MAKING THE CUT
Sam Rogg interviews Sam McKnight on styling the hair of icons, from Kate Moss to Princess Diana
Sam McKnight, hair stylist to the stars, talks to us about models and royalty.
‘The first thing someone says to me when they find out I’m a hairdresser is “where’s your salon?”’ says Sam McKnight. ‘“I don’t work in a salon,” I explain.’ It may seem odd that the world’s most soughtafter 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 a dazzling exhibition at Somerset House celebrating his extraordinary 40-year career and longstanding collaborations with fashion heavyweights like 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 photographs, 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, but you’ll recognise his work. He’s the man behind Princess Diana’s slicked-back crop, Madonna’s BedtimeStories album sleeve 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.
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. It’s not something I sought out. Somerset House very kindly approached me about doing an exhibition and I thought: ‘Really? We have an audience for that?’ And they seemed to think we do. When I saw the context they were going to put it in, I agreed. It’s quite an honour. The whole team has been fantastic. It’s been a real pleasure. It’s nice to be able to highlight 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. And not just hairdressers – it’s a very high fashion-led exhibition. I’m hoping young budding 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 iconic looks and magazine covers. What inspires you as a hairstylist?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with 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 have this collaboration of wonderfully inspiring people. So whether the inspiration comes from retro pictures from a movie or artists, or even the colours in my garden, 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 little village in the hills of Scotland and I came to London on holiday when I was 17 or 18 – and I’d never been in a big city. 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 bright and colourful and it had a raw glamour to it, and I loved that.
How did you get your first big break here?
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 error, so I was sent to do his job for Vogue magazine. In at the deep end! I guess I did an OK job. That was in 1977 or 1978, so I’ve had almost a 40-year career with Vogue.
What’s been the most memorable moment of your career?
Too many, and they’re still coming thick and fast. But I guess the one that’s rooted in me is travelling 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.
What was it like working with Princess Diana for seven years when her style was evolving?
I started working with Diana in 1990. She was getting Versace to design her suits – those beautiful pastel-coloured ones – and she had short hair. After her divorce I guess she was 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. I used to think that she was a natural sort of nurse – she had that quality that nurses have of making people feel completely at ease. She would disarm people so that they weren’t at all intimidated by her from the word go – which gave her an incredible power. She never abused that power. She was a wonderful person.
You’ve been described as Kate Moss’ ‘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 a chameleon and she genuinely loves her job; she loves all the [hair] changes. That’s her role and she does it well. She always brings 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 her hair a little bit, just make her more relaxed, or would that not be the Queen any more? I’d like to take that risk.
You caused a sensation at Balmain’s AW 2016 show when you changed Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid’s hair colour. Do you think wigs will become mainstream?
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 is London style different 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 right now – it’s about embracing what you’ve got and making the best version of yourself, rather than trying to fight it. With modern products and technology, you can change your hair daily and temporarily, without doing too much damage.
Where should people go for a good haircut?
You have to find a hairdresser that you 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 Regent’s Park’s rose garden and the herbaceous borders. Before I had a garden, I used to spend my evenings there, sitting in a deckchair and reading a book after work. It’s just so British and old school – it’s very peaceful and right in the middle of London.
Tell us about your new book, Hair by Sam McKnight, which accompanies the show.
It’s a 40-year history of hair and fashion, including magazine covers, beauty 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 thinks people will be interested in it, so let’s hope they are! Hair by Sam McKnight. From 2 Nov. Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 1LA. Somerset House will be opening late on Wed, Thur and Fri until 8pm
Clockwise from main image: Kate Moss, Sam McKnight, Karlie Kloss, Tilda Swinton, Princess Diana
Top to bottom: Giselle Bündchen; Sam McKnight, Jesse the chimp and Linda Evangelista