day and whatever she’s doing.

If you could style anyone you haven’t worked with yet, who would it be?
I think the Queen, don’t you? It would be great to give her a new look – I think I’d soften it up a bit, just make her more relaxed, or would that not be the Queen any more? I’d like to take that risk.


You caused quite a sensation at Balmain’s autumn/winter 2016 show when you changed the hair colour of Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. Do you think wigs will ever become a mainstream fashion item?
Yes, I think they already are. If you go into Selfridges, there’s a massive counter selling wigs. I’ve worked 
a lot with Lady Gaga and I think she made wigs an accessory – so that, even if it looks like a wig, it doesn’t matter. Wigs are the new hats, and it’s thanks to her. [British milliner] Stephen Jones won’t be happy I’m saying that!


How does London style compare 
to other cities?
It’s more chilled and easy-going – it doesn’t take itself too seriously. 


What are the big hair trends for 2017?
Individuality. That’s a big trend now – it’s about embracing what you’ve got and making the best version of yourself, rather than trying to fight it and go somewhere else with it. With modern products and technology, you can alter your hair daily and temporarily without causing lots of damage.

Where do you recommend to go for a great haircut in London?
There’s lots of good places but you have to find a hairdresser that you actually get along with. John Frieda, Daniel Hersheson and Daniel Galvin would be my top three salons in London.

We hear you’re a bit of a green thumb. What are your favourite gardens in London?
I love the rose garden in Regent’s Park and the herbaceous borders around the back of it. Before I had my garden, I used to love spending evenings there, reading a book in a deckchair after work – it’s just so British and old school and I love that. It’s so peaceful and right in the middle of London. Also, the Chelsea Physic Garden – the café is wonderful. I also love Kew Gardens because the vegetable beds are just magnificent and take over a vast area. I love the bluebell walk there in spring, too.

Tell us about your new book.
It’s almost like a 40-year history of hair and fashion, including magazine covers, beauty shots and celebrity shots. It’s a collection of pictures where I found the hair interesting and the whole image had something to say. It’s my story and Somerset House seems to think people will be interested in it, so let’s hope they are! Hair by Sam McKnight. From 2 Nov.
Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA. The gallery will open late Wed, Thur and Fri evenings until 8pm.

Chic Shows
1920s JAZZ AGE – Fashion & Photographs 
Could there possibly be anything more glamorous than 1920s fashion, with its fringed flapper dresses, beaded evening wear and velvet capes? See more than 150 garments at the Fashion and Textile Museum and get a glimpse of the Roaring Twenties through illustrations by Gordon Conway and photographs by Cecil Beaton. 
To 15 Jan 2017. 

A Brief History of Underwear 
Prepare to blush as the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) peels back layers of history to reveal the story 
of underwear. See Victorian maternity wear, risqué garments and slimming tools from throughout the ages, from corsets to Spanx. Discover how designers such as Paul Poiret argued for the beauty of the natural body and comfortable underwear for all. 
To 12 Mar 2017.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined 

When it comes to fashion, it’s all a question of taste. The Barbican’s exhibition explores the compelling territory of taste through the ages, from the Renaissance to the present day. Feast your eyes on historical costumes, couture and ready-to-wear looks by designers including Dior, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Vivienne Westwood.
 To 5 Feb 2017.

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