sam mcknight on 40 years of creating iconic hairstyles
Over the last four decades, British hair stylist Sam McKnight has primped and preened some of the most iconic hair styles in modern memory. From catwalk, to editorial, glossy advertising campaign and beyond, we meet the charming Scotsman with a career...
The genius behind Princess Diana's short, slicked back style, Agyness Deyn's bleached blonde pixie crop, and Madonna's Bedtime Stories cover, Sam McKnight has helped put the super in supermodel and he has radically redefined red-carpet-ready hair. From becoming the first session hair stylist to crafting iconic celebrity dos, his career has developed in parallel to the fashion industry as we now know it. Having created glamorous, high impact, signature styles for every label from Chanel to Vivienne Westwood, today his name is perfectly woven with modern, sexy hair. Sam is a rare talent with a huge back-catalogue and an even larger personality. He has seen, worked with and styled them all, and here he takes us on a tour through the forever-in-bloom garden of his craft and a quick scroll through the fruits of his Instagram.
How did you fall into the wonderful world of hair?
Purely by accident. My friends owned a hairdressing salon in Scotland, and I used to help them out. Then after visiting London on holiday I decided I wanted to live there and began working in salons.
What attracted you to London?
I was drawn to the bright lights. London was a wildly exciting place in the mid 70s. I was into David Bowie and there was nothing quite like it back home in Scotland. At that time, the UK was in a great depression, we were having three-day weeks, electricity was in short supply and it was pretty bleak. London felt like an exciting place.
Did hair offer an escape from it all?
In a sense, but being a young Brit, clothes, hair and music always meant a lot to me. Hair was essential to those tribes.
What are your earliest hair memories?
I had extremely long hair as a teen, and like most British teenagers, I was extremely proud and experimental with it. As a nation, we do much more with our hair, that's what we are known for and it starts with teenagers.
What was your first big break?
I worked at Miss Selfridge, which had a hair salon on the corner of Beak Street and Regent Street - it was a tiny place. Then I moved to Elizabeth Arden on Bond Street before going to Molton Brown in the late 70s.
What was it like working at Molton Brown right at the beginning?
Molton Brown was the happening salon. It was amazing! We had the whole building - five floors with an organic restaurant on the top floor. It was extremely natural, a softer approach than other large salons - there was no backcombing or sharp geometry.
You must have attracted an amazing crowd of young Londoners.
We did. It was the go-to place for Vogue because it was just round the corner. Salon hairdressers used to work on shoots and I got involved very quickly because I was keen to assist.
How did you gain the confidence to go it alone?
There were a few occasions where I was sent off on a job and I began to realise that I preferred working on shoots to being in the salon. I worked on my first photoshoot in 1977, and by 1980 I had left to go it alone.
Gisele Bündchen has amazing hair! It's always a great pleasure to work with Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss too. I love transforming Kate's hair because she is the ultimate chameleon
What attracted you to the world of editorials?
It was just so much more exciting. Rather than working through an assembly line of ten cuts a day at the salon, it was all about creating, collaborating and teamwork. It was very different. What interests me most is getting the girl in front of the camera and creating on set.
Looking back through your body of work, which collaborations stick out in your mind?
In the early 80s I was fortunate to work with Irving Penn and Dennis Peel for American Vogue, who really championed us, and I worked closely with Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, Bill King and Richard Avedon at the beginning of his career.
You grew up part of such an amazing generation of photographers, stylists and make-up artists...
I did, it was so great to grow up together. I was certainly in the right place at the right time, that's a huge part of it, but it's also about taking every opportunity. Being there, being available and being in the thick of it, living it all. We worked hard and we played hard too, each was as fun as the other.
Do you still have to be in the thick of it now, working and playing hard or is it a very different Sam McKnight today?
Very different. The whole business is much more serious now and I'm a bit more serious too, that comes with age. My playing hard now isn't in the disco but in my garden!
How integral is your relationships with photographers, and how key is collaboration to your work?
For me, the entire process is a collaboration between the photographers, hair, make-up and stylists, everyone's bouncing off one another. Whoever has the strongest vision leads, and that could be anyone.
How did living and working in New York differ from London?
I got to New York in 1982 and it was wonderfully bleak, run down and raw. There were still people wearing platform shoes and taxi drivers wearing flares, something I hadn't seen for years. It had been slightly stuck in a time warp but the timing was very good for me because everything was beginning to renew itself. I was there during huge change. Downtown was really opening up, there was some great club nights but it was still dark and dangerous. It was heady times and I spent 18 amazing years there!
18 years, wow. What eventually brought you back home to the UK?
I was travelling so much. Through Patrick, I met Princess Diana and spent seven years juggling her hair with my editorial work, particularly enjoying the supermodel period. By the end of the 90s, I started working with Nick Knight and was spending more and more time in London and I soon fell in love again. With clubs like Taboo, the London scene was really happening.
You famously said, "Nobody grows old in my job." Four decades in, has your longevity surprised you?
I love new challenges and hopefully I'll continue to come up with the goods. Getting the opportunity to work with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel was incredibly challenging and rewarding because he's such an inspiration. It's all about challenging myself and my great team, pushing one another to new heights. But that doesn't happen for everyone. I'm fortunate to have worked with the people I have. I've been incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by inspirational people throughout my career.
From Kate Moss to Naomi Campbell, Liz Hurley to Princess Diana, you've worked with an amazing array of people. Who has the most amazing hair you've ever worked with?
So many! Gisele Bündchen has amazing hair. It was always a great pleasure to work with Linda Evangelista. Also, Kate Moss, I love transforming Kate because she is the ultimate chameleon.
Being a young Brit, clothes, hair and music always meant a lot to me. Hair was essential to those tribes.
Whose hair would you love to get your hands on?
I have to say the Queen, but that's probably never going to happen!
You can but dream. Your Instagram feed is one of our favourites.
Instagram is such good fun. I equate it to the old studio Polaroids we used to take in the 80s. Today, I would say there's as much interest for behind-the-scenes as there is in the finished work but ultimately, it's light-hearted, fun and you can make people smile.
Scrolling through your images you have some amazing snaps on there, what are your favourite spring/summer 15 moments?
It was so nice to see Gisele at Chanel. There's a great picture of Gisele and Cara I posted, that is really fun.
In addition to backstage beauty, Instagram shows us your other passions. Is gardening your greatest pleasure?
I love the process of gardening and the life cycles of the garden. It's become a great passion of mine. Looking out of my window I can see the spinach and lettuce that I'm going to have for my dinner.
Is gardening your escape from the madness of the fashion industry?
We are surrounded by people all the time and the great luxury for me is to spend a little time by myself, a little solitude is precious. I do half an hour of yoga by myself each morning too.
Such a luxury!
'Me time' is the luxury of today. For me, luxury isn't a pair of crocodile shoes or a holiday in the Seychelles, it's about spending some time in a beautiful outdoor space.
Text Steve salter