talking princess di, gigi, lady gaga and kate moss on a tour of hair by sam mcknight

Sam McKnight is unquestionably one of the industry’s most prolific hair stylist, so we jumped at the chance of a private tour of his exhibition Hair, spanning 40 years of his most iconic work.

by Lynette Nylander
09 December 2016, 10:23pm

Sam McKnight with Linda Evangelista and Jesse the chimp, Los Angeles, 1992. © Laspata Decaro

Sam McKnight is one of the few people in the world Kate Moss lets touch her tresses. He's one of a couple of people in the world to tend to the hair of the late Princess Diana, and who Lady Gaga calls immediately when she needs a beef toupee made to accompany her a meat dress. To put it simply, Sam is one of the best in the hair business and has been for 40 years. His longtime relationships with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Vivienne Westwood are as crucial to the show's success as their designs -- his hair is able to tell stories and frame fairytales. Sam's career, as illustrious as it is lengthy, has now been honoured with an exhibition, simply titled Hair, currently on show at Somerset House.

The rooms take you through a journey of how Sam approaches and executes each aspect of his work, from initial references, to final product; with glimpses of what goes into the process along the way. For example his full kit, (think suitcases bulging with hairspray, extensions and pomades), is on display in the first room, halfway through the exhibition are polaroids of his closest friends, clients and confidantes -- Kate, Naomi, Cindy, Christy, Karlie and Gigi are all snapped.

Perhaps some of the most intimate moments of the exhibit come courtesy of the room dedicated to Princess Diana. Sam travelled the world with Lady Di until her untimely death in Paris in 97 and was largely credited with creating the Princess' most stylish moments, her divisive slick back hair style amongst them. "We were incredibly close, I miss her very much," reminisces Sam as we stroll round. Other highlights detail Sam's incredible relationship with British Vogue, shooting over 100 covers and hundreds more editorials since starting a relationship with them since the 70s.

Hair by Sam McKnight at Somerset House Installation. Peter MacDiarmid, Courtesy Somerset House.

Vivienne Westwood
"We thought to bookend the exhibition it would great to have actual garments. My two longtime collaborators are Vivienne Westwood and Chanel. Westwood has been the most prolific and dramatic; I thought it could make a good tableau. Michael Howells designed the whole exhibition and together we figured that we should have videos of the shows that correspond with each look. Kate Moss' mohican, Naomi's hair from when she fell, a look where it looked like the hair was on fire. It was Vivienne's request, she had seen a Victorian painting that inspired her where the girl was running down the stairs with her hair on fire. I ended up doing Vivienne's hair the same! Vivienne always references history for what she likes and I modernise them and try to keep the theatre. I will always love working with Vivienne for the spectacle, nothing is ever the same."

His Early Work
"I put my early tear sheets in. I shot Honey, Company... they were very cool back in the day. Then I shot my first Vogue cover with Patrick Demarchelier. Then Brooke Shields with Richard Avedon, British Vogue with Jenny Howorth, Bruce Weber, Irving Penn, the very first issue of British Elle, Horst P. Horst, Naomi of course, whom I love, Anna Wintour's first American Vogue cover. I picked things out by who were the key people I was working with early in my career."

"All of these old polaroids are very much the behind the scenes moments. Sometimes I take them, sometimes my assistants do. Now I have Instagram, but me and Shonagh [Marshall] called this room Intimacy, because, pre-social media, the polaroids captured the time you spent with these models and actresses and it's quite an intimate relationship. First thing in the morning without hair and make up can make people very vulnerable but there's a lot of fun to be had. There's snaps of Gisele cutting my hair, Kendall, lots of Kate but there are so many more... this is just a selection."

Kate Moss. Photography Nick Knight, Vogue UK, September 2000. Courtesy of Nick Knight.

The Art Of Transformation
"This is one of my favourite rooms. It's to really highlight the transformative powers of hair. We chose Karlie Kloss, Tilda Swinton, Kate Moss and Stella Tennant and chose four photos of each of them, one with natural hair, the other three illustrating how different hair can make them look. They are telling a story, often it's not about them, it's about portraying a character."

"This is ten of my key collaborators. Edward Enninful, Lucinda Chambers, Kate Phelan, Carine Roitfeld, Mary Greenwell, Val Garland, Tim Walker, Patrick Demarchelier, Craig McDean and Nick Knight. It's really different working with each person but the thing that is the same with all of them is that they have all become really good friends. We know each other and we have total respect for each other and how we work together and that's what makes it a joy to work. If there is ever a clash, it's where we make something even better than what we were initially thinking."

Lady Gaga
"She is great. Her energy and passion for her art is unmatched. She is also just so nice. We met on set for Vogue, then I introduced her to Nick Knight as I thought she would get on really well. We went on to work on music videos like Born This Way, I put black grease on her hair and she became her alter-ego Jo Calderone. I put the meat on her head for the VMAs, I got the steaks delivered… and they were pinned to a wig. They matched the dress!"

Photography Alexei Hay, Trunk Archive

Princess Diana
"I spent seven years doing her hair. From 1990 until her death. She was a huge part of my life, we travelled all over the world together and I was still doing my editorial stuff. She was so loveable and funny, I have great memories of her. I still miss her and her spirit."

"Karl loves big events, he loves fashion and using it as a way to fantasise. Just being a part of his team for nine years has been amazing. He's very clear of what he wants but he's still very happy for me to experiment. He usually draws what he's thinking so I normally get a beautiful illustration. I then get some girls to my studio and we do some variations of the hair on the models. It is a very collaborative experience. For something like a Chanel show with 100 girls, I have 35 assistants, if there is 50, there will be 22 girls."

The Social Media Models
"We wanted to end the exhibition on a question. We made my images from my Instagram the wallpaper and then chose the Instagirls... Kendall, Cara, Bella, Gigi... these are girls I work with a lot these days so this is a lot about now. These girls are great and I have embraced them. We don't know what is going to happen with it all but it will be interesting to see where the younger generation will take things in all forms of creativity. It's up to them, if ever there was a time for revolution, now is the time."

Kim Kardashian. Photography Nick Knight for V Magazine September 2012

Hair by Sam McKnight is showing at Somerset House until March 12th 2017.


Text Lynette Nylander

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